Sketches of Spain
In August 1959, Miles Davis released his magnum opus and jazz's bestselling album ever, Kind of Blue. It was the moment when, to borrow a phrase from MTV, Davis stopped being polite and started getting real.
Kind of Blue was hailed as a work of genius, particularly for its departure from the bebop style perfected by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that had become jazz's gold standard at the time.
Where bebop was fast, darting, and syncopated, Kind of Blue was cool, melancholic, and thoughtful. The music relied on an innovative, open "modal" format, theorised by Davis' friend and composer George Russell, which used scales rather than chords, and offered an improvising soloist more time and freedom to experiment.
Less than a year later, Davis released Sketches of Spain which, unlike Blue, was noted for its accessibility over innovation. In Blue, Davis had created a new sound, but in Sketches he looked back to classical music. Contemporary listeners and critics wondered if it was even jazz.
The album's title is somewhat literal: Davis and his arranger-friend Gil Evans created the album with specific reference to Spanish folk and classical music.
The result: a sensual, exotic album that blends clacking castanets with the breathless, insistent bay of Davis' trumpet.
Almost the first half of the record is a cover of the adagio movement of contemporary Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, which was originally written for the guitar. Although Davis exchanges the guitar and full orchestra for a French horn, harp, oboe, bassoon, trumpet and trombone, he stays remarkably close to the original composition in both melody and mood.
Davis' arrangement of Concierto de Aranjuez is mysterious: it slinks slowly towards the listener, climaxing in odd places. The piece is reminiscent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Davis slips easily into that uncanny sensuality: at times his trumpet speaks directly; at other times it equivocates.
Sketches of Spain is not an improvisation but a celebration of unusual and beautiful ambient sound. At heart, it's effective mood music. Will O' the Wisp sounds like a couple of drunk clowns in a smoky bar. Saeta is a tired soldier standing by the side of the road watching the sun go down. This is an album that will make you want to dim the lights and open a bottle of Spanish red.
The album may not have earned contemporary praise on par with Kind of Blue; nevertheless, with time, Sketches of Spain has garnered a reputation as one of Davis' best albums. Rolling Stone magazine named it the 358th best album of all time. Critics and listeners alike are drawn to Davis' gentle, emotive touch and the album's understated elegance. Is it jazz? "I don't know," Davis reportedly responded. "But it's music and I like it."