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.
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.