Cinematic jazz lead by a trumpet engulfed in purity, provacativity and unmatched prowess. It begins as a romantic journey that develops into a dramatic apex and finally returns to a gentle, comfortable location. More classical than the usual improv-based jazz that Miles Davis fans are used to.
Let me preface this review by stating a very important fact: I am no jazz aficionado. However, my qualifications for this review are as follows:
- I own and enjoy multiple jazz records (including another Miles Davis/Gil Evans record, Quiet Nights)
- I have always been extremely fascinated by 1940s Jazz, including Django Reinhardt’s two-fingered, French-Gypsy, swing-style
- I believe that I have a good ear for understanding music that’s considered “different”, while enjoying modern progressive artists that reference Miles Davis as a major inspiration
“Concierto De Aranjuez”
For the sake of this review, I have broken down this lengthy track into four sections – divided by tempo changes or other dramatic alterations
– Part I –
The album starts with the mysterious clattering of castanets, followed by some distant horns, strings and elegant percussion that builds upon a slow cinematic experience. Lead by Davis’ signature trumpet, the beginning of the marvelous “Concierto De Aranjuez” sounds like the start of a gentle rainfall. An elegant string section, gentle harp and perfectly supportive horn section join carefully placed hits of the high-hat and a muddled bass line. This part of the song would go well with a cloud-covered walk along the beaches of Cadaqués, or any other coastal town in Barcelona.
– Part II –
In the middle of a verse (near the three minute mark) the beauty is replaced by an outburst of electrifying sound, fronted by an aggressive array of horns. As the beat changes into a swing, the mood is carefully altered. Blistering horns and eerie strings support Davis’ provocative melody. The production here is superb – giving Miles Davis the ideal platform for showcasing his incredible talent alongside Gil Evans superb orchestral arrangement. The end of this section sounds like a theatrical form of jazz with a dramatic eeriness (I’m guessing Sondheim may have found inspiration here for elements of Sweeney Todd’s 1979 musical score).
– Part III –
Another significant development in “Concierto De Aranjuez” occurs right before the eight minute mark. The castanets return as Evans, once again, alters the arrangement to deviate his orchestra into a new direction. Davis’ muted trumpet creates a pure sound that compliments the adventurous mood of this third act. It now feels more like traditional jazz than any of its proceeding moments. An interesting bass line carries the majority of this section, until the climatic apex around the twelve minute mark.
– Part IV –
Another intense outpouring of trumpets and other horns prelude this final section. Aggressive tambourine shakes lead directly into an anxious arrangement of brass. A gentle array of woodwinds follow and seem to apologize for the previous hostility. The listener is taken on a new journey as quiet becomes the leading element. Davis’ signature trumpet closes out this track as the castanets return one final time – taking you back to the calming beach on Cadaqués.
“Will O’ The Wisp”
The second track, “Will O’ The Wisp”, has a contemporary structure (especially when compared to it’s predecessor). The catchy melody is easy to follow and the orchestra works to compliment Miles throughout the cut. A soulful bass provides bottom something primarily dominated by high pitched trumpets. “Will O’ The Wisp” feels more like an interlude than a complete song with the sole mission of preparing the listener for side two of the album.
“The Pan Piper”
Side II begins with a brief declaration by Miles’ vibrant trumpet, followed by trailing flutes and breezy bells. “The Pan Piper” is a great song that fuses together Gil Evans’ excellent sense of certain classical elements with upbeat jazz. The real hero of this track is found in the partnership established between the bass and drums which gives Davis the perfect canvas to sketch his playing upon. You’ll wish the rhythm track went on forever or at the very least, spanned the entirety of the track (instead of just the second half).
If the Spanish military had a soundtrack, “Saeta” would definitely be on it. Davis’ timbre is exceptional here as his instrument takes center stage. But the rest of the song seems odd with a marching drum beat that dominates, droning strings and a horn sound reminiscent of a réveil from a bugle. “Saeta” is strange when set amongst the other cuts on Sketches of Spain and is the only questionable moment on the record. It seems like there must be a backstory to this song, which could help give it context.
“Solea” also includes a similar military drum beat, but instead uses this more as a starting point, rather than the main basis for the song. Maybe the strongest piece of work on Sketches of Spain, this final track has near perfect production. A magnifying bass line fits in perfectly amongst the rhythm section. Evans’ arrangements help to compliment Davis’ playing in a way that feels planned but not stale in any way. For me, this is the song that includes everything I want from a Miles Davis record: a great melody played flawlessly by Miles, has both quiet instances and climactic apexes, and establishes a refreshing structure that is contained yet still feels improvised at times. Listeners of “Solea” are guaranteed to start dancing or moving in their seat during the concluding moments as Sketches of Spain draws to a close.
Final View: Sketches of Spain truly is a masterpiece – but it also requires an asterisk (*): this challenging record is not meant to be played in the background of a casual dinner party, like some other jazz albums. Careful listening is required to enjoy the moments of quiet beauty while the surprising outbursts of sound could send the wine glass of any casual listener flying across the room. Listener, consider yourself warned and appreciate this cliché – expect the unexpected.
Overall score: 9/10
Recommended if you like: Miles Davis albums, jazz with minimal improv, classical music