Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A New Recording of "Sketches of Spain"

Why do a new recording of Sketches of Spain? I probably don't need to remind readers that the original recording with the incredibly plaintive Miles Davis trumpet and Gil Evan's beautifully shimmering impressionistic score is a classic among classics. So why do another version?

The answer to that has something to do with the whole idea of jazz repertory revivals in general. Why do them? When do they work and when don't they, and why? Part of the answer to that is two-fold.

There is one objective one can shoot for: to recreate as closely as possible the sound of the original, with ensemble musicians internalizing the particular style so well, you think you are hearing the original, with soloists so immersed in the style of the original musicians that you think you are hearing the reincarnation of those masters who did what they did in the first place. And yes, there are some solos that are so connected with the originals that it would be unthinkable not to quote from them in the very least--Ben Webster's solo on "Cottontail," the arpeggiated clarinet part in "High Society" that I-forget-who originally made a part of the music, that pretty much gets recreated verbatim in most versions since. Anyway, that's one way to go about it. Most such recreations (at the whole-hog extreme point, anyway) in my opinion are disappointing. It's not so easy to recreate the original sound of Duke's big band circa 1941. Most of the time it sounds like what it is: cats trying to do something that the individuals involved worked maybe 30 years to get right. You just don't sit down and say, "OK, I'll be Ben, you be Blanton, you do Rabbit," etc., and expect it to come out sounding "authentic." If recordings existed of Beethoven, Mozart or Bach performances made at the time those masters were alive, there would probably be the same problem, though classical scores paradoxically (in their concreteness) give the conductor more interpretive leeway in the performance traditions that have arisen in the last 200 years, give or take. More so than in jazz? I think so. But I would need to give you a book to talk about it, so I'll shut up for now.

There is a second way to realize jazz repertory. That is, doing a creative re-enactment that transforms the original sound and soloing in ways that those involved see fit, to make it all new. Of course jazz musicians have done that for years. Follow through all recorded versions of "All the Things You Are," for example, and you'll hear what different artists have done with the "original."

So too in a self-consciously repertory-oriented recreation equal amounts of creativity can come into play. What the Mingus Big Band has done is an example of that. They often re-create Mingus classics without trying to duplicate exactly one particular arrangement and/or performance. The same goes for "Zappa Plays Zappa," for example.

So where does this leave us, in terms of the new version of Sketches of Spain (Sheffield Labs 10089), with Lew Soloff taking on Miles solo part and Steve Richman conducting the Harmonie Ensemble New York in the realization of Gil Evan's score? Since Gil Evan's score puts this at least partly into the classical camp in terms of interpretation, that in part gives a ready-made answer to part of the question, as mentioned above. Then of course, what of Miles' landmark solo part? The answer is that Mr. Soloff plays squarely in the classic Miles style of that era, but he does not play Miles solos verbatim. In fact he interjects the Lew Soloff approach at the same time, especially for the long vamp on "Solea." He does a great job. But of course it is not Miles playing as he did back then. Can't be.

The interpretation/performance of the big band/orchestral parts to the piece has other considerations. There are subtle differences in the balance and emphasis on particular instruments in the ensemble at play here, and that makes for interesting contrasts. Francois Moutin realizes the bass part more like Charlie Haden might rather than Paul Chambers. He is also a bit more prominent in the mix. All that seems right and good. Further the ensemble performance is quite lively and detailed, and does bear comparison with the original.

So ultimately the answer has to be "Why not?" The results of the new version keep the essence of Gil's beautiful score intact and Lew Soloff does a nice job doing Lew-doing-Miles. Does that mean you should have this CD in your collection instead of the original? No. I can't see that this would replace or supersede the first Columbia recording. What it does, for those who love the music, is give you another version that you can enjoy alongside of the original. It does not replace the first version; it supplements it. Like with the classical repertoire, this version has enough different about it that it can enrich your appreciation of the music. Like having Toscanini doing the Eroica and also, say, Bernstein. Both are good to have and hear repeatedly. So it is with this CD and the original.

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