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Chano Dominguez: Ole!

Chano Dominguez
Chano Dominguez

There is a word in Spanish that describes a concept in flamenco that does not have a literal English translation: duende. It can mean many things but principally it has to do with feeling. Intense feeling. The kind of feeling that makes a dancer dig his or her heels a little deeper into a step. A feeling that comes after a majestic sweep of notes on a guitar or one that elicits a spontaneous ole! from a singer.

There is plenty of duende in the Library of Congress’ Coolidge Auditorium on a chilly Washington, D.C. afternoon.

Pianist Chano Dominguez and his quintet are running through a quick soundcheck before their performance as part of the Library’s jazz series later in the evening. Marc Miralta’s drums are set up at the back of the stage, bassist Alfonso Gamaza is tucked between the drums and the eight-foot Steinway is stage left. A large, black platform dominates the center of the stage. That is for Tomasito, the dancer. Vocalist Blas “El Kejio” Cordoba rounds out the quintet seated in a chair stage right of the platform.

They are finishing up one of the tunes from Dominguez’s latest Sunnyside CD, Iman. The jaded, seen-it-all stagehands actually watch intently as the whole group executes a rasgueo (a staccato unison flurry common in flamenco) to end the song. Those present to help out with the concert also either applaud or shake their heads in amazement.

Dominguez’s mixture of flamenco and jazz has been generating that kind of response lately. He has been described as having Cadiz in the soul and Thelonious Monk in the fingers. Yet he is hovering slightly below the jazz radar, which in turn is creating an underground buzz among jazz and flamenco fans.

Jazz and flamenco have had a relationship that has never really been consummated. Miles Davis famously looked to Iberia for inspiration in 1958 with his landmark Sketches of Spain, but his work was more American than Gypsy.

Dominguez recognizes Sketches of Spain for the masterwork that it is, but he says it only gets close to capturing the true spirit of flamenco.

“To make a valid mixture [of the two] you have to understand very well the roots of both of the styles,” Dominguez reflects. “In this, Miles came close but only superficially. But I am sure that if Miles came to Andalusia, my country, he would have made a very good mix of the two.”

Over the years various Spanish musicians looked back this way across the Atlantic to embrace bebop but mostly neglected flamenco. Al Di Meola and Chick Corea have separately tinkered with combining the two forms. Most recently a handful of U.S. musicians have developed something called nouveau flamenco, but most of that music has an Afro-Cuban rhythm structure. It is also popular on smooth-jazz formats where the backbeats (the two and the four) reign.

Chano Dominguez is creating what may be the first organic combination of jazz and flamenco. A distinct fusion retains the elements of both forms and enhances both as a result. Music producer Nat Chediak says Dominguez’s music “is an artful integration of the rhythms of flamenco, bulerias, fandangos, tangos and rumba.”

Chediak has written a widely respected reference book on Latin jazz and also helped produce Spanish film director Fernando Trueba’s homage to Latin jazz, Calle 54, which featured Chano Dominguez and introduced him to many in the U.S. “What happens with Chano is everything comes together with him,” Chediak says later, by phone, from his home in Miami. “That fusion-now it just flows; it is seamless, it is one. And you cannot separate one from the other.”

During a break at the Library of Congress, Dominguez steps outside to smoke a cigarette in the chilly night air. He expands his definition of duende.

“Duende also exists in jazz,” Dominguez says. “Like when you hear a saxophonist play with a lot of swing, lots of feeling-that is also duende. We have adapted an ancient concept so that it now also reflects our reality, our music.”

Dominguez should know a thing or two about duende. He was born in southern Spain where flamenco was also born. He recalls hearing flamenco all around him as a boy growing up in the port city of Cadiz-in the streets, the cafes and even in his home.

“In my home we heard flamenco thanks to my father because he was a huge fan of traditional flamenco,” Dominguez says. “In fact, my first instrument was flamenco guitar [at age 8].”

From the beginning, flamenco was made by nomadic people who arrived in the region in the 15th century. They called themselves Roma but others called them Gypsies. Initially persecuted by Spanish royalty, their culture survived and flamenco eventually became the dominant musical genre of Southern Spain. Performed on guitar and with vocals, the music Chano Dominguez heard as a youngster had moved from the Gypsy community to become part of the popular culture.

“In the streets you could find flamenco musicians playing and singing,” Dominguez says. “Flamenco is a music of the moment and can happen anywhere. The first music I played was flamenco; the first rhythms I played that affected me emotionally were flamenco.”

Dominguez’s story of how he discovered jazz as a young musician is not very different from his counterparts in this country-except for the fact that he did it within the cultural confines of a dictatorship.

From 1939 until 1975 General Francisco Franco ruled Spain. Dictators have a natural aversion to things that allow their citizens to think and act of their own mind. As with many Eastern bloc rulers during the Cold War, Franco considered jazz a threat to the established order. Jazz improvisation is a world where musicians are constrained only by their imaginations.

In that respect, jazz is freedom.

