Sunday, March 06, 2011

Iconic "Sketches of Spain" Revisted by Harmonie Ensemble New York

A new recording of one of the iconic jazz recordings of the twentieth century “Sketches of Spain” features the trumpet of Lew Soloff along with Harmonie Ensemble New York conducted by Steve Richman. Both Soloff and Richman have connections to the classic Miles Davis recording. Soloff had a long association with the late Gil Evans, and Richman had a close family friend who played trumpet on the original classic Miles Davis recording and had regaled him with recording session stories of the Evans-Davis collaborations. As George Avakian observes in his notes the original recording was first performed in the studio with little rehearsal time. Evans adaptation of two Spanish composers works and three originals along with his orchestrations made for a celebrated recording which has been sporadically performed over the years.

Harmonie Ensemble New York are known for the ability to handle both classical and jazz works including “Gershwin by Grofé,” “Symphonic Jazz,” and performed Gershwin’s symphonic orchestrations for over 50 years. A claim is made that they are better able to handle the Evans scores than the original session five decades ago and in any event, before this complete rendition of
Sketches of Spain was recorded, there was rehearsal and a concert at the Church of St. Peters in New York City, marking one of the rare complete performances of this masterwork. It was also an opportunity for trumpeter Soloff to play the entire “Sketches,” as he had played parts at different times in part through his association with Evans. One interesting fact that is revealed is that a many lines and passages of Davis’ trumpet on the original recording was written by Evans, so for those who would say Soloff is merely copying Davis, that is a partial explanation. For the improvised portions, Soloff takes inspiration from Miles, and “trying to convey the depth of expression” of Davis, but admittedly can only be himself.

I have not listened to Davis’ original recording in some time and I did not revisit it for purposes of making comparisons. If I did a blindfold listening I suspect I would be far from able to detect differences from Davis’ original recording. In the context of a ‘jazz’ recording, its unusual to respond to it as a performance of a repertory item as one might do to a symphonic recording of Beethoven. However, this is wonderfully recorded and played. It is a luxurious listening experience (as was Davis’ original) recording. Soloff’s trumpet cries, moans and soars against an orchestral background that pulses and dances and is exhilarating to listen to. Even viewed simply as a revisiting of the original, the performance here reminds us of Gil Evans stellar works. Half a century after originally imagined and recorded, this new rendering of
Sketches of Spain shows its continuing vitality.

The above review appeared in the February-March 15, 2011 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 333) at page 21-22 (The issue can be downloaded at I received a review copy from the publicist for the release.

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