The Odd Couple

A new boxed set paints Miles Davis and Gil Evans in black and white.

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 blaring as the trumpet, and it gives off a smoother sound when a player as adept as Davis slides from one note to another. To prevent the other artists 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. The employment of this strategy tends to quell musical highs and lows--but what Evans gains is 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 from his Broadway scores and hits of the day. Hence, it's entertainment that has a certain amount of affectation and pretense built right in--making it perfect fodder for Evans. In addition, the songs themselves, although jazzed up in terms of the 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 while 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 play 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 bespeaks the limitations placed upon him throughout The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings. But all these years later, his creative frustration is still beautiful.

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