Sunday, June 17, 2018

Flamenco on the Threshold of Jazz

Flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz (from her Red Poppy event page)

Last night I headed down to the Red Poppy Art House for my break between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung during this week’s San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). The show for the evening featured flamenco dancer Melissa Cruz in a program entitled Collaborations in Flamenco. The program was given two performances, and I was there for the first of them.

This was definitely not a typical flamenco evening where dancers performed as part of a group of guitarists and singers. Cruz opened the program with a solo performance, an approach to flamenco that I had never previously encountered. While the rhetoric of her facial expressions and upper body language were familiar, the absence of any other sounds led me to concentrate on her footwork and her capacity to summon up elaborate rhythms that could stand securely as music unto itself. Indeed, listening to the sonic language of her feet, so to speak, took me back some 30 years when I would go into Manhattan to listen to Max Roach fill an entire evening with solo drum work.

Once Cruz had firmly established the voice of her own feet, she began to work with different combinations of four musicians who had joined her for the evening. These were percussionist Marco Peris, Bob Sanders on guitar and sometimes percussion, Gregory Masako Jenkins on clarinet and vocal work, and Alex Conde on piano and one percussion gig. Peris was the only one with a conventional drum. The other musicians played a touch-sensitive electronic device in the form of a cube also serving as a stool.

Conde’s music was the only offering that came closest to Hispanic idioms. Both Jenkins and Peris worked from different Balkan backgrounds, while Sanders’ technique tended to reflect primarily on jazz techniques from the middle of the last century. What was most important, however, was that every combination of musicians providing backup for Cruz had its own characteristic sense of spontaneity; so that each of the selections (which Cruz called vignettes) allowed for its own approaches to improvisation. The program then concluded with the entire group improvising off the tops of their respective heads with Cruz adding her own rhythms and dance style to the fabric of the emerging polyphony.

In that kind of a setting, it was easy to appreciate that Cruz’ skills as a musician were just as impressive as the personal stamp she put on her flamenco dancing.

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