Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favorite Albums: Sketches of Spain

Though this blog post is about my favorite albums, I’ve made an exception for Sketches of Spain. Sketches isn’t overly sentimental to me (that honor belongs to the first straight-ahead jazz album I purchased – Terence Blanchard’s Billie Holiday Songbook). Sketches isn’t Miles Davis’ best work (that would be Kind of Blue). Heck, it’s not even my favorite Miles Davis album (Porgy and Bess).

So why is Sketches of Spain on this list? I'll answer that in a minute. First, let me take you back to the summer of 1994.

I was 17 when I first heard Sketches of Spain. It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was a just discovering straight-ahead jazz. I knew of Miles Davis and other jazz greats because of Quincy Jones’ Back On The Block. I wanted to explore Davis’ recordings, but I couldn’t – there were just too many to choose from. I had no idea where to start. Fortunately, a very cool professor pointed me in the right direction.

Actually, it was my brother who first learned of Sketches of Spain. We were both on the campus at NC A&T University in an eight-week engineering program. My brother needed to go to the bank, so our sponsor (a professor in the chemistry department) offered to give him a ride. When my brother got back, all he could talk about was the music that my professor played in his van. It was jazz, but not exactly jazz. 

A week later, we got the professor to dub his original for us.

I was skeptical when I heard the first bars of “Concierto De Aranjuez”. The Spanish arrangement, oboe, clarinet, and finger-snap like percussion threw me for a loop (in fact, I remember asking myself where the trumpet was).  My brother gave me a look, as if to say “It’s different, but hold on, it gets better.” 

He was right.

One minute in, Davis’ solo floats over the barely-there chords of the woodwinds. As the only soloist of the song, Davis’ trumpet sounds more like a Spanish guitar. It was moody... haunting… beautiful.*

I loved it. 

And not just “Concierto De Aranjuez”. “Will O' The Wisp”: Davis’ muted trumpet sound ghostly. “The Pan Piper”:  maybe the most jazz-like of all the tracks on the LP. And the final track, “Solea”, goes toe-to-toe with “Conceirto De Aranjuez” on the grandiose scale. Where the first track is cautiously romantic, “Solea” is almost clandestine in its approach; it sounds like something you might hear in a high-brow police procedural.

So again, why is Sketches of Spain on this list? Quite simply, without Skeches of Spain, I would have never opened my world to the great jazz recordings of the past. Sketches allowed me the opportunity to learn about Davis’ recordings with Gil Evans. Those recordings then turned me onto Kind Of Blue… and John Coltrane… Herbie Hancock… George Benson… Kenny Garrett… George Duke… Tom Jobim… Charlie Mingus…

So enjoy.

 *Note: Two observations “Conceirto De Aranjuez “. 
  1. I don’t think you can really understand how great of a job Gil Evans did with this arrangement until you hear the original version as Joaquín Rodrigo wrote it. 
  2. Just recently, I learned why “Conceirto De Aranjuez” is so special in its happy/melancholy sound: Joaquín Rodrigo composed the song as a reminder of his honeymoon and the lost of his unborn child.

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