West Audio Productions ASG2011, 2011, CD & DD album, 1h 5m 1s
Flamenco is a music that lends itself to fusions, and that has been successfully fused in many different contexts, but it is also the site of a pronounced ideology of purism. The kind of cultural essentialism that has afflicted British folk music, or the blues, is probably still the norm in Andalucia: this is not to say that Flamenco’s practitioners are unwelcoming to outsiders, but they are expected to come as respectful supplicants to the tradition, and those that skirt its fringes are clearly aware of this. I’ve heard Gabriela Quintero at a concert, sounding positively anxious to disavow any claim to the name of Flamenco, on the grounds that ‘those guys will go fucking mental’. There are reasons for this purism, beyond the usual ethnic insecurities: for one, Flamenco is gypsy music, the culture of a suppressed minority within Spanish culture, and as such it is an important constituent of identities that need to be actively defended; but more to the point, like jazz, in which similarly purist currents have been dominant, it is a music of fine nuance and enormous subtlety, that places great technical demands on its performers, and anyone who approaches it without real humility and application will never achieve better than a crude pastiche. To achieve a true fusion, particularly for players who approach the tradition from outside, is a big ask, but Asgeir & Mo, while they have the good sense to reference a generic ‘Andalusian dance’ in their album title, rather than Flamenco itself, have the open ears and the prodigious technique required to make something new and exciting from the materials of Flamenco, without either plundering or debasing it.
I’m by no means knowledgeable enough to judge how much relationship the most Spanish sounding of this material bears to the established palos and estilos of the tradition, but there are certainly some tunes that sound very Andalusian (such as ‘En La Playa’), and others that are built from a more jazz flavoured harmonic language (such as ‘På Eventyr’), and others that have echoes of Northern european folk musics (‘Sommarsong’). The most obvious points of departure from the Flamenco tradition are in the orchestration, however: Asgeir Aarøen’s guitar technique is plainly rooted in Southern Spain, but its language takes in the Balkans, gypsy jazz, jazz fusion and other influences; Bjarte Mo’s violin is obviously not an instrument to be heard in traditional Flamenco; Magnus Rød Haugland contributes double bass playing that is supportive, fluent and lyrical, and takes a similar (if less prominent) approach to the music as Dave Holland on his recent album Hands with Pepe Habichuela. All of this is nothing so radical that it would shock the world of Nuevo Flamenco, and again, my expertise is unequal to the task of deciding whether this music is Nuevo Flamenco or simply ‘Flamenco inspired’, but the overall effect is something more like a journey around Europe than a trip to the south of Spain…
The most striking feature of Danza de Andalucia is the seemingly telepathic relationship between the two principal players, not just in terms of their locked-in rhythmic precision, but in the continually interactive relationship between Mo’s timbre, and speed and depth of vibrato, and Aarøen’s controlled variations in dynamics and the distance between his plucking hand and the bridge. These are two musicians in total agreement about the story they are telling, and the feelings they intend to engender. The music does not visit any overly dark places, although it certainly acknowledges sadness, and nor does it express a glittering positivity; instead, it occupies an emotional middle ground, that revels in its own resistance to life’s trials and tragedies, as befits its inspiration in the music that has been called the ‘gypsy blues’. Asgeir & Mo present a music of passion and drama, but never of sentimentality or melodrama, music that moves and engages, and sometimes leaves the listener breathless and amazed at the fluent complexity of the passage-work. Their filigreed nuances of articulation elicit nuances of affect, complexities of feeling that find echoes in the truth of lived experience, and will continue to reward repeat listenings for as long as the listener wishes to return to the album. This is an object lesson in how to put advanced technique to meaningful use, in contrast to the empty virtuosity of much jazz and progressive rock.
Danza de Andalucia is a very straightforward record: it doesn’t ask its audience to adopt any unfamiliar modes of listening, or to adjust to any unconventional modes of expression. It is founded on traditional values of musicianship and aesthetics, and executed with the skill and sophistication that is required to make those notions continue to pay dividends in a time when such mines are nearly worked out. Asgeir & Mo bring a variety of supporting musicians to the party, all of them notably gifted, and offer us an album that is rich, deep, complex and profoundly satisfying.