By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Davis plays a flYgelhorn on much of Miles Ahead, which makes sense given the particulars of Evans's construct: It's not as brassy or as blaring as the trumpet, and it gives a smoother sound when a player as adept as Davis slides from one note to another. To prevent the other musicians from upstaging Davis when he's using this instrument, Evans mikes them in a manner that seems to mute the entire orchestra. The result is subtle and distinguished; it's as if Davis and Evans are holding themselves beyond and above their audience. This strategy tends to modulate musical highs and lows, but Evans gains an air that goes beyond the cool, West Coast feel then identified with players such as Gerry Mulligan. Instead, it hints at a jazz-classical fusion upon which Porgy and Bess would soon expand.
There's both irony and appropriateness in the decision of Evans and Davis to tackle Porgy. Gershwin wrote it in part to earn the respect he felt he wasn't receiving for his Broadway scores and hits of the day. Hence, it's entertainment that has a certain amount of affectation built right in, making it perfect fodder for Evans. And the songs themselves, although jazzed up by Evans's arrangements, are at base a compromise between operatic and popular elements. This forces Davis to spend more time than usual sticking close to the melodic lines of numbers such as "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." It takes great discipline for born improvisers to rein themselves in for the good of a piece, but Davis does it consistently, transforming the energy he'd normally expend moving in surprising directions into melancholy and passion. When a note splatters and breaks, as one does in the introductory passage of "Gone, Gone, Gone," it seems to do so because it's too gorgeous to remain whole.
This observation also applies to Sketches of Spain, arguably the best album to come out of the Davis/Evans partnership. As with Porgy, the concept itself is nothing if not highfalutin; although there are indigenous Spanish melodies aplenty in this blend of light classical and folk tunes, it's hardly bullfighting music. As Davis made clear in numerous interviews, the melodies he was given were probably the most challenging and difficult of his career. But rather than playing everything in the impeccably round tones that a classically trained instrumentalist would likely favor, he uses technical imperfections to infuse tracks such as "Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)" with heartbreaking emotionality.
Of course, Sketches is a constricted masterpiece. One listens hoping that Davis will be allowed to bust out -- to cut through all the caution like the creative bomb thrower he was. That he never does so bespeaks the limitations placed on him throughout the work gathered on The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. But all these years later, the fruits of his creative frustration are still beautiful.