Sunday, March 6, 2011

Deep Song

The "bluesiest," most sombre sounds of flamenco and Spanish gypsy (gitano) music are called cante jondo (or hondo), translated as "deep song," and equating to an awareness of death and the limits of reason: dark despairing emotions expressed in proud, percussive song and dance, and in the darker chords and notes played on a chiming and resonant, ringing-out guitar. According to Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca you can hear Death sing in it. (The mysterious term duende--meaning something like an unyielding, unruly spirit--also figures in this bleak expression of the Moorish/Sephardic/gypsy-Andalusian folkloric soul.)

For comparison, let's say that Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" and maybe "Gloomy Sunday," or Bobby Bland working through a "Stormy Monday" week, or any performance by always-sorrowing James Carr, would be deep song equivalents from America's Black populace--and, in fact, some critics have designated such music as "Deep Soul," presumably borrowing the flamenco terminology. But there are lighter forms of flamenco as well, both old-style dances like alegrias and gypsy tangos and some bulerias, and the current craze for too-cheerfully-upbeat flamenco nuevo.

Jazz has its deep song too. Think of Charlie Haden playing practically anything, his bass thudding like the earth's heartbeat. Certainly one can play "deep" on a smaller stringed instrument with a higher range, from Ron Carter's piccolo bass to an electric guitar in the hands of Kenny Burrell or Grant Green or even Bill Frisell at times, to the swirling dance of violinists Michael White and Regina Carter. (I'm exempting piano strings from this discussion.) Especially compelling are the great string duos of Jazz history, whether Eddie Lang duetting with Lonnie Johnson or Joe Venuti, Carl Kress duelling George Barnes, Herb Ellis on the road with Joe Pass, or Jim Hall teamed with Ron Carter, Bill Frisell, and others. (One's impulse is to add Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to that select list, but it was rare for the two of them to play minus the rest of the Hot Club.)

More recent examples from the wider world could include Philip Catherine and various guitarists; Haden cloistered with Pat Metheny (a match made in Missouri and heaven too); the flamenco-fusion duo of Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin; the Assads, Brazilian brothers who began with Classical guitar, sidled into Jazz via sambas and bossas and such, and have now recorded a stunning two-guitar, complete Rhapsody in Blue; and the sunny, South-of-France, Midi-Mediterranean swing of Sylvain Luc and Alsace gypsy Birelli Lagrene.

Still and all, the bass has a certain built-in advantage in the deepness stakes--from Jimmy Blanton to Milt Hinton and Ray Brown, from Paul Chambers and Charles Mingus to George Mraz. And, in the right hands--left and right--miracles may yet be wrought. The 2010 album co-led by bassist Dave Holland, precisely titled Hands, in both nature and name exemplifies many things: humans reaching out to one another, the unexpected connections possible in world music, the parts of the body which help create melodic sounds, the yes-vote critical response the CD has already achieved, and of course the real hands of the real players involved in this, Holland's Jazz-meets-gypsy project with flamenco guitarist Pepe Habichuela and musician members of his clan family.

The first thing to notice is the disc's incredible sound--light and lively, crisp and clear, powerfully percussive, bright or dark as needed, and deep; deep; deeper still. Steel and cypress wood, the strings ringing, chords singing, los instrumentos cantan y cantan mas. Next consider the participants: Pepe Luis of the clan/family mostly known as Habichuela but some bearing last name Carmona instead (including the backing musicians here), with master Pepe a fourth generation flamenco guitarist happily streaming string duets with distinguished all-around bassist Dave Holland, who effortlessly plays free, avant garde, melodic, world, and whatever else seems interesting.

But for Hands Dave immersed himself in flamenco for parts of three years--no casual tourist he--before venturing to record the fine-honed ensemble. The two, four, six players (changing line-ups) perform eight tunes based on traditional flamenco forms plus two Holland originals; and from either orientation, Dave joining Pepe's tradition or Pepe shifting to a Jazzier style, the soloing duo works a wonder. His bass notes leap and linger, thump and shudder, drive and dance, while Pepe and his kin let flow a cascade of clicks and plucks, sudden flicking and striking, surging strums and thrums, joy unleashed in a mellifluous melee of percussing strings and singing cajon drums.

The rhythms are often way too complex for me to count out or critique for accuracy; suffice to say that the ten tracks ebb and flow like a flamenco-through-the-ages suite (even Dave's tunes
"Joyride" and "The Whirling Dervish" are taken up and, not tamed, but transmuted), a magic carpet ride back in time, from the beaches at Malaga and the majesty of Madrid, to the glories of Moorish Granada and el gran senor savior El Cid. Some standout moments/melodies/match-ups include the title tune where a hint of bossa nova leads straight into a traditional fandango de huelva; "Camaron," identified as a taranta, but sounding like a moody ballad, with Pepe and Dave trading call-and-response licks, Dave's bass much like a giant guitar within the flamenco framework; a gorgeous gone-from-Cuba rhumba tune called "El Ritmo Me Lleva," which means, approximately, "The rhythm takes me away" (an accurate description indeed); "Puente Quebrao" (buleria) and "My Friend Dave" (Pepe's solo solea), two deep-song cries echoing down the years; and the all-powerful, nine-minute "Bailaor" (seguiriya cabal), which allows both string masters minutes to strut their most serious stuff, both a tiempo and drifting out-of-time.

If anyone hasn't noticed, I love this album. It stands head-and-hands above other Jazz-flamenco attempts... so I won't resist the pun that's been lurking between the notes and lines all along... With Pepe and Dave you're definitely in good Hands.


Steve Provizer said...

That's a pretty damn authoritative post ya got there, my friend. Good work...

I tried to parse the concept of duende last fall- ended up putting too much of a populist/political twist on it. Ah well.

I Witness said...

Hola, compadre. Sure, even far from Bahston we hinterlandsmen heard some from Frazier, but duende and celebrityhood? Sorta cheapens the devilish idea, even if certain matadors and dancers hoped to have it--no, make that: had it without hoping or trying. Anyway, I kept closer to the Andelusian delusion, so I had it easier. (Now, ploof! I stomp my cloven hoof and disappear in a swirl of gitano dust and gaijin fear--ending this duendeing.)