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Orbert Davis ‘revisits’ a classic(al) collaboration of Miles Davis and Gil Evans

Orbert Davis with the full Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (not the Chamber Ensemble)
Orbert Davis with the full Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (not the Chamber Ensemble)
from his Web site

At the end of last June, Orbert Davis and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble released a recording entitled Sketches of Spain (Revisited). Those with just about any knowledge of jazz history will immediately recognize the source of the name. Sketches of Spain was one of the most important albums to come out of the early Sixties; and it involved what many (myself included) would call the most ambitious collaboration of trumpeter Miles Davis with arranger Gil Evans. The result still stands as what may be the most symphonic approach to making jazz in a way that would not compromise the semantics of either “symphonic” or “jazz.”

At the same time it introduced listeners from both the classical and jazz worlds to a composer who had received very little attention in the United States and perhaps anywhere else outside Spain. The composer was Joaquin Rodrigo; and the second (Adagio) movement of his “Concierto de Aranjuez” guitar concerto was arranged by Evans for Davis to play solo behind a seventeen-piece jazz orchestra (conducted by Evans). This was the longest of the five tracks on Sketches of Spain; and it seemed as if it was only months after the album appeared that record collectors started asking about recordings of the original guitar concerto.

The Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble is on a scale quite similar to the one Evans had mustered for the Sketches of Spain recording project. The most interesting difference is that the Chicago ensemble includes a string quartet, which was absent from Evans’ forces except for the harp played by Janet Putnam. There is no harp in the Chicago group; but there is a piano, which also was not used by Evans.

The Rodrigo selection is one of only two of the five tracks to be appropriated from Sketches of Spain. The other is Evans’ “Solea,” very much an “image” (in Claude Debussy’s sense of the word) of a day at a bullfighting arena. Two of the remaining three tracks on Sketches of Spain (Revisited) are original compositions by Orbert Davis. The third is his arrangement of “El Albaicín,” the first piece in the third book of Isaac Albéniz’ collection Iberia, arranged for string quartet.

None of this is music that makes particularly outstanding waves, This is not surprising. Much has happened in the practice of jazz and classical music, both symphonic and chamber, since Sketches of Spain was released on July 18, 1960. Rodrigo’s music is no longer the eye-opening discovery it was at that time. The same can be said of the music in the album in general, whether it involves Evans’ ingenious approaches to instrumentation of Miles living simultaneously in the world of an ensemble player and that of a jazz improviser.

I suspect that it would still be possible for a jazz album today to have the impact that Sketches of Spain had when it would released. Such an album might even honor the powerful collaboration that emerged between Davis and Evans. However, Sketches of Spain (Revisited) seems too focused on the letter of that collaboration, when what really matters is the spirit behind it.