Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Sketches of Spain' by Miles Davis.
Without so much as a trace of a lyric, the music alone evokes images of dust and shimmering heat. They swim across the mind’s eye like hazy mirages, fading in and out of the setting sun. It all plays out in the mind's private cinema screening. A screening of the ever-thrilling technicolour picture called ‘Sketches Of Spain.’
Directed by Gil Evans and starring Miles Davis, ‘Sketches Of Spain’ is a masterpiece of aural cinema. Pictures of mountains and plains, towns at siesta and placid European seas move through the mind easy as a Spanish Summer breeze. The music is atmospheric and unforced. As Davis himself put it “…the softer you play it the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it the weaker it gets.”
Davis’ playing on ‘Sketches Of Spain’ is emotional yet precise. There are no long, convoluted bebop runs. But there are long, sorrowful notes drawn out for maximum emotive effect. If Hemingway had played trumpet instead of writing prose, his style would have been right at home on this LP.
This is not the jazz of Kerouac or The Beat Generation. This is music that harks back to an older time. A time of wandering and discovery that may never have actually existed. That may have all the indistinct substance of a mirage. But it’s this sense of forward motion that keeps ‘Sketches Of Spain’ from growing stale or seeming derivative. The thoroughly modern yet subtle jazz inflections on tracks such as Concierto De Aranjuez raise this album out of the quicksand of banality and into the stratosphere. Searing with all the beauty and light of the sun.
Gil Evans’ part in this transcendence cannot be underestimated. His arrangements are the foundations and frameworks for Davis’ exquisite trumpeting. And the two original compositions on ‘Sketches Of Spain,’ Saeta and Solea, are Evans’ own. Both Davis’ and Evans’ contributions to this remarkable work are equal. If it were a fight between them, it would be a stalemate.
But it was a collaboration rather than a battle. A collaboration that bore nourishing, substantial fruit. ‘Sketches Of Spain’ is a standout record in jazz’s illustrious history not just for its quality, but also for its ambition.
It’s a rainbow bridge between cultures and continents. Connecting realms that oftentimes can be standoffish towards each other. Lost in the haze of their collective egos. To listen to the melding of old world classical and new world jazz on opening track Concierto De Aranjuez is to experience the keystone of that bridge being slotted into place. A soul-satisfying sound.
In the 21st century, the Atlantic Ocean hardly qualifies as a barrier or an obstacle between Europe and America. When we can sail across it, soar above it or even sneak underneath it, all in record time, it is no longer the impenetrable full-stop it once was.
The greatest divide between Europe and America today is their rivalry. On ‘Sketches Of Spain,’ Evans and Davis selected works from European composers for reinterpretation, but even on the original Evans compositions, the best of the two styles, often thought mutually exclusive, come together. On the reinterpretations, it was no mean feat to incorporate the jazz elements into the pieces without diminishing the originals’ classical qualities. To have accomplished the same feat on original work, to the extent that both pieces feel like the genuine Spanish article, is nothing short of superhuman.
The music on ‘Sketches Of Spain’ strips away the nonsense of that rivalry. The all-American machismo and the European snobbery are done away with to produce an LP of incredible vitality. And the divide between the genres - classical and jazz - is disregarded too as pointless and detrimental to creativity. For as jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason put it : “…who says Mozart is by definition better than Sonny Rollins and to whom?”
Just as no religion across this world has got it 100% right, no musical genre has either. But by combining thoughts and philosophies, genres and styles, we may hit upon the path to utopia. ‘Sketches Of Spain’ proves that sharing ideas creatively and without ego is the way forward. The prophet Bill Hicks knew this and no one listened. But one must listen to ‘Sketches Of Spain.’ For it can’t be ignored.