Stepping Stone: Miles Davis // Sketches of Spain

There is no better place to start in jazz than with Miles Davis. Arguably the most important jazz musician of the modern era, Davis has spearheaded nearly every major breakthrough in jazz until his death in 1991, from his beginnings with Charlie Parker and subsequent evolution to cool jazz, modal, hard- and post-bob inklings, and his legendary “electric” era. Today his albums are regarded as some of the finest pieces of music of the twentieth century, with Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue among the best music he’s ever recorded.

This is a special article for me, because Miles essentially got me started on jazz. It was listening to albums like Kind of Blue and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters that got me interested in what this genre of music had to offer, and my love of jazz only grew from there. For a while, I tried to get as much Miles and Herbie as I could, buying CDs on a whim. On one of these whims I found what was also considered one of Miles’s best releases, a little album called Sketches of Spain. And I can say without a doubt my life has been changed by this album in ways I could never quite expect.

Before:

I’m very much a geek when it comes to music; I like to look up Wikipedia articles on albums just to see what other people thought of it and to read personnel lists and other miscellany about a specific album. When I stumbled upon Sketches of Spain years ago and read that it was essentially Miles Davis playing Spanish jazz with help from none other than third-stream composer extraordinaire Gil Evans (not to be confused with Bill Evans the pianist), I knew I had to buy it. I’d heard a little of Evans before, and the idea of third-stream jazz interested me, considering its melding of classical and European music with jazz. So, I bought Sketches for something like five dollars (at a Barnes and Noble out of all places), along with a copy of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. And as soon as I got into the car I ripped through that cellophane and put it in and turned it up.

And was almost immediately disappointed.

Now, it’s worth admitting here that at this time in my life I was very much a neophyte to jazz. (Hell, who can honestly say they have a jazz collection without A Love Supreme in it?) I was expecting something like Latin jazz, like the best of Tito Puente and Ray Barretto or maybe some post-bebop Dizzy Gillespie mixed with the nonchalance and freedom of Kind of Blue-era Miles. The only problem was I didn’t know who any of those guys were except for Dizzy, and back then I didn’t know that he had ventured into that kind of music. I didn’t know that there was a difference between Latin jazz and third stream. When I saw the album being labeled as Miles taking from the Spanish classical tradition with a freaking bull on the album cover, I immediately jumped to the trumpet that sounds at bull fights. I wanted passionate, full-bored music that dripped emotion, and instead I got Miles barely playing anything at all over some light orchestral accompaniment and the occasional staccato of castanets. It was, for lack of a better word, lame. I hated it. I listened to as much as I could stomach, and then turned it off and never played it again. I sold it some time later for store credit at my local CD store and never paid a second thought to it.

After:

Part of my initial hatred of this album has to do with my own unfair expectations. For me, jazz has a certain sound that is unlike anything else in music; it’s complicated, yet approachable. It’s quintessentially urban, and it’s quintessentially American.  Even now when I put on “So What” from Kind of Blue, the image basically slaps me in the face of being on a Manhattan sidewalk trudging downtown with a thousand other New Yorkers as a stretch limo passes by, its windows so tinted that you can’t see inside. This is an image that I love to experience again and again when listening to jazz—every “classic” (i.e. not free jazz or avant-garde jazz) album in my collection recollects this feeling in some way or another, whether it’s through Thelonious Monk’s odd approach to the piano or Duke Ellington’s big band. And the problem with Sketches of Spain at the time was that this didn’t have that nearly to the degree that I needed/wanted it. I’d listen to Sketches and wonder why people would even call this jazz. I’d heard third-stream before, like Gil Evans’s work, but even that had some of that aforementioned quintessence in it; this, however, had little to nothing in that regard.

But, as the years have gone by, tastes change and expand, and I’ve really grown into enjoying a lot of music that’s considered “out there” and experimental. A majority of what I listen to nowadays encompasses music that is in some way abnormal. After being able to not only stomach but truly enjoy albums by John Zorn, Impulse-era Coltrane, and electric-era Miles, I figured it was time to give this album another shot. And what do you know—it’s fantastic! Not Davis’s best by any means, but nonetheless a great listen.

There’s really no way to properly describe Sketches of Spain, really. A lot of this has to do with genre. Sketches of Spain remains a great example of an album that, in a sense, defies the notion of categorization—you can hear perhaps bits and pieces of jazz, and maybe orchestral music, and maybe European folk music, but it’s so blended together that the sound as a whole is amorphous. The entire album has the lineup of a jazz orchestra, but is it really playing jazz? No, not quite. There are pieces that sound more jazzy than others—especially a good number of Miles’s solos. But on the whole it’s a new beast. It isn’t to say that there aren’t familiar parts on it, though—some of the horn stabs on the opening track “Concerto de Arajuez: Adagio” have such a Spanish beauty to them that you can practically see the matador coaxing the bull on for yet another verónica.

Now, I can’t say that this is my favorite Miles album—frankly, I couldn’t even pick a favorite album of his, though I know for a fact it wouldn’t be Sketches of Spain. But it’s nonetheless an interesting break from what people normally think of Miles to be—it’s not inventive in the same way Birth of the Cool is, nor is it as out there as Bitches Brew, or as iconic as Kind of Blue. Sketches remains its own singular creation, an album that doesn’t exactly command a central presence, but rather hangs in the corner, doing its own thing, allowing you to watch, but not really caring if you do or not. But it’s interesting and it’s entertaining. Sketches of Spain hides its heart from listeners—you need to really dig deep into it to find its beauty. Although it never dives into composition-free insanity, there’s a sort of foreignness about the album, from its instrumentation and arrangement to its phrasing. I repeat again: there is nothing quite like it.

So, is this the ultimate Miles album? No, not in my opinion. If I was going to pick a random Miles CD from his discography and give a listen, it’ll probably be something in that interesting area between Kind of Blue and In A Silent Way, where the music feels less constricted compositionally but nonetheless adhering to basic Western music theory. But Sketches of Spain remains a nice break from that, where you have to sit down and really admire the sheer tenacity that comes with wanting to write and record something as mysterious and unorthodox as this. It’s an album that I’m glad that I gave another chance to.

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