A&E Review

Out of the Glovebox: Miles’ Vision of Spain

Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” Album Cover. Photo Courtesy of Genius.

With the opening clickety-clacks of the castanets, Miles Davis & Gil Evans transport me to a street in Cordoba. I smell the dust (I breathe it in), I see the warm glow of wire bulbs strung between rooftops (I glimpse the night air, clearly), I feel the accumulated heat of the day radiating off the walls (the adobe is whiter than my skin), I smell the sweat (of the working and the resting) and I taste the blood (of the brave and the bulls) on the fringes of my tongue. 

When the castanets leave, the street is gone and I am alone in the corrida surrounded by resplendent horns, menacing strings and Miles’ trumpet: the picadores, banderilleros and the torero, the matador. The sand clogs my nose and clings to my damp skin. I try to stare into the matador’s eyes, but they are closed. 

Side one of Davis & Evans’ record, “Sketches of Spain,” opens with an evocative piece, “Concierto De Aranjuez,” a 16-minute overture by Joaquin Rodrigo that Miles claimed to be transfixed by. The piece fluctuates between grandiose bursts of horns, paradisiacal flurries of castanets and billowing bellows of low brass. Across these shifting emotional tones, the string bass, whether in its upper or lower register, plucks little stepping stones for the accompanying instruments as they navigate the less-defined elements of the piece. Miles’ horn lines can hardly even be called melodies, they’re like gusts of wind: difficult to grasp and pushing me in whichever direction they choose.  

It was this track that inspired Miles to record an entire record of jazz, flamenco and Andalusian folk music; he and Evans, the arranger and conductor of the record, collaborated to adapt the trumpet to the sounds and airs of the composition, which was typically meant for guitar. After extensively researching contemporary and traditional Spanish genres, they decided on five pieces that would serve as a canvas on which to sketch this auditory effigy of Spain. 

As the track progresses I am no longer in the corrida, I am in the stands. I’m watching from afar, but I can see it all in crisp detail: the bloodshot eyes of the bull, the yellow flash of his hooves and the glitter of the matador’s sword singing like a trumpet. When the singing stops, the silence stiffens my throat. I’ve never seen this bull before, but something about him seems familiar. Not his broad shoulders, or his tall stature, but something else, something I can smell. I try to recall, but the memory is too far away, and when the track ends, the memory fades with it.  

On track two, “Will O’ the Wisp,” it’s not Miles’ voice that carries the melody, it’s his shadow. Dancing on indistinguishable time signatures, his shadow skips and hops across the boulevards and avenues of Evans’ arrangement and, tying itself to the listener, imbues them with a body– feet, legs, arms, limbs capable of movement, a sense of objectivity and a form, capable of inhabiting this fabricated vision of Spain. Flashes of color appear from the accompanying ensemble: swaying swells of clarinet, rumblings from the low brass, like the smiles of strangers nodding hello as they pass by, or the unexpected voices of friends calling your name from across a dimly-lit bar you randomly wandered into; the paysage reveals itself, imposed beneath a bell-shaped shadow. Fabricated, yet evocative and familiar. 

Despite Miles & Evans’ invitation towards wistful nostalgia, I am haunted by a vision, the sobering scream of the lanced bull; I sift through the blood-red sand of reality and the mirage dissipates. I am in the land of my great-grandfather. A land once divided between fascists and freedom fighters, of Francoists and Republicans, of dragons and bulls. The Republicans, my great-grandfather among them, failed to stop the overwhelming cuadrilla of Francisco Franco, that forked-tongue torero. On the hot sand of the corrida, the bull fell, alone, face-to-face with his killer, banderillas in his back and stabbed through the heart. The vision fades, like bones sinking in the sand, and side one ends. 

I hear Miles’ horn calling me, like a Kestrel’s cry, and I am back in his shadow. Side two begins with “The Pan Piper,” and Miles has transformed his horn from a guitar into a flute. In fact, despite being accompanied by three flutes, his horn stands out in the piece more than they do; hypnotizing them to dance for him, like enchanted rats (or children). This short, tactile piece feels light to the touch, like the details of a painting capturing mundane life: the crickets on the grass, the reflections in the water, a mother holding her child’s hand as they walk towards the park. The melody is derived from the tune Galician pig castrators would play as they entered town to drum up business and announce their presence. I can hear him play, but I can’t watch him work.  

I close my eyes and “Saeta,” track four, takes me back to the street, but this time Miles plays along the balconies and in the rain gutters. Instead of standing alone, I am following a procession. Someone has died, but I don’t know who. All I know is that I should be silent and pray. Like nosey neighbors poking their heads out of doorways, melodies accompany Miles as he wanders across the rooftops, but the streets aren’t all the same; it’s Granada, Barcelona, Pamplona yes, but not of Spain now —–- of what it used to be. The same streets my great-grandfather walked through, ran through, was chased through. It wasn’t his broad shoulders or his tall stature that gave him away, it was the sweat dripping down his face; it smells familiar.

Now on track five, I am running. The bellowing of the harp adds an air of Cervantean magic to the space between the fanfare of horns, and this vibration of energy sends my mind into a gallop as it rushes into my ears. The sizzling cymbal pulls back on the reigns and reminds me that this is still a work of jazz; it’s not just hybridized, modern Flamenco or Andalusian folk revivalism, but a truly unique combination of styles and sounds brought together by Miles’ passion and Evans’ musical prowess. Their disciplined research and ingenious innovation created a sketch of a life once lived, but it’s only a sketch. It’s not real life. It’s a vision, a dream, a lament, a hope that I can run to, but never find; it is the muleta. 

Like many others, my great-grandfather left everything, and he ran. Not to Elysian fields and retirement, but to France, a land soon to be occupied by fascists themselves; he went into exile and he never returned home. Home, where his sweat salted the earth, where the sun leaves the sand so dry it’s parched, where the ground yearns for a drink; wine or blood, it can’t tell the difference. It’s just an album, it’s just a sketch, it’s not real, it’s the muleta, but I dive right in because the familiarity is enough. Eighty years later, when I close my eyes, Davis & Evans take me there, and I know that sweaty smell because it’s mine.