Best of 2001
Compact Disc: BMG 74321784952
technically an October 2000 release, this import album didn’t become
domestically available until the following summer and thus makes my
landslide vote for best guitar album of 2001.
Vicente Amigo has been called the natural successor of Paco De Lucia. A former child prodigy, he began his studies with influential flamenco guitarist Merengue De Cordoba at the age of five and by fifteen, had come under the mentoring spell of Paco Pena. Although he launched his professional career as a member of a band, Manolo Sanlucar, Amigo has since performed mostly as soloist or by accompanying famous flamenco cantaores like El Pélé, Luis De Cordoba and Jose Merce. A technically flawless master of the Spanish flamenco idiom, Vicente Amigo has also been shaped by the Jazz of John McLaughlin, Al DiMeola and Pat Metheny. His two earlier solo albums, De Mi Corazon Al Aire [Sony Music CD-81036, 1993], and Vivencias Imaginadas [Sony Music CDZ-81782, 1996] chronicle an astounding talent with preternatural chops, burnished tone, compositional elegance and a nearly diabolical grasp of the very complex rhythms of flamenco called compas.
On Ciudad, Amigo is joined by Mino Cinelu on drums and percussion, Alfred Paixao on bass and Antonio Serrano on harmonica. An 18-head string orchestra, flute, trumpet and sax also make appearances while Pedro Aznar, Dieguito “El Cigala”, Khaled and the duo of Montse and Lin Cortés uphold the chorus line. Via these collaborative choices, even a cursory glance at the liner notes hints already at the relative crossover nature of this release. In the hands of a deeply trained master like Amigo, this promises musical results of great lyricism, stunning fretwork and unconventional thematic developments. Above all, one looks forward to a virtual encounter with the fierce intelligence of a very gifted composer who can successfully transcend stylistic boundaries and thereby act as co-creator for the evolving aural language of 21st century “world music”.
And indeed, Ciudad is in many ways a breakout album, paralleled in recent memory only by Gerardo Nuñez’ Calima release on the North Carolina Alula label. The strutting peacock intensity so often intrinsic to traditional Flamenco has been sublimated to something lighter and more universally contemporary while emblazoned with no less virtuosity. There’s the parallel vocalizing of Pedro Aznar on the hip opening number “Tres Notas para decir te quiero”. It employs the traditional handclaps called palmas solely for color while bass and percussion establish a tightly percolating groove for the hook-laden melody. There’s the very relaxed, nearly night-clubby “Bolero de Vicente”. It sports tastefully swirling brushes, a massive string section, a very classy, Toots Thielemans inspired harmonica solo that could have been lifted straight off the Brazil Project, and a guitar that’s become the instrumental equivalent of slow-motion sex à la Diana Krall. There’s “Ojo de la Alhambra”, a Moorish-inflected number with Khaled doing a Maghreb-meets-Andalucia impersonation. And the concluding title track opens against the rhythm tattoo of machine gun palmas, has Mino Cinelu build up the heat with a massive drum assault and the octave-doubled hoarse Gypsy voices of the Cortes couples rise above it all like unhinged apparitions of the sort that Pat Metheny employed on Secret Story. Truly gripping stuff. Rhythmically, the most twisted and hard-driving track is simply called “Tatá”, for the vocal last-beat accents that replace traditional jaleos. Brashly syncopated sax and trumpet inject feverish Cuban riffs, two extra percussionists find still more gaps to explode counter hits, and throughout this melee, Amigo’s fingers elicit quicksilvery arpeggios, iridescent rasgueados and sketchy embellishments seemingly suspended in time.
Despite such incendiary action, there’s plenty of air and space between the musical lines. This lightness provides the counterpoint and balance necessary to prevent flashy congestion or attention overwhelm. On “Córdoba” for example, Amigo remains unaccompanied and segues into a very dreamy, semi-improvisational exploit that enchants with the many tonal hues he culls from his guitar, from bright silver to a rich red gold to a more muted but even deeper copper.
This lyrical quality shines through even the most complex passages of the more up-tempo numbers and is a dead ringer for the kind of maturity that usually eludes younger artists until their later years. In the case of Vicente Amigo who started so young, this maturity is already in full bloom and one is tempted to guess what might happen were a major US label to sign him – front cover of Guitar Player? Once you hear Ciudad, this won’t seem farfetched at all. If you love Andre Segovia, Julian Bream or Al DiMeola and can imagine them shifted into the very heart of contemporary Spain’s Flamenco scene, then this is one album you simply gotta have. What more can I say but point to his new Poeta album that’s promised for domestic release December 11 and, if rumors are to be trusted, has him put to music poetry read on record? If that’s anywhere near as good as Ciudad, you’ll hear about it here next month.