El Amor Brujo

Miles Davis “Will o’ the Wisp” from Sketches of Spain
1. prologue
In a weird case of repeating myself, I had another revelation recently while trying to track down the origins of a Miles Davis tune. A few weeks ago, I described my journey of tracking down the origins of a particular combination of bass and piano chords from Kind of Blue. I had a similar kind of revelation this last week.
2. the hook
“Will o’ the Wisp” from Sketches of Spain was the track that most piqued my interest the first time I listened to the album. Like the rest of the album, it’s strongly driven by clipped Spanish rhythms, but there is something about the combination of catchy, modal melody and the slightly demonic harmonies in the verses that is just arresting.
After trolling YouTube, I finally realized that, like most of the tracks on the album, it is an arrangement of a piece of Spanish classical music, “Canción del fuego fátuo” from El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946).
4. a defense of ‘sketches of spain’
Sketches of Spain is one of Miles Davis’ best-known and best-selling albums, so in that respect it needs no defense. I think its accessibility means that it’s undeservedly treated differently. One album database site I visited categorized it as “easy listening!” What fascinates me about this album is the layers of subtext involved in the very creation of the album, a collection of jazz covers of Spanish classical music pieces.
Spain occupies a very strange place in the classical music economy. Although the country has a classical tradition as old as any other country in Western European, the “Spanish” sound in classical music has mostly been defined by French composers. Think Bolero by Ravel, or Iberia by Debussy, or the opera Carmen by Bizet. Part and parcel of this fascination with Spanish rhythms and folk sounds is the idea that Spain represents a liberated, and therefore savage, shadow of France. It’s the Spain of the Basque, of the Roma. It’s the Spain of Resident Evil 4. It’s the exoticized Mediterranean in the heart of Europe, and with the exotic there are always connotations of danger.
So it’s in this context that you get the music of the great 19th/20th Spanish composers, de Falla, Albéniz, Granados. Their music was nationalistic, but in a different way than is usually described by music historians. It was not an attempt to create a national identity against the forces of shifting borders, as Chopin, nor was it an attempt to establish a new musical tradition and sound where there had been none before, as Sibelius. Instead, it was an attempt to reclaim an authentic musical tradition from the realm of caricature, and to translate that tradition into the language, classical music, of the elites.
Jazz is also a musical project that gave a voice to a population that had previously only been represented in the elite culture by caricature. If you look at the language that was used to describe black musical culture and Spanish musical culture, it’s amazing how many of the same clichés surface: the music is more rhythmically obsessed, it’s more passionate, it’s vulgar. And in both cases, there was the fear that there was something corrupting in the music.
5. will o’ the wisp
Miles Davis engages directly with this web of associations on Sketches of Spain. There’s something a little…off about the arrangements. Remote. Tense. Far from easy listening. There’s plenty of idiomatic Spanish melodic and rhythmic content, and nothing of the easy caricature of French composers. I think this reflects some of Davis’ own engagement with the European classical establishment; one should never forget that he attended Juliard and there’s an alternate world where he was America’s greatest 20th century composer. There’s something about the web of oppositions that permeate the album that consistently fascinates me. It’s a mixture of two musical cultures, one white, one black, but both defined in opposition to the European classical tradition. At the same time, both the Spanish composers and Miles Davis in adapting their music decided to speak in the language of the elites.
I don’t have any answers to these apparent contradictions, however I do know that this album deserves a lot more thoughtful engagement than just dismissing it as an easy listening album of Miles Davis covering classical music.

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