1959: The Year Classic Albums Were Born
With all that said, the renowned author and critic states unabashedly that "if I had to take one Miles Davis album to the desert island with me, Sketches of Spain is the one. There's so many to choose from. This is just my favorite ... I probably heard this before I heard Kind of Blue. It came out right at the time I was starting to listen to jazz. I think it's a masterpiece all the way around."
The album, Davis/Evans pursuit of Spanish music (at time more specifically Andalusian music) is one of the trumpeter's most popular and revealed a very different style of music. Though Miles was his same self throughouthis great trumpet sound and melodic expression are on display. They bring Gil Evans' arrangements to life in way that nothing else, and no one else, could duplicate or surpass.
Miles, in his autobiography, says the music was very challenging and getting the right expression and emotion, the had to be combined with precision, took a lot out of him.
"It's so unique," Blumenthal says. "The idea of recording this orchestral record for a feature soloist and an orchestra. But it's not a big band record at all. In a way, you can say Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess (The previous Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations on Columbia Records) are very good big band albums. Individual tracks. The rhythm section is playing jazz time most of the time. There's that kind of call-and-response sections you might hear if Duke Ellington had written pieces for Miles Davis. While they have the individual stamp of Gil Evans and Miles Davis on them, and while they endeavor to make them sound like album-length works, you can still almost hear them as exceptional big band concepts. I don't think you hear Sketches of Spain that way at all.
"I think it's much closer to Brahms piano concerti or something like that. A soloist surrounded by an orchestra. And the orchestra is not functioning as a horn section and a rhythm section, brass and reeds, in that way. But just a blending of colors. I think that's great about the album. To me, they found the perfect material that had an obvious relationship to jazz in terms of its emotional content, its harmonic colors. And yet was something separate and apart. You actually could place a solo voice within an orchestral setting the way a classical composer would do it, while still providing enough leeway for the improvisation you expect to hear. It's got incredible melodies to it."
Saxophonist Paul Taylor says Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain are "classic, quintessential Miles. These two albums help define the 'cool' sound of jazz and the minimalist approach used to phrase a melody helped influence me in my playing."
Blumenthal notes that while Davis wasn't regarded in the same category with the likes of Dizzy Gillespiein terms of pure trumpet technique, albums like Sketches of Spain showed the visceral and artistic heights Miles could reach that others could not. "The music and the setting and everything else turns his limitations into virtues." He notesas does the great musician and historian Gunther Schuller in his excellent album notes that are part of the Legacy packagethat at one point on "Solea," Miles "flubs" a note and he stops. But "then he plays this great comeback. He didn't say, 'Stop the tape. Let's start again.' He sputtered around, then he let the band play for a few seconds, then he came in with this incredible thing. To me, that's real life. That's the best music. It's when somebody is trying to finds their limitations, which means risking finding them, then having to get up and start over again. He does it in the context of the piece and it's very moving."
The album does a lot to strengthen Miles' reputation as being beyond a trumpet player. He's regarded as a "voice" that almost transcends the instrument on which he expresses himself. Miles is not just a trumpet player.
Recording of it started in November of 1959, but it wasn't wrapped up until sessions in March of 1960. In total, it took 15 three-hour sessions to record and many hours of post-production with Teo Macero and Evans working the material. Again, Lieberson believed in the project and helped push it through, as that kind of time and expense for a jazz album was unheard of at the time.
Blumenthal says Miles "understood that this long-play record thing created a lot of possibilities, including the possibility to develop an intimate relationship with the person who's listening to the album. I think you can go back to him playing 'My Funny Valentine' in 1956 with the Harmon mute (Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige) and say, 'OK. This guy is the voice.' I think Porgy and Bess was that way. But this one really does it to the hilt."