John Lennon famously described jazz as shit music, but the actual quote is a bit more interesting: “I think it (Jazz) is shit music, even more stupid than rock and roll . . . Jazz never gets anywhere, never does anything, it’s always the same and all they do is drink pints of beer.”
I’m not sure about the pints of beer part (heroin appears more frequently in the biographies of jazz musicians), and the “always the same” comment is absurd, but I can certainly understand the sentiment about jazz never seeming to get anywhere—a sentiment which many people share. After Louis Armstrong cleared the clutter of early jazz and energized the medium with intensity and direction, jazz reached its peak as a popular art form during the Swing Era, that strange time when Americans dealt with economic depression and world war by dancing to happy-go-lucky tunes played by the big bands. With the advent of the popularity of Glenn Miller and his bubblegum approach to jazz, more serious musicians staged an underground revolution (“underground” because recording was severely restricted in the United States from 1942-1944 due to union problems). The faces of that revolution were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the musical form they and their cohorts developed was called Bop or Bebop.
Bebop constituted a radical departure from what people knew as jazz. The most important change was the disconnection from dance. With its fast tempos, strange timing, odd harmonic combinations (asymmetrical phrasing), use of the small combo (as opposed to big bands), the emphasis on the virtuoso soloist and Kenny Clarke’s shift from the bass drum to the ride cymbal as the beat keeper, Bebop must have sounded like something from outer space to the average listener of the era. What’s most important is that when jazz became undanceable it lost its connection to the vast majority of its audience, most of whom assumed music and dance meant the same thing. Jazz thus began its long and steady journey to becoming the music of aficionados and intellectuals, and except for the odd record here and there (usually one of the “soft jazz” variety), jazz has never regained its prominence in American popular culture. Today, jazz is much more popular in Europe than in its homeland.
This exclusivity is aggravated by jazz fans and jazz critics. Talk about snobs! Saying you dig jazz is like saying you belong to a secret club that allows no riff-raff. To enhance that feeling of intellectual and aesthetic superiority, jazz critics tend to write primarily about jazz technique and the musicology of jazz, using a language that is impenetrable to the curious but untutored listener. This is sad, for while some modern jazz is more about virtuoso indulgence than accessibility, the best pieces paint vivid sound pictures that carry tremendous emotional and sensual power.
There are few jazz artists who pack the emotional and sensual punch of Miles Davis. He learned his craft from Charlie and Dizzy, then moved on to be one of the founders of the “cool jazz” movement that removed much of what listeners considered the excess of Bebop while retaining its willingness to expand the medium beyond the traditional. As his career advanced, Miles frequently confused jazz zealots by wandering outside of the genre for inspiration. His rock-jazz fusion work popularized in Bitches Brew caused as much consternation in the jazz world as Bob Dylan’s electrically-charged performance at the Newport Folk Festival did in the folk world. While Miles’ most famous album is that masterpiece of modal jazz, Kind of Blue, a better demonstration of his genre-bending tilt can be found on Sketches of Spain, released in the summer of 1960. This collaboration with the brilliant arranger Gil Evans is a tribute to artistic curiosity.
The dominant piece on Sketches of Spain is the second movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939. The original is a concerto for guitar and orchestra, and a stunningly beautiful work that has been recorded by great classical guitarists from Andrés Segovia to Sharon Isbin. Rodrigo’s style is 20th century neoclassical, which means his compositions attempted to live up to the principles of the great classical composers like Mozart and Haydn: ordered, structured, clear and free of the emotional flourishes of Romantic composers like Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Rodrigo’s work feels more like paintings by Velasquez, who painted hundreds of proper but rather dull portraits of the Spanish royal family. Not surprisingly, the inspiration for Concierto de Aranjuez happened to be the gardens at Phillip II’s palace at Aranjuez (though the achingly beautiful second movement drew inspiration from his wife’s miscarriage).
Gil Evans took a different approach, turning the second movement into something more like the paintings of Joan Miró with a touch of Juan Gris. The second movement in the original composition is adagio (play it slowly!) and begins with regularly timed strums on the classic guitar followed by the introduction of the core melody on the cor anglais (English horn). Though classically restrained, the breathtaking beauty of the melody combined with shifting dynamics (levels of loudness) has a tremendous emotional impact. Both Gil Evans and Miles Davis insisted on preserving and even enhancing the presence of that melody, opting to bring more color into the composition through the possibilities of modern jazz and the willingness of both Evans and Davis to push those boundaries to the limit.
So, instead of opening with the mournful guitar, this version of the adagio begins with the sound of castanets and soft bells. The melody appears as beautifully and as softly as the original, though played through a muted flügelhorn enhanced by splashes of complex, convention-defying chord combinations from the horn section. Tambourine enters to vary the soundscape, but the commitment to the melody never wavers in this initial passage. As Miles Davis said of the piece, “That melody is so strong that the softer you play it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger you play it, the weaker it gets.” He plays it like he’s holding a sleeping baby, with tender, loving care.
