CD REVIEW: Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble-Sketches of Spain (Revisited)

Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble-Sketches of Spain (Revisited)
(3Sixteen Records. CD31607. CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Trumpeter Orbert Davis has taken the bull by the horns in Spanish style, and re-orchestrated the two longest pieces from the classic Miles Davis/Gil Evans 1960 album, Sketches of Spain, for this superb 19-piece ensemble. He’s also replaced the three shorter pieces with his own compositions and arrangements. Orbert Davis is no relation to Miles- but he’s been playing the Miles role in this music with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic since the 90s. This final version was premiered in 2011. ‘My thespian friends…advised me to simply act the part of Miles through my trumpet…’ he says, but this is no slavish imitation.

Sketches of Spain and Solea, the former by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo and the latter by Gil Evans, were both arranged by Evans. Both draw on traditional Spanish scales (especially the Phrygian mode). Orbert Davis explains how he’s developed these, in fascinating liner notes. The number of musicians is about the same as the Miles/Evans version- but he’s kept the woodwinds, upped the percussion, dropped the bassoon and harp, and brought in a string quartet and piano. From the start of Sketches of Spain it’s clear that Orbert Davis has his own sound and feel. He seems to blend in more with the orchestra than Miles did: he aims to play the written parts with a ‘classical aesthetic’. But his solos are very distinctive and full-toned, more like Wynton Marsalis perhaps. There are wonderful dynamics in the writing, from a duet between Davis and Leandro Lopez Varady’s piano to huge brassy crescendos; from swing to almost military drumming; from tender cadenzas to lush harmonies.

Miles called Solea a ‘…song about loneliness, longing and lament. It’s close to the American black feeling in the blues.’ Orbert Davis’ version keeps the drama, with deep strings and melodramatic trilling on the piano. The groove builds, a little like Ravel’s Bolero (there are even what sound like tiny quotes from the melody in Orbert Davis’ solo), with African and Middle Eastern percussion as well as castanets. He plays passionately and chromatically over the backing harmonies, rather than just using Flamenco scales. There’s a delicious section where he improvises along with flute and piano, as the strong rhythmic strings riff on Flamenco phrases.

Orbert Davis declares his love of Spain in his own compositions, Muerte del Matador and El Moreno. The former (‘Death of a Matador’) was originally a reworking of Miles’ Saeta from the 60s album, but has become something new and exquisite. The trumpet improvises like a vocal lament, straight to the heart, with Suzanne Osman’s oud and percussive washes from Ernie Adams and Jonathan Reid. El Moreno, inspired by a famous Flamenco singer, celebrates Moorish influences. The writing is dense and exciting, in 6/8 with swirling strings, jumpy piano phrases and a big back beat. Steve Eisen’s tenor solo combines a Flamenco throaty energy with fine modern jazz.

In contrast, El Albaicín shows how imaginatively Orbert Davis writes for string quartet: his arrangement of this piano piece by Isaac Albéniz has the staccato energy of Shostakovich. The clashing harmonies implicit in Flamenco, and the daredevil dance rhythms, evoke nothing less than classic themes of love and revenge. This is a fine ‘revisitation’: fresh, engaging- and immaculately-recorded. The excellent Chicago Jazz Philharmonic gives strength to Davis’ powerful arrangements and compositions and his fiery playing.

This is one of a triptych of recordings. Proceeds from the CD go to support the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s artistic and educational work.

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