Some have compared this project from guitar master John McLaughlin to Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain. It is not really as great as all that, but saying so isn’t really fair to McLaughlin. After all Sketches is one of the best albums by one of the greatest artists in music history. It has also has had longer to garner listeners and acclaim. But there are a number of similarities between the two projects that make the comparison worthy of attention.
Thieves and Poets can be divided into two sections. The first is the three part title suite composed by McLaughlin. The second consists of four jazz standards played with McLaughlin's usual adroitness: “My Foolish Heart,” “The Dolphin,” “Stella by Starlight,” and “My Romance.” Parts II and III of the suite and the standards feature The Aighetta Quartet. The orchestra on this recording is I Pommeriggi Musicali di Milano. Both ensembles provide the lush and beautiful backdrop for McLaughlin's composition and the understated classics. So, like Sketches of Spain, this project straddles the worlds of jazz and classical music. I think the result is something is likely to satisfy people in both camps. But only to a degree.
Where Sketches is a fully realized, coherent collaboration between Miles Davis and Gil Evans, Thieves and Poets is really a disc with two distinct, and not uniform, halves. The suite wants to be like the majestic “Concerto de Aranjuez,” and as a classical piece, it almost is. But Davis’ genius was that he could use the orchestra as he did his band, and so his version of the Rodrigo composition almost seems to be his own, yet without losing the essentials of the original. So what Davis did was both classical and jazz. But McLaughlin has a powerful work for the orchestra, and nothing more. Ironically, “Concerto De Aranjuez” is a work for guitar and orchestra.
That suite is very much worth listening to, but with the other four tunes, the record as a whole is jarring. The standards are rendered beautifully here, if not that special in terms of improvisation, and come off as little afterthoughts. Pretty, but afterthoughts nonetheless. One might get the impression after a few listens that McLaughlin didn’t have enough of either and so he just stuck them together.
I would rather have had either two separate projects or a double disc opus with the classical material on one and the jazz classics on the other. Far be it from me to say the two genres don’t belong together. But here it doesn’t work quite so well as music lovers know is possible.