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Finding Flamenco In Spain, A Jazzman Finds Himself


October 18, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

The Puerto Rican-American jazz trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, who was born in the Bronx, will give a kind of homecoming concert tonight at Aaron Davis Hall in Harlem. But he is returning a different man.

Mr. Gonzalez is the embodiment of jazz's rakish past: he travels light and lives heavily. When he left New York for Madrid in 2000, he abandoned a city saturated with new Latin jazz bandleaders, many with more reliable reputations than his. But recently his luck has turned: he has not only reinvented himself as almost the only trumpeter in Madrid's flamenco scene, but he is also helping shape flamenco's future.

"Jerry has never before had the level of acceptance that he's had in Spain," said Nat Chediak, a film and music producer who worked with him on the documentary "Calle 54" and on some recording projects. "Everyone wants to record with him now. People want to adopt him: somebody gives him a cellphone, someone offers to share an apartment with him."

Mr. Gonzalez, 54, grew up playing congas and switched to trumpet in high school, playing professionally in the late 1960's with Ray Barretto, Dizzy Gillespie and Eddie Palmieri. During the 1980's and early 90's, his band, Fort Apache, played the major jazz clubs in New York, and he was credited with auguring a change in Latin jazz. The band could play Afro-Cuban clave rhythm and then cut into straight-ahead jazz swing; his crew became musically bilingual, more so than any other group up to that point.

But by the mid-90's, his prospects were declining. His last recording with Fort Apache was in 1996, and record labels lost interest in him after that. He wasn't rehearsing or writing new music for the band, and club bookings were falling off.

When he was at the Lincoln Theater in Miami in 1994, the film director Fernando Trueba happened to be shooting a movie nearby: "Two Much," starring Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas. An avid Latin-jazz fan, Mr. Trueba showed up at the concert with most of his film crew. And he kept showing up at subsequent concerts.

All Mr. Gonzalez knew of Spanish music at that point was "Sketches of Spain," the Miles Davis-Gil Evans record from 1960, and the collaborations between the great flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla and the guitarist Paco de Lucía. But after hearing some newer jazz-influenced Spanish musicians like the singer Martirio and the pianist Chano Domínguez, he became intrigued by the basic flamenco rhythms; one, the flamenco tango, is related to rumba.

"There's a lot of similarities between flamenco and Afro-Cuban rhythm," Mr. Gonzalez explained last week. "It's just not in the polyrhythmic aspect. In flamenco, their thing is acoustic and simple; you don't want to put too much in there."

In 2000 Mr. Trueba made "Calle 54," a stylish documentary on Latin Jazz, focusing on a dozen musicians from the Spanish-speaking world. Mr. Gonzalez and Fort Apache were among them; the band's eight-minute section and some of the sequences of Mr. Gonzalez in Puerto Rico, where he was taking care of his ailing mother at the time, are among the film's best.

The documentary didn't raise Mr. Gonzalez's stock in New York much, but in Spain, where Mr. Trueba is one of the most celebrated directors, it made him well known. Soon after the film's release, Mr. Gonzalez went on a tour of the country, playing concerts for audiences of up to 2,000.

Mr. Trueba took a number of Spain's best flamenco musicians to the last show of Mr. Gonzalez's tour, in Madrid. One, the singer Diego El Cigala, is a hard-core representative of flamenco roots. He came backstage after the concert, Mr. Gonzalez recalled, and urged him to stay in Spain.

"I was supposed to get on a plane back to New York the next day," Mr. Gonzalez said. "That visit was only supposed to last a week, but it ended up being seven months long." He soon returned to Spain and has since spent far more time there than in New York.

He immediately started cruising the tablaos, the underground flamenco clubs of Madrid, where Gitano (Iberian Gypsy) musicians play. He had to contend with a deep skepticism about the idea of a trumpet's mixing with the instrumental combination that has been typical of flamenco since the 1980's: guitar, cajon (a wooden-box percussion instrument) and voice.

But gradually, through the fame "Calle 54" bestowed on him, Mr. Gonzalez was in a position to influence the aesthetically conservative flamenco scene.

"The knowledgeable flamenco people say that Jerry's stay in Spain has changed flamenco forever," Mr. Trueba said, referring to the traditional style, "because he's opened it up to other musics."

The producer Javier Limon recorded with Mr. Gonzalez, El Cigala and some other musicians in his studio; a CD of their sessions, "Jerry Gonzalez y Los Piratas del Flamenco," was released last year on the Lola label in Spain. This started a new working band (including El Cigala), which will be heard tonight, along with the Fort Apache quintet.

In Spain Mr. Gonzalez projects the authentic intensity already established in the national culture by the Gitano musicians.

"Jerry is the last bohemian," Mr. Trueba said. "This guy lives for music. He only has music in his head. When he's playing, he's never joking."

Mr. Gonzalez, laughing raspily, added: "Me and Cigala are brothers from two different parts. We both grew up in rough neighborhoods. He's always talking about how I'm more Gitano than the Gitanos."

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