Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis & Gil Evans (Dutch Fontana)

I picked this up at a boot fair in a posh London suburb. It wasn’t the original US Columbia release. Rather, it was on Fontana, the European label which handled Columbia’s Miles Davis catalogue in this period. 

And it was the Dutch rather than the British pressing. Which is all to the good, because the Fontana records were manufactured by Phillips, who were based in Holland. They made excellent pressings. 

Crucially, this was a first pressing and, what’s more, a factory test record — which meant it was one of the first off the stamper (which equates to the highest audio quality — the more the stamper is used, the more worn and less precise it becomes). A stereo copy, too. Something of a holy grail, then. I spent £25 on it (haggled down from a sticker price of £35). 

A few years ago this would have been an unthinkable sum, and even now it seems like a big investment... 

After a tense, paranoid first listening, I began to relax — the record plays fine. Now I'm beginning to appreciate how Gil Evans makes the whole big combo swing like a single bright, sharp edged metallic construction on a pendulum, absolutely unified, with Miles’s trumpet in the lead. (Miles said, “He made that orchestra sound like one big guitar.”) 

There is a brooding, measured, industrial quality to the sound… with an unsettling tone hovering in the background at the threshold of hearing, not resolving and not ceasing, like the hum of a menacing machine. 

The tuba player, Bill Barber, had worked with Evans ever since his days in the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, when Evans first added tuba to the ensemble. (Jimmy McAllister also plays tuba on the Sketches of Spain sessions.) Gil Evans, and Thornhill, were partial to French horns. And Johnny Carisi says “In a sense… a tuba is like a big French horn.” 

The fascinating thing is that Gil Evans uses the orchestra the way Miles Davis plays his trumpet. This shared vision of music is why they got together in the first place.

This is a great record, and a wonderful pressing — I could feel the exciting shock of the impact of the low frequencies. I must compare it to the recent mono Record Store Day reissue. 

(I have quoted from an essay about Gil Evans from Gene Lees magnificent book about arrangers.)

Miles Davis, arranged and conducted by Gil Evans. Sketches of Spain (Fontana 885 122 TY)

(Image credits: the cover — which as you can see weirdly re-uses the photo from Kind of Blue — and the label are from Discogs. The cover of Gene Lees' Arranging the Score is from Amazon.)

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