Musings on Latin Jazz: 4 Questions About Sketches of Spain from Miles Davis


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Musings On Latin Jazz will look at the genre in more of an open and conversational method. Instead of presenting researched facts and well formed thoughts, Musings On Latin Jazz will consider the style in a more free flowing fashion. I'll put together a few questions and off the top of my head, put together some answers. This is meant to spark conversation, so join in the discussion—leave a comment below and let us know what you think about the topic! Today we're considering Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain in light of the Latin Jazz world.

Why Did Davis Choose The Music Of Spain Over Afro-Cuban Rhythms? Sketches Of Spain delivers a unique opportunity to look at Latin Jazz from a completely different perspective. Miles Davis pursued this project at a point when Afro-Cuban rhythms were exploding in New York, largely through the work of Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez. Despite the rising popularity of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms, Davis chose to disregard that trend in favor of the flamenco tinged flavor of Spanish music. While his decision was more likely based upon his desire to continue collaborating with composer and arranger Gil Evans rather than a preference for a Latin cultural affiliation, Davis distinctly chose to make a Latin Jazz album of a different color. Sketches Of Spain certainly experienced artistic success, but he never strongly pursued a Latin influence in his music. He certainly had access to Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in New York, that wasn't an issue. For the most part, Davis made a distinct decision to eschew Caribbean and South American influences in his music.

Why Did Sketches Of Spain Experience Success While Other Latin Jazz albums Were Overlooked?

Sketches Of Spain has certainly found its place in the jazz history books and is well respected as a “classic" album, a fact that begs this question—why did this album become a household name in the jazz world while so many albums by Machito, Mongo Santamaria, Mario Bauza, and more still get overlooked? Part of this issue certainly lies in Davis' place in the cultural spectrum of North American music. Without a doubt, Davis is a towering figure in the world of jazz—if you ask the average music lover to name a jazz artist, it's very likely that Davis's name will emerge. At the same time, a lot of people can produce the name Tito Puente, but how many of those people can name one of his albums? Perhaps the elegance and structure of Evans' arrangements touched people in a unique way that seemed familiar. Culturally, Sketches Of Spain is a much safer choice for many people—you've got a widely accepted cultural icon playing over carefully crafted compositions that resound with beauty. For the uninitiated, it's much easier to make that connection than to the even balance of intellect and passion that they might find in Puente, Machito, or Rodriguez. Regardless, the fact remains that Sketches Of Spain found a place in many more record collections than the work of the Big 3 Mambo Orchestras.

Can We Call Sketches Of Spain A Latin Jazz Album?

This is a bit of a tricky question, but one that we can certainly address. At it's core, the terminology of Latin Jazz is just that—a couple of words that imply a broad definition. We tend to consider Latin Jazz as a music that calls upon Caribbean or South American rhythms but it is certainly not limited to those cultural elements. It also relies upon a more classically organized compositional process; there's improvisation in e piece, but Davis approaches it more in the way that a soloist in front of an orchestra might. Still, Sketches Of Spain does bring together cultural elements in the same way that we generally see in Latin Jazz. It doesn't blatantly rely on Caribbean or South American rhythms,; it digs into the sounds of Spain, which had a role in shaping those musics. I have a little trouble calling Sketches Of Spain a pure Latin Jazz album, but it certainly is related to the genre in a very real way.

If Sketches Of Spain Was Such A GroundBreaking Album, Why Didn't More Latin Jazz Follow In Its Footsteps?

There's no doubt that Sketches Of Spain brought some of the beauty and mystery of Spain into the jazz realm. With so many people being exposed to this album, it would make sense that more musicians would try to integrate that same cultural element into their jazz creations. Still, most jazz continued to lean towards Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, shying away from the Moorish and African influences of Spain. The reason behind this phenomenon might lie in the lack of accessible dance rhythms in Spanish rhythms that could drive a jazz performance in the same way that Cuban rhythms could. At the same time, New York musicians simply didn't have access to musicians from Spain in the same way that they could tap into Puerto Rican or Cuban artists. The tools for creating jazz with a Spanish influence were simply not there directly following the release of Sketches Of Spain. Modern artists have found very creative ways to integrate the flamenco and Middle Eastern sounds of Spain into jazz, but we're talking a out musicians doing this decades later. The fact remains that despite the artistic impact of Sketches Of Spain, many musicians avoided the Spanish influence for many years.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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