Listen to this track, an extended arrangement of the second movement of Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”, as featured on the landmark 1960 album Sketches of Spain. The arrangement features Gil Evans’ orchestra with jazz pioneer Miles Davis playing trumpet, improvising around Evans’ charts.

Recorded at the tail end of 1959, and released at the beginning of the next decade, it marked something of a new era, like Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come that same year.  Arguably unlike the Coleman record, the Evans-Davis collaboration produced music which is highly accessible as well as challenging to the expectations of listeners.  But, is it jazz?

The idea that sparked the project was the sounds and feel of Spanish folk music and culture.  Davis had explored these types of textures with his “Flemenco Sketches”.  Yet in working with an established piece, Davis was faced with a new challenge.  He would need some expertise to pull it off, possibly outside of his own skill set as a jazz player.

Rodrigo’s piece was historically recent, having been composed in Paris in 1939 in tribute to the Palacio Real de Aranjuez, a historical site where Phillip II of Spain used to spend his leisure time.  It was written for guitar and orchestra, and when Miles Davis heard it, he couldn’t get it out of his head.  So, he played it for Gil Evans, with whom he’d collaborated previously.

Miles Davis in 1955. Photo: Tom Palumbo

Evans took the material, and reworked it, extended it.  And then, he brought the charts to the session for his orchestra, all of whom were suitably challenged by its complexity.  The lightness of the piece belies how difficult the right take was to achieve, with legendary producer Teo Macero guiding the sessions in the booth, while Evans oversaw the musicians on the floor.

Evans’ subtlely gifted eye for intricate-yet-spacious arrangements transforms the piece into the perfect showcase for Miles Davis’ genius, which is in laying down impressionistic and moody improvisations. In the liner notes of the album, Davis is recorded as saying that

‘I always manage to put my foot in it.  I always manage to try something I can’t do.  I’m going to call myself on the phone one day and tell myself to shut up.’

Where this is certainly something of an overstatement, Davis was out of his element in that this isn’t a natural musical framework for him as a jazz musician.  Yet, famously, this is where he would thrive during the 1960s and up into the 1990s by the end of his life.  He found ways of working improvisation into music which is beyond labels.  Is this , for instance, a classical piece, or it is it jazz?

It’s neither.  It’s both.  It doesn’t really matter.

For more information about the Sketches of Spain album, check out this article by jazz critics A. B. Spellman and Murray Horwitz.



5 thoughts on “Miles Davis and Gil Evans Perform “Concierto de Aranjuez (adagio)”

  1. Sketches of Spain isn’t so different from many of Duke Ellington’s works (particularly Black, Brown and Beige, but a great deal of his work in the 1950s– in many ways Miles Davis was following in the footsteps of Duke; but aren’t most people?) or even Charlie Parker at the end of his life. (“Just Friends” has really lush orchestration with a little bit of jazz to make it edgy). There are lots of jazz pieces that tend toward the classical end. It could be a virtual sub-genre. (It probably is!)

    1. Cheers for the examples, Graeme. I think jazz was becoming pretty respectable by the end of the 40s. And where it edged on classical at times, it also edged on pop which is what I hear in the Parker piece. Hearing that Duke piece you mentioned, it was clear that Ellington was more than suited as a film music composer for Anatomy of a Murder in 1959.

      One of my favourite jazz/classical crossovers was from Howard Brubeck, older brother of Dave, who used his brother’s quartet in a concerto for jazz ensemble. Basically, it was a large-scale piece for full orchestra, with the DBQ in the centre. And where that kind of thing usually borders on pompous, the playing on it is so complementary is becomes hugely moving instead. I used to have it on LP, and I think it was kicking around my Dad’s basement somewhere the last time I saw it. I wish I could find an online version to play for you.

      1. Speaking of Duke Ellington, I once saw him interviewed on “Front Page Challenge”, the long-running CBC-TV show. It was in the early 70s, I believe, and Pierre Burton asked The Duke what he thought of “all this Acid Rock” going around. Without batting an eye, Ellington said something like, “I don’t believe in labels … it’s all music … and it’s pointless to try to put a label anything musical.”

        Burton wouldn’t let that go and Ellington pressed him for an example of what he thought acid rock was. Burton was tongue tied and said something about noise and cacophony. Ellington just smiled and indicated that he liked whatever Burton was trying to describe.

        At the time, I was frustrated with Ellington’s answer, but couldn’t dismiss it because he was the Duke!!! But I recall that interview from time to time when music categorization comes up: Is it folk or is it rock (a la Dylan’s electric conversion)? … or is it jazz or is it classical?

        Perhaps that is one way that Ellington was a visionary … He understood even in his own day that all music comes from somewhere else. There is so much crossover in music these days that using different genres to describe something is risky at best — what may sound “rootsy-cajun,” for example, to one person, could sound quite different to another.

        You only have to attend the Vancouver Folk Music Festival to understand that the title is a complete misnomer. You hear anything and everything there. But there would be a hue and cry if someone tried to change the title.

        Thanks as always for the thoughtful writing, Rob, and the very tasty musical choices!

      2. Thanks for that anecdote, David.

        It seems to me that most of our musical visionaries embraced the benefits of several genres, or ignored them completely, to make music which is largely beyond genres. Davis was certainly one of these, and Ellington too. It’s a shame that upcoming artists aren’t allowed this kind of freedom if they want to sell to a wider audience, hampered as they are by genres which have become less about musical traditions, and more about artistic shorthand.

        The thing is, I’m beginning to suspect that record labels and marketing firms aren’t solely to blame, and neither are the artists. I think it’s fans, who know what they like and like what they know. I’m not sure most people want to be challenged in the way that they perhaps once did, making a mass audience for a record akin to Sketches of Spain remote at best.

        Thanks as always for comments!

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