Improvisation on the keyboard was very much expected of the leading classical musical minds in earlier years. And what came about was framed by the compositional practices of the time. So Johann Sebastian Bach might improvise elaborate fugues based on a particular theme; Mozart was known to create brilliant variations spontaneously on a theme given to him at the spur-of-the-moment. Fantasias were possible and were another, more free option, but of course what came out was something the composer might have more carefully worked over in a formal composition. There were definite resonances between the improvised and the composed.
Ethiopian vibraphonist and percussionist Mulatu Astatke has spent most of his 70 years mixing Ethiopian musical traditions with jazz. 'Some of the music is meant to be danced to, some to be listened to. Astatke's UK links go back to student days, and this new album brings together British and Ethiopian instrumentalists and singers. Each track 'sketches' a different part of Ethiopia and its traditions, mostly written and arranged by Astatke: composed horn riffs, overlapping in harmony; calls and responses; strong grooves, and mostly simple chords. Horn lines are based on Ethiopian 5-note scales. Astatke: 'It's 5 tones against 12-tone music…How do you combine these two things and keep the color of those modes?' Pentatonic phrases recur hypnotically throughout the album, and when the jazz solos emerge they're all the more striking in contrast. But the emphasis is on the textures of the whole group.
Producer Bob Belden has turned reinventing the music of Miles Davis into a cottage industry, taking Davis to India for 2008’s Miles from India, and more recently Belden has given us Asiento, which re-imagined Bitches Brew as a slice of electronica. Now he gives us Miles Español, which finds Belden pairing veterans of Davis' various bands with musicians from Spain, Morocco, and Latin America on classic tracks from Davis' Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue albums. Hearing Davis compositions with oud, bassoon, accordion, and bongos is certainly exotic and interesting, but one longs for the elegant, stately grace of the original albums.