I’ve never really been one for the updating of classical musical traditions but, if you were to immerse yourself in those recording and performing artists who have come to dominate my cultural life, that is exactly the path most all of them have followed. This is a good thing!
My comfort zone resists change. Luckily for me, however, those composers and musicians whose art most sticks to my ribs could care less. They were and are in the business of confronting comfort and, even if that means I don’t "get it" right off, they don’t wait for my sensibility to catch up as they go about reinvigorating existing forms. That’s my problem. They have other fish to fry.
When Louis Armstrong enriched "King" Oliver, no doubt some were left behind. The same when Robert Johnson retooled Charlie Patton, Charlie Parker embellished Coleman Hawkins, Bill Monroe reconfigured "Uncle Dave" Macon, Frank Sinatra rephrased Bing Crosby, Lefty Frizzell honky-tonked Jimmie Rodgers, and Jimi Hendrix elaborated on every electric guitarist that had gone before. There were those who never got back on the bus.
Somewhere along the line, I became a wannabe purist. It may have begun when Pat Boone covered Little Richard, but that’s too obvious of an example and doesn’t really get to the point. It wasn’t like Pat had taken a long look at the tradition of what would later be called "rhythm and blues" and, in an attempt to revitalized the form, had removed the bite that had given "Tutti-Frutti" vitality in the first place.
No, what he and the white suits of the day were up to was nothing more than a financial and cultural exploitation of yet another African-American art form. For some reason, I cut Elvis Presley more slack in this area. He at least cared about the music and didn’t "whitewash" it to the extent of many of his peers.
A better example of evolution within a musical idiom that just didn’t work for me would be the flamenco-jazz artist I caught in concert a few years back who "played" a laptop computer on stage as part of his performance. That he exuded virtuosity at every level was clear from the onset.
What was also unmistakable was the fact that the "edge" of the music, the rawness that caused flamenco aficionados to experience a quickness in their pulse, had been surgically removed. With the subsequent absence of physicality, the instrumental vocabulary of what has always been a most intensely rhythmic and improvisatory style had been reduced to excuse the expression "smooth jazz." It was like a vaccination that didn’t take.
Now, of course, that "smooth jazz" reference demonstrates a prejudice on my part, a one-sidedness, a partiality. Over the years I have come to use the term in an uncomplimentary sense. I’m sorry, but for the most part, the genre just doesn’t, as Merle Haggard would say, "turn my crank."
Admittedly, though, when confronted with the fact that some of my favorite musicians Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Pat Matheny, Stanley Turrentine, Nicholas Payton, John McLaughlin, and others associated with mainstream jazz receive airplay on "smooth jazz" stations, I sense something is slightly amiss in my characterization of the genre. Only slightly, however.
And this brings us to the Gipsy Kings, that rare group with the sensibility and vision to take the somewhat rigid and sacredly held musical tradition of flamenco and, without removing any of the essential emotional elements that first gave it life, breathe a new spirit into it with both exuberant vocal and instrumental virtuosity.
No laptops here! Just the songs of their fathers performed with perfect intensity by two bands of brothers from France who have moved their music into realms both commercial and popular without sacrificing their roots.
Their brilliantly singular take on the form began following the death of famed flamenco vocalist Jose Reyes when his sons met the Baliardos brothers and shared guitars wine and song. Their resultant musical blend became a form of communion and soon they were "busking" in the streets of Cannes while infusing their flamenco with western pop and Latin rhythms.
The quite infectious "rumba Gitano" began to grow in popularity and soon swept the globe from France to Brazil to Texas to China, tipping their hat to fellow gypsy Django Reinhardt and other influences along the way.
Worldwide popularity aside, the Gipsy Kings remain with their families in the south of France in the same area that Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin found so stimulating the landscape that has always been their home since their parents fled the Spanish Civil War.
And now, in a bonding of the Pyrenees and the Wasatch, the Gipsy Kings will finally perform in the Utah Mountains. Next Tuesday, Aug. 26, flaunting the same gypsy sensibility that first seduced the world with flamenco music and dance, they will take to the stage at Deer Valley’s Snowpark Outdoor Amphitheater.
Even if their music does find itself occasionally being transmitted over "smooth jazz" airwaves, the evening should be a night to remember, a celebration of ancient traditions and the evolution thereof. Bring your rhumba and check your purist instincts at the door. Get on the bus.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.
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