Flamenco Fusion “Gabriella” Album Review
By Adam Goldstein
Miguel Espinoza summoned up some very vivid imagery to describe his approach to music during his appearance at Swallow Hill Music in December.
During that dynamic Denver performance, Espinoza referred to his musical style as a “boiling vat of flamenco,” a description that eloquently summed up the guitarist’s across-the-board fusion of all manner of traditional styles, time signatures and musical contexts, paired with hints of jazz, classical and progressive music.
That ambitious brand of “flamenco fusion” was in full force during the December performance, a concert that included several selections from Gabriella, the new album from Miguel Espinoza Fusion expertly recorded at Octave Studios and released in February. Joined by core band members Dianne Betkowski on cello, Randy Hoepker on bass and drummer/percussionist Andy Skellenger on tabla and cajon, Espinoza offers a dizzying array of textures, tempos and feels, all performed with alacrity and soul.
Indeed, across 10 tracks, “Gabriella” includes a dizzying amount of musical moods, a richness that’s only bolstered by an impressive roster of guest players who pop up across the record, including Howard Levy on harmonica, David Balakrishnan on violin, Victor Mestas Pérez on piano, Christian Teele on Latin percussion and percussive effects and Priya Hariharan on Carnatic violin and vocals. This varied cast of guest players add to the cosmopolitan feel of the album, summoning cues and styles from Spain to Africa to American roots music.
But the global musical vocabulary on “Gabriella” starts squarely with the fusion project’s core quartet – Espinoza, Betkowski, Hoepker and Skellenger are all so skilled at genre-hopping that the album’s long menu of styles and sounds feels completely natural. While nearly every track on the record features a guest musician, the four players at the heart of the band help make the whole album feel cohesive.
The band’s skill shines on the two tracks with a pared-down personnel list. On “Rune,” Espinoza and Betkowski spotlight their skills in ruminative, meditative solos over meandering riffs that fuse jazz and traditional flamenco. On “La Lluvia,” Espinoza, Betkowski and Hoepker lay down a solid, evocative groove that creates the titular mood of a walk through a rainstorm.
Espinoza’s genre-bending expertise on guitar, along with the rest of the band’s obvious experience at matching his rich background in all styles of flamenco, forms the floor for some innovative and genuinely fascinating musical adventures with an outstanding roster of guest players.
Howard Levy, a veteran of Béla Fleck’s bands, offers virtuosic harmonica performances on “Howard’s Tune” and “Hudson Avenue.” His precision on the harp on both tunes finds an equally impressive set of solos from the best of the band, and the harmonica adds an entirely novel contour to Espinoza’s encyclopedic flamenco rhythms, Betkowski’s refined cello work, Skellenger’s percussion and Hoepker’s bass. The notes of blues, American folk and bluegrass are novel, but feel completely natural, thanks to the ensemble’s easy chemistry.
Vibraphonist Dave Hagedorn finds an equally natural entry into the band’s dynamic on the title track “Gabriella,” a tune that summons jazz undertones with its easy-going feel, while vocalist and Carnatic violinist Priya Hariharan gives the music an Arabic, North African resonance in her turns on “Joy” and “Buleria Estila.” Both of these tunes take their time in introducing a rich selection of elements – Hariharan’s violin and nuanced vocals arrive without rush, adding to the slow build of both compositions.
Violinist David Balakrishnan melds exceptionally well with Espinoza’s guitar and Betkowski’s cello on “Whistlin’ Down the Street” and “Mermaid,” as the strings alternate in spelling out complex melodic shifts and involved rhythmic adventures. On “Barrio Latino,” guests Victor Mestas Pérez and Christian Teele join the quartet to offer a frenetic, immersive feel for the epic, 12-plus minute coda of the album.
Through all of the guest turns, and through all of the various styles and traditions summoned by the four core players, the album delivers a consistent sense of musical adventure. Changes in time signatures, mood and contours come with a grounding sense of ancient traditions and timeless cadences. For all of the band’s ambition in fusing styles, their roots in musical traditions that go back centuries are bona fide. Fans of jazz, classical and modern fusion styles will find plenty of bold choices to admire here, but followers of traditional flamenco will also pick up well-executed tributes to the music that remains at the heart of Miguel Espinoza Fusion’s approach.
Gabriella purposefully pushes boundaries and takes risks. It also remains rooted in music that’s remained consistently soulful, complex and entrancing for centuries. To buy the album, click here.
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