Music knows no boundaries. A recent trip to Spain included stops in Madrid and Seville to sample wondrous foods and music. First, there were croquetes filled with béchamel; crayfish and cuttlefish baked in black risotto and bull’s tail sandwiches – all to be digested with a final splash of Pedro Ximenez’s rich sherry.
After consuming such gastronomique delights (found, for example, in Madrid at great tapas restaurants lining the nighttime carnival that is the Cava Baja neighborhood or in Seville at such great Pintzos-Bars as “La Azotea” in the Zaragoza neighborhood), the music beckoned. Although Flamenco can be found in the bars and byways of Madrid, the essence of that soulful dance and music is truly found on the winding medieval streets of Seville.
Since 1998, the Cultural Casa de la Memoria (“House of Memory”) located at #6 Cuna Street in the historic centre of Seville has promoted traditional Flamenco music by Spain’s best dancers, singers and guitar players. The daily performances are held in a small theatre, without the use of microphones, and typically involve two Flamenco dancers accompanied by a guitarist and a singer.
At one evening’s performance at Casa de la Memoria, entitled “Duende Flamenco,” dancers Marina Valiente and Felipe Mato took turns dancing to the kinetic strums of Rail Cantizano’s acoustic guitar and Vicente Gelo’s deep, from the heart, vocals. Their performances were volcanic and soulful, seismic in their rhythmic force. Each dancer moved with ardent concentration, mustering great physical power into each choreographed gesture. In her performance, Marina Valiente was a surging force of swirling dance movements. At one point, she unfurled her fingers over her head (like the slow opening of a delicate fan), with her feet stomping out a slow, blistering rhythm. She then arched her back and uncoiled herself as she strode defiantly forward (with arms outstretched), with heal and toe shoe slams alternating in bone-rattling crackles on the small wooden stage. To accompany this drama, Cantizano played swift, staccato notes on his guitar, (which rose and fell to Valiente’s slow upwards hand gestures). He then pounded his guitar body with his hand to thunderous effect (along with several furious and articulate runs) to propel Valiente’s leaping forward. Here was the perfect synthesis of dance and music to great, emotional effect.
When the male dancer, Felipe Mato, took the stage, singer Vicente Gelo commenced a long, guttural vocal passage, all ominous and deep in soulful tones.
To this accompaniment, Mato uncoiled himself slowly from a starting vertical position, (hands raised high above his head) moving with stealth precision and ferocious body control. As guitar and singer gathered momentum (with ominous rumbles of strings and vocal surges), Mato began a slow dance with inexorable rhythms that led ultimately to a furious pounding of his feet and a spray of powerful hand and arm motions- all in a blur of movement, utmost body control and pulsating finesse. By the end of the performance, (with sweat pouring off the dancers’ bodies), both dancers and musicians looked like they had come through a catharsis, releasing some deep emotions and harnessing their inner strength in the crucible of their fiery Flamenco performance.
Inspired by this live Flamenco performance in Seville, there are a number of audiophile recording gems to recommend that bring a slice of such beauty of Spain to our doorsteps and take Flamenco to new and beautiful places.
The first recording is a brilliant interpretation of Flamenco into the world of Jazz and is one great live recording. Pianist Chano Dominguez and his band came to the Jazz Standard in New York City in 2012 and his recording of this concert, Flamenco Sketches [Blue Note], is the superb result. Dominguez is a pianist of extraordinary power, vision and creativity, relying upon big percussive tensions and rhythmic shifts in his piano style. His band for this date consisted of an unusual combination of percussive partners: Israel “Pirana” Suarez on percussion; Blas “Kejio Cordoba and Tomas “Tomasito” Moreno on vocals and palmas (hand claps) and Mario Rossy on bass.
Inspired by the music of Gil Evans and performer Miles Davis in their classic recording Sketches of Spain, Dominguez and his band take flight on Flamenco Sketches and create an album filled with radiant energy and beguiling sonic adventures. The interplay of Dominguez’s kinetic piano attacks with the dazzling array of percussive effects makes for an atmosphere charged with intensive expressive play and musical delights. The recording captures all of this drama with superb image dimensionality, tactile details and a “you are there” feel. Dominguez’s piano is the center of the action. On “Freddie Freeloader,” Dominquez carves out great swaths of piano notes and colors with intricate rhythmic patterns that dance and ascend with the lilting hand claps of his partners. “So What” brings the same bold vitality, with big, zesty piano explorations and careening Flamenco percussive accents. On “All Blues,” the band delivers an easygoing soulfulness that is deep and pungent. The recording provides a deeply layered soundstage and a dynamic presentation that captures Dominguez’s virtuosity and his free-form exploration of Flamenco as it combines artfully with Gil Evan’s compositional genius and Miles Davis’ artistry. This is a recording to savor and explore time and time again.
Speaking of Sketches of Spain, there is also a wonderful recording of this work, freshly envisioned, by the Harmonie Ensemble of New York, (directed by Steve Richman), on the Sheffield Label. This recording was recommended by mentor Harry Pearson and for good reason: it is beautifully recorded with an expansive soundstage and great transparency to the propulsive voices within this colorful big band. Trumpeter Lew Soloff is featured as soloist on this recording, and his buoyant metallic attack and bright and gutsy tone (and slippery tonal plunges on Evan’s Solea) are highlights. The compositions in Sketches are prickly and contain surprising contrasts in instrumental and harmonic colors that challenge the ear. The Harmonie Ensemble brings an assured and spirited sound to this challenging music, digging deep with sensitivity to the nuances of colors and dynamics in this music. They bring panache to this recording: all swashbuckling, castanet crackling and fresh. The Rodrigo and Falla sections of Sketches, all shimmer and passion, call out for a Flamenco festival to begin. [For one of the greatest LP’s in the Spanish classical tradition, find a copy of Falla’s Nights In The Garden of Spain and Rodrigo’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (with Narciso Yepes on guitar and conducted by Ataulfo Argenta) all contained on London CS 6046. This is one of the great recordings of this Spanish music and the sound on this classic London LP is lush, immersive and dynamically superb].
One final audiophile recording recommendation that transports Spanish music and dance traditions into a new and beautiful place is Spanish guitarist Roberto Moronn Perez’s recording, Andres Sepovia Archive – Spanish Composers, in which Perez plays pieces by Spanish composers who were commissioned by master guitarist Andres Segovia to compose for the guitar. Many of these compositions were only recently re-discovered because many of them were thought to be lost when Segovia was forced to flee Barcelona in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Guitarist Perez records this eclectic set of compositions with the great recording team at Reference Recordings, appearing on their Fresh! Label. [FR-705]. The compositions recorded here are mainly quiet and soulful with an introspective quality. All of them are propelled by the undercurrent of Spanish dance melodies and rhythms: slow, steady and resolute. The recording is excellent and allows the listener to lean into Perez’s quiet artistry: following his unfurling guitar lines and the sinuous melodic turns and glowing lyricism of these compositions. Here is the essence of the rich Spanish dance and music tradition crystalized and captured in an artful solo performance: lyrical and sweet, yet also knotty and full of soulful passion.