Often I hear friends and family remark that they don’t like Jazz. Of all modern musical genres, it incites more discontents and displeasure than any other recorded art form except possibly “jam bands” (and the relationship between the two is closer than you think). Although I count myself among the fans, I (think I) understand what inspires so much ire and irritation. In my unscientific survey of people’s reactions to Jazz, I have discerned two intertwined issues that make it difficult to digest: the structure and lack thereof. As with any musical forms, Jazz has various permutations, yet the variant that I think most people “know” and/or are responding to is “free form” Jazz, which arose in the 60s and came to prominence in the 70s and continues to this day in various pockets. (For the true enthusiasts, please excuse my rather overly simplified distillation.) There is so much more to Jazz then this small yet highly influential movement. I am no Jazz expert nor sufficiently versed in the history, biography, or etymology of all its various permutations; I turn to my personal musicologists or doctorates in vinyl (PhVs) for education on these issues. However, from a rather young age I found myself drawn to this rather polarizing yet mesmerizing form of musical expression.
How I came to enjoy and relish recordings by the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, and various other “giants” of Jazz, I can’t exactly pinpoint. I wasn’t raised listening to any of these recordings and cannot recall any family member or friend’s parent ever playing a Jazz record for me. Oddly, in the exile Cuban-American communities of Miami, the soothing and eclectic wails of Parker, Davis or even Armstrong were not to be heard. It is possible that remembering and clinging to their history and (lost) heritage were paramount. Yet, anyone who listens to the work of Arturo Sandoval or Perez Prado will instantly hear the familial resemblance; cousins separated by latitudes and history yet intimately connected. Perhaps on a subconscious level this was the appeal? I do recall though the first time my interest in Jazz was piqued from an intellectual perspective courtesy of the King of the Beats, Jack Kerouac. Anyone who has read or become familiar with his work soon discovers Jack’s unbridled obsession and adoration of Charlie Parker. Not only did he discuss Charlie’s “Be-Bop” extensively throughout his writings, Jack tried in his own way to emulate Be-Bop in his poetry. Whenever I hear Charlie Parker’s name, I hear Jack’s voice intoning the following ode: “Charlie Parker.” But, it wasn’t Charlie that inspired my interest. Admittedly, it took me years to appreciate and relish Parker’s work. Like so many people, I couldn’t feel the music and get lost in its adventurousness. No, my journey would have to go forward in time before it could go back and appreciate the roots of the form. Jack’s endorsement always brought me back but it was Miles who opened the door through a familiar world.
In my very early years, I was raised in Southern Spain or Andalusia, named so by the Arabs/Moors that ruled for seven centuries. During its rule over Andalusia (a peaceful and highly influential time), Arab culture introduced new poetic and musical traditions into what would become “Spanish” culture after the Reconquista, including a robust appreciation for romanticism and passion which filtered its way into so much of Spanish music – an often sinewy, sultry, yet robust sound filled with extended periods of dreamy contemplation and punctilious attention. When I first heard, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain* it struck me as eerily familiar yet difficult to deduce from where: the memory of a dream or of a previous life? Although not a Freudian, I place a lot of stock in the subconscious and especially the notion of inherited cultural memory. Somewhere between rearing in Malaga and Spanish ancestry these sounds were rooted into my psyche and when Davis and Gil Evans reinterpreted them, it instantly resonated with me.
*Recorded between 1959 and 1960, Sketches of Spain followed Miles Davis’ classic (and perhaps iconic record) Kind Of Blue, an equally (if not more) amazing piece of music. Yet, unlike Blue, Sketches draws from traditions and sources closer to a world with which I was familiar. Without boring folks with too many details, Sketches of Spain draws from various modern classical compositions by Spanish composers including Joaquin Rodrigo‘s Concierto de Aranjuez (the opening and closing tracks). It is also one of a handful of collaborations he did with composer Gil Evans — the others worth listening to are Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Quiet Nights, and Flies De Kilimanjaro. Okay enough with the liner notes….
Sketches of Spain is a gorgeous marriage of old and new world. Building off the classical blueprint, Miles and Gil add subtle modern flourishes that break your expectations and expand the pieces’ emotional resonance. Davis’ trumpet is both forlorn and arresting, an almost eerie embodiment of Franco’s Spain – a country caught between longing for past glory and trying to reassert (and rebuild) its luster while battling its own internal demons. Some believe that the original Concierto de Aranjuez was a reaction to the bombings at Guernica. The Concierto at once mourns the past, subtle castanets and deliberately slow movements suggest backwards looking, but celebrates the present and the country’s pride with more uptempo and stentorian sections. History aside the whole recording exists in this atemporal state of contemplation. The classical framework and structure from which the piece derives offered a window into what Jazz (at its essence) was attempting to do (in my opinion): take a standard or known form, replicate it, find the emotional and aural spaces in close proximity to then burst into furious improvisation and enthusiastic exploration of these themes only to return to the form and the beginnings. In other words, it is about the journey and the ride through motifs and expressions. Listening to Rodrigo’s original piece against the reinterpretation, you can hear how the Davis/Evans version liberates the music from its restraint, offering it the space and freedom to frolic and cavort through our ears and our hearts. (Note: Not every piece was inspired by Rodrigo’s piecebut it does takes up the largest portion of the album.) No matter what I say, I understand it isn’t for everyone. But, if there were an opening, I offer this as the piece that will pique your curiosity and worm its way pleasantly into your mind.
What do you have to lose? Nothing really…
Travel with Miles and Gil to the not too distant past like a knight-errant in search of your Dulcinea.
Listen to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain here or below.
Off to the windmills,