Tuesday, August 26, 2008

50 Best Albums: Miles Davis' 'Sketches Of Spain'

In no particular order I am going to lay down the O'Malley gauntlet of greatness. I was talking with my cousin Mike about what the heck I was going to do next on my blog and he said I should review my favorite 50 albums. Well, what could I do? Once something like that is out there it has to be done.

As I readied myself for the bus ride this morning I immediately thought of The Replacements album 'Let It Be' which is probably the album I'd have on a deserted island, an island with an iPod and electricity. But I have wanted this blog to be a constant source of challenge. I'll get to 'Let It Be' but I thought I'd start with something I barely have a vocabulary to cover...


I have vivid memories of making my sister Sheila howl by imitating a person I call a 'jazz douche'. I won't go too far into what makes up a 'jazz douche' but I will give a quick distillation of what truly bothers me about the die-hard jazz fan.

The die-hard jazz fan is deluded and angry. They feel that jazz is a superior form of music and they can't quite wrap their beret laden brains around the fact that the majority of the populace prefers just about any other genre. I'm all for passion and interest but when that starts to calcify into prejudice and snootiness, count me out.

According to the die-hard jazz douche, my love of the three minute pop song with repeated verse/chorus/verse structure is evidence of my inferior brain. I also am a slave to marketing because if I could only throw off the shackles of the corporate jailer I would instantly abhor anything so bourgeois as MELODY.

So. Never been a fan of the jazz fan. For decades this kept me from exploring even the slightest bit in the genre.

Then I was cast in 'Side Man'. It had won the Tony a year earlier and was now being done around the country in regional theaters. I'd scoffed and rolled my eyes at the NY Times review that compared it to a jazz ensemble. My hatred of the prejudice of the jazz fan caused me to hold this play in contempt. When I got the sides from my agent I barely took the time to read them, so deep was my scorn.

I went to the audition and came out thinking, "I'll probably book this stupid jazz-douche play, you watch." Sure enough, I booked it.

Once I read the whole play however, I was forced to admit that it was not merely the ravings of a beret-topped, handlebar mustache wearing, microbrew in the garage, stamp collecting, jazz douche. It packed a fierce emotional wallop and the writing was fantastic.

This pierce in my armor allowed me to take a chance on listening to some jazz in order to better understand the milieu. I figured Miles Davis wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Thus 'Sketches Of Spain'.

How did I decide to buy this album? Deep research? Asking a true jazz douche? Nope. I liked the cover. Stately, mysterious, violent, gorgeous.

Now a real jazz douche would be able to say, "They recorded this album entirely live with each instrument filtered through copper and brass pipes which gives the album its trebly overtones. Frank 'Bubbles' Harrington produced the album and he was greatly influenced by Ferdinand the Bull and gallons of homemade sangria. So when you listen to these tracks, man, you got to let the grapes take you away and sit down on that bee and let Miles bite you in the ass."

But alas, I am not a jazz douche. I know nothing of how this was made. I only know how it sounds to me. Track by track...

1. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Adagio)'

A strange percussion types away while horns seem to fly in over tiled roofs. Men in white shirts and black pants held up by lengths of rope roll slowly out of hammocks, blinking away the rice and wine that led them to their sleep. The smell of blood can be sensed coming from the arena at the heart of the town. A bullfight.

2. 'Will O' The Wisp'

Her dark hair falls over her full lips. The basket she has prepared sits on a brightly colored blanket. Birds chirp and call your eyes up to the horizon. The town is far away. No one will see you. You know she wants you to kiss her but you've waited so long to be alone with her that you prolong the conversation, drawing your voice lower and lower until the talk can't get any smaller. Her eyelashes flutter as she laughs and suddenly your mouths are meeting as closely as your minds.

3. 'The Pan Piper'

The children are afraid. The man with the knapsack and flute has them gathered by the church. He's told them that they will see their parents again if they are very very good. They like music, don't they? If they like music, they should raise their hands. They don't want to raise their hands even though they like music. They feel like if they start doing what he says they'll never be able to stop. The sun tries to reach them from beyond the church spire but the clouds are gathering. Horse hooves pound from around the corner of the wall and suddenly the flute is silenced and the man on the horse is bringing them back to their houses trying to keep them from seeing the blood on his sword.

4. 'Saeta'

The learned men must hide their knowledge. Superstition rules the hour. If the Church has the ear of the King then the people must give over their mouths. Practical men reconcile this hypocrisy quite easily but dreamers are compromised to an almost maddening degree.

5. 'Solea'

Aren't the ships in the harbor beautiful? They await their orders. The beach goers lounge and converse. The bells in the tower peal on the hour. All of a sudden a cannon booms and a flurry of activity ensues on the decks of the warships. Word spreads until recreation seems inappropriate and the sand is quickly vacated. War has come to Spain.

6. 'Song Of Our Country'

Fists pounded on the thick table cluttered with pewter mugs. National identity emerges from each man's mouth louder than the one before. Loaves of bread are ignored. So are women, until later. Minutiae rules the day.

7. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Part One)

The bull has swords hanging from every part of his hide. Breasts heave in corsets ringed with lace. Screams fall short of the sun. Pride holds the matador still beneath his cape, withholding the death blow for maximum drama.

8. 'Concierto De Aranjuez (Part Two Ending)'

The arena is empty. The sand is stained here and there with the blood of the bull. The setting sun casts darkness into the stands. How could such brutality end in such peace?

I guess there is a little jazz douche in everyone.


siobhan said...

i love your 50 albums idea! i am so excited to read them all. haven't really gotten acquainted with 'sketches of spain' but now i will afer reading that. i do own 'kind of blue' and i don't know jack about jazz but that album makes me feel just like the title. in a totally cool way. i love the piano player bill evans. he is stellar. i wonder if he is the 'sangria' on sketches?

Tim Ramick said...

Also, for what it's worth:

Coltrane - Ascension
Ornette Coleman - Free Jazz
Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures & Conquistador!
Miles - In a Silent Way