Meanwhile, Gil Evans has been busy foreshadowing a breakout into modern jazz with a hint of drums here, a touch of bass there, and a cascade of occasional blue notes from the horn section. This effort picks up speed just short of five minutes into the piece, when the dynamics shift to forte (loud) and the chords shift to the complex chords of modern jazz. In between those glorious chords, Miles is softly grooving on one or two notes, serving more as the rhythm section than the soloist for a few bars. During this passage, the horn section is supplanted by strings and Miles’s solo becomes a bluesier version of the primary theme. Suddenly there is a shift in rhythm that echoes Spanish folk dance; the music darkens slightly as the castanets reappear. A tuba makes a brief appearance to serve as the bass foundation for the final passage of flutes and a restrained, sensitive passage from Miles Davis. The stillness of this segment calls up images of slightly cool Spanish nights on a patio surrounded by bougainvillea; an image of tranquility at the end of a long day.
A relatively slight increase in loudness brings us back to the main theme, played by the horn section and supported by tambourine. It also dissolves into stillness and another rich but understated solo from Miles. Many critics have marveled at the control the man had over his instrument, but what is more important is what he communicates with his discipline. While Rodrigo celebrated the formality and traditions of Spain in his work, Gil Evans and Miles Davis have captured the passion of the Spanish soul—the heat that burns behind the fluttering fan of the señorita and the warmth of the shade in the hot Spanish summer. The Evans-Davis take on Concierto de Aranjuez is a wondrous display of the art of sound imagery.
Earlier I mentioned that jazz had been separated from dance by the Bebop revolution; it’s really more accurate to say that jazz was disconnected from ballroom or nightclub dancing, for jazz certainly has found a home in the world of modern dance. “Will O’ the Wisp” is a female vocal taken from the 20th century ballet El Amor Brujo, originally written for a gypsy flamenco dancer before composer Manuel de Falla turned it into a symphonic piece. The story involves the return of the ghost of the heroine’s dead husband, whom the heroine entices to appear by beginning a ritual fire dance then slowly manages to maneuver the ghost into the fire where it vanishes forever. The heat is apparent in the thin tones Miles Davis creates through his horn; the ending fade mirrors the disappearance of the phenomenon with its collapsing notes created by amazing breath control. “Will O’ the Wisp” is followed by “Pan Piper,” a Spanish folk song arranged to place Miles in contrast with the magical sounds of flute, where a gentle processional rhythm provides a sensuous backdrop for the interplay between flute and trumpet.
“Saeta” is a Gil Evans modification of an Andalusian folk song; a saeta is a form of religious song commonly sung during Holy Week processions. My partner and I were in Madrid during Holy Week one year and happened to stumble into one of these processions, led by damas in black veils holding crosses, torches and icons of saints, marching mournfully through the old streets around Puerta del Sol, never breaking their deliberate rhythm even when the skies opened up and drenched them in rain. Evans’ arrangement is brilliant; from the beginning we hear processional, almost military music in the distant background, building in volume as the procession approaches us. The procession stops to allow the saetera to deliver the vocal; in this arrangement, it is Miles Davis translating the vocal through his horn. The approach the takes was best described by Ted Gioia in The History of Jazz:
Instead of aspiring to classical purity of tone, emulating an otherworldly perfection, the early jazz players strived to make their instruments sound like human voices, with all the variations, imperfections, and colorations that such a model entailed.
This was an approach to music that defied conventional notation and refused to be reduced to a systematic methodology. Richard Hadlock, recalling a music lesson given to him by Sidney Bechet, conveys something of this fastidious New Orleans attention to tone production: “I’m going to give you one note today,” he once told me. “See how many ways you can play that note— growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That’s how you express your feelings in this music. It’s like talking.”
—-Gioia, Ted (2011-04-08). The History of Jazz (p. 48). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Miles Davis demonstrates the wisdom of that lesson with this heart-stopping solo, emulating a woman’s voice in a moment of soul-level suffering through both the modulation of individual notes and a spontaneous, life-like approach to phrasing, full of stutters, stops and bursts of clarity. You will also notice a definite Arab flavor to the piece; after all, Andulusia was under Moorish control for centuries. This influence permeates the album; a gentleman named John Murnane wrote a short but very instructive piece on the Arab influence on Sketches of Spain you can find on the site All About Jazz.
Miles Davis had already begun to explore Flamenco on “A Kind of Blue” with “Flamenco Sketches,” but with nowhere near the depth he achieves on the final piece of the original release of Sketches of Spain, “Solea.” While “Flamenco Sketches” retains a distinct modal jazz orientation, “Solea” is more steeped in Flamenco rhythms, flavors and dynamics. A “solea” is a core form of Flamenco that I’ve seen described as “Flamenco Meets the Blues” because of its emphasis on longing for the unattainable and its undeniable African-influenced rhythms. That rhythm appears after a two-minute opening passage where Miles plays softly and achingly, as if mourning the loss of a friend or the woman he cannot have. Gil Evans said he chose the rhythm for the core section “because it kind of swung.” No shit! Any person with the slightest sense of sexuality will immediately feel their hips express an overwhelming desire to sway and grind to the beat. And if you’re going to have anyone play the solo for such a piece, it has to be Miles Davis, who by all accounts was as obsessed with sexual experience as I am! This is a piece designed to seduce you into an erotic trance; a masterpiece of feel, of touch, of steaming color.
“Solea” is also the song that turned out to be the last song in the last set of Miles Davis’ last public performance, a collaboration with Quincy Jones organized to pay tribute to the late Gil Evans. I don’t pray, but if I did, I’d pray for the chance to make my final exit accompanied by music like “Solea”: music so hot that my soul will burn brightly for all eternity.