“Without a doubt, during the Franco years the music and in fact all of Spanish culture was backwards in my country,” Dominguez recalls. “The way we lived back then was that we’d get ahead a bit in terms of culture then we’d take an even bigger step backwards because of the dictatorship.”

When Franco died, Spanish culture exploded.

“When the dictatorship ended and democracy came, there was an incredible thing that happened” Dominguez says. “The artists and the rest of society began to come together. Music festivals sprung up-rock and jazz-big festivals and we got to know musicians who had been developing their music secretly. It was a moment that gave us Spaniards the opportunity to write what we wanted to write, paint what we wanted to paint and to go out in the street and play what we wanted to play.”

By that time, Dominguez, who was born in 1960, was well into his teenage years. He was now under the spell of music from outside of Spain. He was swept up in the music of progressive rock bands of the mid-1970s. Genesis, King Crimson and Yes made impressions on the young Chano, who also never stopped listening to flamenco. As his choice of instrument changed from guitar to piano, so did his musical sensibilities. “I then became familiar with groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Soft Machine, Mahavishnu Orchestra. That made me feel close to jazz because that music permitted improvisation.”

Dominguez points to these years as crucial to his development as a musician.

“My head then became filled with the thoughts of learning about the languages of jazz and the improvisation of jazz,” he says. “I immersed myself in jazz with the intent of learning about the roots of this music. And I learned about musicians like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan and all the way back to Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin.”

What he has done since then is carve out a unique spot in the musical world. He says he did not wake up one day and decide to fuse flamenco and jazz. And it wasn’t devised in a record company boardroom. The fusion is in the musician. It is the individual who has two cultures. “This all was born of a necessity of a musician to express himself,” Dominguez says, “and do it with the two languages, the language of jazz and the language of flamenco. And they can be combined.

“One of the best things that has happened to me is being able to play the blues in the buleria feel. Because I consider myself a jazz musician and a flamenco musician, then for me it is natural to play a blues in a buleria or solea feel.”

And to do it on piano adds another dimension to his music. For fans new to this mixture, his cover of Thelonious Monk is the best place to start. “Bemsha Swing” (from the CD Hecho a Mano) pokes and weaves amidst traditional palmas (staccato clapping) and a dancer who seamlessly emphasizes Monk’s angular melody with his feet.

Who knew Monk was born in Southern Spain?

“For me he is the most flamencolike pianist,” Dominguez says. “In strictly musical terms, Monk’s phrases can be included in flamenco rhythms. They are completely integrated.”

Further defining his facility with the two genres, Dominguez explains how another jazz giant has inspired him.

“The same thing occurs to me with the music of John Coltrane. For me, Coltrane is like a flamenco singer. That is, he most resembles a flamenco singer because of the way he projects his sound and phrases his ideas. Like Monk, in my view, you can take a musical phrase from Coltrane and drop it into a flamenco setting and it works perfectly.”

Two pivotal performances in 2003 may do much to change Chano Dominguez’s underground status and make more music fans aware of his musical bilingualism.

A few days before the Washington, D.C. performance, he and his group wowed a San Francisco crowd in their first ever performance in the Bay Area.

SFJazz Executive Director Randall Kline first heard of Dominguez after seeing him in Calle 54. His performance in the film put him on Kline’s radar and on the SFJazz performance schedule. “Chano is doing great things,” Kline says. “There is an underground of people who know about him. I’m always surprised about that: They’re real fanatics about new and exciting things.”

But it was Dominguez’s performance in February 2003 in New York that may have done the most to raise his profile.

Wynton Marsalis followed up on a chance meeting with Dominguez when he sat in with Dominguez’s band during one of the trumpeter’s many trips to Barcelona. He not only invited the pianist to perform with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he also commissioned him to write two pieces for his quintet and the orchestra.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Executive Director Todd Barkan says of Dominguez’s low profile in the U.S.: “He has not been exposed [to U.S. audiences] as much as Chucho Valdes or Gonzalo Rubalcaba; he has not recorded for major American record label, he hasn’t been written about in the major media here. He is obscure. But we feel strongly that he represents the integration of jazz and flamenco at a high level-perhaps the highest level.”

Back at the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, D.C., the rest of Dominguez’s quintet are now all outside. Hopping from foot to foot to fight off the chilly air, they joke and discuss adjustments to be made to the sound so all can hear not only the instruments but also the zapateados (foot work) of the dancer and the palmas from the singer.

This date wraps up a three-date tour of the U.S.; the next day they head back to Barcelona and a busy schedule of club gigs.

Dominguez wraps a scarf around his neck, sticks his hands into his coat pocket to keep them warm and looks off into the cool air as he contemplates the reaction to his music during this visit.

“I think the people here understand the jazz and the rhythms from my culture, the rhythms from flamenco, like bulerias, alegrias, tangos, fandangos. All of these rhythms are very warm, very direct, very emotional. It is just a different way to focus on the music that is jazz.”

He is excited about the new doors opening for him with each visit as more and more people welcome his musical vision.

“Even though my music is different, we speak a common language-the language of jazz. But, as I always say, I play jazz in Spanish.”

Originally Published