52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK THREE


Week: Three

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Miles Davis
Album: Sketches of Spain
1960
Columbia Records


M
iles Davis’ Kind of Blue will always be his most accessible record to date, and easily the one quintessential jazz album that even non-jazz enthusiasts own or are at the very least familiar with. Around the same time that Davis was getting blue, he and composer Gil Evans worked out the arrangements that would make up Sketches of Spain, which I’m happy to say was my first foray into Miles’ canon.

Sketches of Spain is a record that is just soaked in cool sounds. Castanets and other light percussion notes wisp through the five arrangements, Davis carries the music along with his signature, restrained muted trumpet and Evans’ classical instrumentation gives the album a sound that could be best described as jazz meets legendary silver screen composer Ennio Morricone.

The album opens with a mesmerizing rendition of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a song I have sought out in many various renditions. It’s one of those rare and beautiful compositions that is taken to new heights with Davis’ weeping trumpet. There is something about the delicate use of harp and the song’s crescendo at the end that gets me every time.

Sketches of Spain is not the ideal gateway to jazz as it steers clear of the improvisational language of the art form. The album is more of a fusion side project that arose from the Columbia Records/Gil Evans sessions that resulted in this album along with Miles Ahead and Davis’ Porgy and Bess.

On Spain, Davis is the only musician seemingly attempting to stray away from the compositions at hand, making the album an interesting bridge between the classical and the jazz world.

Side B of Sketches of Spain features the record’s three original compositions, culminating with the incredibly moving “Solea,” a cut that instantly brings to mind visions of my time in Iberia.

Even before I finally made it to Spain this album (and this cut in particular) fashioned an imaginary Spain in my head, a place drenched in mystery and exoticism. The real Spain, while not as enthralling as the utopia in my head is still the perfect backdrop for this album.

Part of this association must be attributed to the fact that while living and studying in Salamanca, Spain I often deliberately walked the streets at night on my way home listening to Sketches of Spain through my ear buds. A later marriage of music and celluloid would further the link between “Solea” and this exotic place.

An entire column could be written on what the films of Pedro Almodóvar mean to me. Besides being one of the greatest storytellers working today in cinema, his films are windows into life in Spain, even if his film’s stories tend to depend on the melodramatic. His use of colors, emphasis on regional Spanish dialects, love of Spanish culinary traditions and a truly unique sense of how details can shape a scene, make his films time capsules of life in Spain. In 1995s The Flower of My Secret, a weaker installment in Almodóvar’s gamut, there is a scene in a ballet theater (a popular locale in Almodóvar’s cinematic world) that is set to Evans/Davis’ “Solea.” It’s the perfect fusion of two art forms and one that left me speechless when I first saw the film, recognizing the tune instantly. To this day I still keep the video clip below in my web browsers’ favorites folder.

Sketches of Spain, like so many of Miles Davis’ records. is the perfect capper to a long and tiring day. It’s an album best paired with a nice red wine, preferably from the Rioja region. I’ve found that it goes well with most novels. During college it spiced up even the most mundane of homework and study sessions. It’s atmospheric, often appearing more as a soundtrack to a David Leanesque film epic that was never filmed, with its soaring orchestration and Davis’ high marks. It’s an album that remains an essential in my jazz collection. Hell, even the cover art is memorable, with Davis’ now infamous trumpeter silhouetted behind a mock-up of the Spanish flag, with a raging torro and classic Old English typeface. As I write this I’m about to play the record again before, as its sounds bring up visions and memories from the past of a truly wonderful and one of a kind place.

52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ONE

Week: One

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Graceland”
Paul Simon
Album: Graceland
1986
Warner Bros. Records

Graceland was released two years after I was born but was a critical part of my musical upbringing. Early memories of car trips through Northern Michigan are filled with the lyrics and sounds of this eclectic record. A full comprehension of the album’s cultural importance during Apartheid-plagued South Africa would come later, of course, not to mention its feat at bridging the gap between mainstream pop and what was perplexingly called, “world music,”–a truly Westernized label that ignores the obvious fact that all music is worldly since the language of music is universal.

The music of Graceland is diverse in its instrumentation, with Simon drawing from influences from all over the globe, but for a boy at four or five years old, it simply sounded great. As kids I can distinctly remember joining my sister and cousins in trading vintage-style tennis rackets, which we fashioned in our minds as the funky guitars and the slap bass that we heard blaring through the stereo speakers. There were countless hours of dancing to “You Can Call Me Al,” the album’s breakaway hit, and the soothing A cappella words from Ladysmith Black Mambazo was enough to lay our tired heads to rest after a long day of innocent play.

My naïve age made the lyrics of Graceland hard to comprehend. Lines like, “the bomb in the baby carriage,” “the automatic earth,” or “staccato signals of constant information” off the album’s triumphant opener, “The Boy in the Bubble” meant nothing to me in a social manner but were nevertheless intriguing sounding. The manner in which Simon delivered words like staccato, or combinations like cinematographer’s party curled off my tongue with ease that first summer and for many years to follow.

If I had to pick one song off Graceland that truly sums up what this album means to me in turns how I appreciate and listen to music today it would be the record’s title track. I knew that “Graceland” was referencing Elvis, who was an artist who, even if I wasn’t entirely familiar with, I understood was important, much like how I understood the importance of The Beatles long before I ever seriously listened to its music.

There is a level of sadness to “Graceland” that even the youngest of minds can pick up on. Sure lines like, “there is a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline,” sounded silly to a boy with a primitive understanding of vocabulary and wordplay, but the way Simon sings on “Graceland” is full of sorrow.

Listening to the song then I can recall thinking that Graceland was this mysterious and foreign place, almost biblical. “Pilgrims with families / and we are going to Graceland” is a line that particularly stood out.

Many years later I often come back to Graceland. I make it a habit of listening to it at least once a month in its entirety. During my sophomore year of high school one of my favorite history teachers, Owen Hein, would start each day off with a song from his collection of music from around the world (he also introduced me to the french duo, Deep Forest). On one particular morning he launched into his lesson with Graceland. I remember feeling proud that I knew all the words by heart and instantly gained a new appreciation for the record when we discussed South Africa’s rocky past.

A single listening of Gracelenad is usually followed by several repeats of its title track. It’s probably the album’s most restrained and atmospheric sounding offering. With its ghost like echoes of background singers, tender electric guitar riffs and thunderous percussion and drum interludes, there is soul to the sound. “Graceland” is also easily one of Simon’s greatest songwriting achievements and clearly one of his most personal explorations of love and loss thereafter. It’s a song that will undoubtedly stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s a heart song, a song to take to a desert island, one that can comfort a soul and also make a soul weary of the highs and lows of true love. It’s a masterpiece in every definition of the word.

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody feels the wind blow