Revised and Remembered
Sketches of Spain and dirges for Al Belletto
In 1960, Miles Davis recorded Sketches of Spain with composer-arranger Gil Evans and 27 symphonic musicians. Evans shaped some of the trumpeter’s greatest work. Later, Miles got into drugs and a famous dark streak, a sullen detachment, as when he turned his back to audiences. On a “60 Minutes” profile he tested Morley Safer’s patience, watching TV in a sulk; the frustrated camera crew filmed him doing so until Safer coaxed him to talk. Reportedly clean by then, Miles gave new meaning to “moody.”
Though some critics dispute whether Sketches of Spain is jazz, for my money it’s a sign of how the jazz canon bends to orchestral designs. Miles was superb, alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn, creating passages of a brooding melancholia to the orchestra’s flamenco colorings, imbuing the five movements with a majestic sadness. “Concerto de Aranujez” by Joaquin Rodrigo is the first movement, an adagio of slow undulations that build to a soaring climax.
Sketches of Spain is demanding and not cheap to perform; it requires an orchestra and serious rehearsal time. In the last 18 months, two recordings of the work have been released, one by the prolific Nicholas Payton on his recently formed BMF label, performed with the Sinfoniorchester Basel; the other, Sketches of Spain Revisited by the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, is produced by Orbert Davis and Mark Ingram.
Orbert Davis, working in a continuum of jazz improvisation, has reassembled Sketches, supplanting Evans’s three center movements of the original with his own compositions.
“Muerto del Matador,” the second piece, calls to mind the essence of tragedy Hemingway captured in his book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. Davis expands the palette of sounds with layers of African and Moorish colors, while using a melodic fragment of “Concierto de Aranjuez” as a kind of through line for the overall work. Conductor Davis has 19 musicians (several utilize different instruments), and he plays solo trumpet and flugelhorn; this is a more ranging, highly textured meditation on death in the Spanish cultural sensibility, as it returns to the slowly swelling crescendo of Evans’s last movement “Solea,” with a tempo that builds, as in Bolero.
Nicholas Payton, 42, is one of New Orleans’ gifts to the world. A trumpeter of superb tone, his works have ranged across the terrain of jazz since his early Armstrong tribute, Dear Louis.
Payton’s Sketches of Spain hews closer to the Davis-Evans template in structural terms, but at certain intervals Payton’s trumpet veers far from the moody sadness of Miles playing in his zone, opting for a wailing blues-like cry from the soul. Listening to Payton’s Sketches several times in the change of 2014 to ’15, I was pulled by his currents on the “Solea” finale. “The whole piece is one big crescendo. You literally just build,” Payton says in his liner notes, “and the piece reaches this huge arc ... and you get to this point, and you hit this cliff and then you reach the other side of the mountain. It’s like an avalanche.” The avalanche hit me, driving to the Musicians’ Union Hall on Esplanade Avenue, a memorial service for the alto saxophonist Al Belletto, prince of a man and a big band player of players who passed away at 86 just before New Year’s Eve.
Payton’s trumpet sang of death’s pain, the pain of living people facing the past. Belletto was a teenage bebop player when the cops kicked him out of black clubs in the 1950s for violating race laws. He played Bourbon Street strip clubs while studying music at Loyola University, and on auditioning at Louisiana State University for graduate study, the professor said: “Boy, you play with such spirit! You play like a whore!”
So Belletto himself told me, back in the day. His big band was a fixture at Jazz Fest and his polished songs are collectors’ items. Deacon John sang a blues-belting “Ave Maria” at the service. I kept thinking how much Prince Al would like Nicholas Payton’s blues-powered Spanish wail.