Miles Davis is one of the most prolific musical geniuses of all time, having dominated most of the 20th century jazz landscape with progressively experimental releases that pushed the boundaries of what music could be. His work was not only adventurous; it was catchy, fun, thrilling, and always memorable.
Being a huge fan of the artist means having to reframe my perspective when a novel aspect of his work catches the light just so. This happened again.
Despite being a devoted Miles Davis fanatic, I never really had a soft spot for Sketches of Spain. A few years back, it seemed too polite, too upright, too European for my tastes and for what I thought I valued in his music. In fact, I basically ignored all of his collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, from Porgy and Bess to Quiet Nights. In my limited understanding of what Davis “should” be, I felt like it just didn’t have enough swing; no kick, no funk, no pulse.
Of course, I was wrong.
Recently I watched Miles Ahead, the new biopic starring Don Cheadle, and felt fresh appreciation for several different periods of his work. The coloring of new context gave these songs life, most especially Solea, the final piece on Sketches of Spain. Laid over a meditative break in the film’s propulsive arc, it felt like a revelation of spirituality in solitude. Those crystalline trumpet tones felt unreal, transporting my thoughts right out of the movie for a moment. I wondered if it was something I’d never heard before, but it tugged at my memory.
As it turns out, the story behind the album is one of the most interesting of Davis’ career. Originally, he’d heard the original classical take on Concierto de Aranjuez at bassist Joe Mondragon’s house and felt compelled to bring it to his orchestral partner Evans. Since Evans felt as inspired as Davis, the pair began crafting an entire album around a new interpretation of the piece. The result, then and nearly sixty years later, stands at the vanguard intersection of jazz and classical in a way that few pieces of music, from Davis or anyone else, have ever approached.
The new arrangement included a full orchestra along with Davis’ jazz unit, composed of Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, and Elvin Jones. This was the closest brush with classical sounds that the band ever had, and coming on the tails of the era-defining Kind Of Blue, it was a whole new space to explore.
Acting as a metaphysical balance to the epic opening piece, Solea picks up the melodic slices scattered through the short middle tracks and condenses them into sharp, incisive notes sprayed onto an infinitely spacey canvas. This is a focused yet spare recording that manages to evoke endless possibility in the open moments between solos. There’s a subtle nuance to each trumpet blast that sets the mind wandering to places far outside the album. It’s the kind of tune that changes minds about music entirely, a gateway to new realms. It’s become one of my favorite Miles Davis pieces, ever.
It ties the album in an impossibly perfect knot, making for one of the most cohesive releases of Davis’ career. Listen to the entire album here:
Sketches of Spain is basically everywhere on earth. If you’re reading this, you can and should listen to it. It’s streaming on Spotify. The recent vinyl reissue is less than $20 at Amazon. Just be sure to hear the original track list first. The bonus material on later CD editions is great stuff, but clouds the original vision.