Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain
Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2086
Miles Davis and Gil Evans bridged styles and collaborated on high-concept projects a total of three times during their celebrated career. For their final act, they created Sketches of Spain, a peak moment in each luminary’s career and a transformative album that weds Spanish themes, lush orchestrations, romantic timbres, and Davis’ increasingly lyrical methods in a tender ceremony that continues to resonate more than five decades after its original release.
Part of our Miles Davis catalog restoration series, the genre-defying 1960 classic has been given the ultimate white-gloves treatment. Mastered from the original master tapes, this hybrid SACD edition significantly expands the soundstage that frames the orchestra and digs deep to eradicate a dryness that many critics have found as an anathema to its overall enjoyment. Here, at last, is the full-figured perspective long deserved by the woodwinds, strings, and percussion, all of which come alive with previously unheard definition and detail.
Indeed, in its three-decade-plus history, we have never been prouder to have the honor of handling efforts as important as Davis’ key recordings. It’s why the label’s engineers have taken every available measure to insert listeners into the space occupied by Davis, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb, percussionist Elvin Jones, and the 18-piece orchestra. With both Evans and Davis attracted to the blues undercurrents permanently entrenched in the Spanish flamenco strains, listeners can finally wholly detect the myriad microdynamic tonalities, brooding ostinato devices, and minor pedal points that stamp the compositions with divine sensibility and goffered effect.
Multi-note motifs, brief improvisational solos, fanfare sweeps, and contrapuntal exchanges inform the flamenco-spiced pieces, but so do unconventionally voiced instruments that come into full relief on this reissue. Davis’ Harmon-muted trumpet is abetted by an assortment of bassoons and French horns that create pleasing contrasts and sounds (pp, mf, ppp) that get to the heart of Sketches of Spain: splashes of color. Seldom, if ever, did Davis ever so expressively and liberally paint with color. And in Evans, he has a likewise-minded partner to help draw out variegated shades, adamantine layers, and striated distinctions.
Whether it’s the somber mood piece of the standout “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio),” renowned for Davis’ flugelhorn performance, or the folktale-based “Solea,” Mobile Fidelity’s enhanced Sketches of Spain transfixes with playing, ideas, and innovations that remain exclusive to this incomparable record.
Review by Mark Werlin - August 5, 2015
More than a half-century after its creation, "Sketches of Spain" remains a landmark achievement in musical performance and recording quality. Mobile Fidelity's SACD, a direct DSD transfer from the original two-channel master tape, provides an opportunity to hear the music anew. It is overdue for reevaluation.
Miles Davis was the instigator of the project, but the music recorded over three sessions, in November 1959 and March 1960, was primarily the work of gifted composer/arranger Gil Evans. In fashioning the scores for these sessions, Evans freely adapted the adagio movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez and wrote new orchestrations based on traditional Andalusian and Peruvian folk melodies. Neither Third-Stream orchestrated jazz, nor authentic Spanish music, “Sketches of Spain” could be described as an instrumental suite for mixed ensemble and solo trumpet that incorporates elements of composition and improvisation.
The genesis of the project was documented in a discussion with Nat Hentoff and Miles Davis during the recording sessions, which was included in the original LP liner notes and reprinted in the SACD insert booklet. Further details can be found in Miles Davis’ 1989 autobiography. During a visit with bassist Joe Mondragon in 1959, Miles heard an LP of Concierto de Aranjuez. Miles gave the record to his friend and collaborator Gil Evans, and initiated discussions about adapting it for trumpet and orchestra.
Evans researched the musical traditions of Andalusia through folklore recordings and visits to the library. This may not seem like an especially diligent effort viewed from the perspective of modern ethnic studies programs, but Gil Evans was barely making the rent in those years and was neither funded by grants nor cushioned by the security of a university salary. In his book “Milestones”, critic Jack Chambers castigates Evans for writing “bogus flamenco” music (referring to the tune “Solea”). A more generous way of judging Gil Evans’ work is to acknowledge his obvious respect for flamenco and folk traditions and his genuine desire to build a new framework on which Miles could develop as an improvising artist.
The commercial success of “Sketches of Spain” overshadows the effort that went into its production. When Evans reconvened the musicians who had recorded “Porgy and Bess” the previous year, it became clear that his hand-picked ensemble, most of them contract classical players, not only had difficulty navigating the technical challenges of the score, but couldn’t play with the kind of rhythmic drive needed to evoke the music’s origins. Miles argued that the orchestrations were beyond the ability of ensemble trumpet players. In his autobiography he describes trumpet player Bernie Glow “turning purple” while attempting to perform an especially demanding passage. Evans duly rewrote the unplayable parts, and over several days of grueling rehearsal, the musicians began to stretch beyond their limitations.
The virtues of transferring an original master tape to DSD without added noise reduction, compression or EQ are apparent on this new SACD. It has none of the harshness that made earlier digital issues all but unlistenable, especially at higher playback levels. The trumpet image is solid and Miles’ bends, smears and quarter-tones can be heard in fine detail; brass and woodwinds are distributed in a left/right/center configuration that presents a surprisingly deep soundstage (Columbia’s 30th Street Studio was a former church with a 100 foot high ceiling). Percussion instruments sound distinct but not overbearing, and Paul Chambers’ supple bass has excellent low extension. Credit to Mobile Fidelity’s senior engineer Shawn R. Britton for his outstanding mastering work.
"Sketches of Spain" belongs in any core collection of American art music. The Mobile Fidelity release is highly recommended.
Copyright © 2015 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net