Stunning Flamenco Fusion at Swallow Hill
A review by Adam Goldstein
Miguel Espinoza summoned very specific imagery to go along with the complex compositions he played for the audience at Swallow Hill Music on December 2nd.
Along with cellist Dianne Betkowski and percussionist Andy Skellenger, Espinoza delivered a performance billed as “flamenco fusion” that lived up to its label. Incorporating a wide array of styles, sounds, time signatures and textures, the group offered a hypnotic tour through a wealth of genres. Drawing from Spanish, North African and even Celtic musical structures, the band offered a performance that was at once soulful and technically seamless.
While the performance was entirely instrumental (apart from Espinoza’s soulful exhortations at key moments), Espinoza offered plenty in the way of storytelling. Hailed as one of the world’s best flamenco guitarists, he also showed a knack for narrative. Before each of the tunes, he’d offer a setting and a story.
Before performing a tune driven by a traditional Spanish flamenco rhythm, Espinoza explained that the music contained a lot of sadness or “triste.” He encouraged the audience to imagine a person alone in a squalid hotel room, sporting a worried expression illuminated by the glow of a dying cigarette. To introduce a tune composed in a bulería style, Espinoza described the music as a dance of the street, summoning the sounds of honking car horns and pedestrian traffic.
As a way of getting into the original composition “Falling Snow,” Espinoza simply described the setting of the tune’s creation, remembering a band session when the musicians gathered in a living room with an unspoiled view of the snow falling outside.
Espinoza’s poetic descriptions and easygoing rapport with the crowd gave the performance an intimate, immediate feel, even as the trio played from Swallow Hill’s largest stage in Daniels Hall. That ambience was even more impressive considering the sheer technical expertise on display from each of the players.
Espinoza was in top form, weaving between tunings, time signatures and Flamenco rhythms to offer a dizzying tour through the genre. The program included compositions from the band’s most recently released album “Living in a Daydream,” as well as music from their forthcoming record “Gabriella,” due out in February. Through it all, Espinoza showed a deep knowledge of Flamenco tradition and an unyielding willingness to experiment.
His description of his musical roots as a “boiling vat of flamenco” felt apt, as he effortlessly wove between different time signatures, extended solos and an undeniable mastery of his instrument. The term “fusion” may be too easily bandied about, but in this case, the descriptor did complete justice to the band’s willingness to fuse old and new, traditional and avant-garde.
Two other members of the band helped make that marriage successful. Dianne Betkowski, an accomplished cellist whose resume includes stints with orchestras across the country, melded in seamlessly with the flamenco cues. Betkowski tackled impassioned solos and rhythmically challenging backup roles with equal skill and passion, offering a heartfelt musical complement to Espinoza’s flurry of guitar chords and melodies. The cello fit perfectly in the carefully arranged compositions, and as a bonus, Espinoza proudly pointed out that Betkowski’s skill “really classes us up.”
Meanwhile, Andy Skellenger shifted smoothly between a wealth of drums and percussion instruments, honoring African contributions to the flamenco genre with rhythms on the djembe and cajon. Skellenger also opened the second set with a solo performance on the kora, a West African stringed instrument that served as both a harp and a drum. Skellenger helped steer the program’s ambitious mixture of time signatures (on the final tune “Kushlamar” from the album “Turtle Dreams,” the music shifted from 7/8 to 9/8 to 12/8), providing a solid foundation and a clear sense of rhythm throughout.
The arrangements felt effortless, an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the fact that bassist Randy Hoepker had to sit out the show due to illness. The technical prowess on stage was a testament to the band’s status as one of the world’s most innovative and adventurous flamenco ensembles. It’s no wonder that several Grammy Award-winning artists will serve as guest musicians on their new album “Gabriella.”
Yet, for all of the band’s know-how and chops, the show also boasted the feel of a casual session of music-making among friends. “We are all gente; it’s a joy to play for all of you,” Espinoza said at one point, as if addressing a gathering of intimate friends and family. Crowd members shouted out encouragement during the performance; every song seemed to encourage the audience to dance, move and participate. This was a performance designed for engagement and involvement, even with the adventurous rhythms and exotic percussion.
Click here to find out more about Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion.