Cultural Application vs. Textural References: Dave Holland, Pepe Habichuela, Hands, and Flamenco Jazz


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Every piece of the jazz world is completely splintered into so many individual niches today, it's hard to keep track of genre, style, and cultural connections. Modern jazz artists generally specialize in one area of this vast stylistic plane and then they dabble in many other corners. A post modern acoustic jazz musician might spend most of their time tearing through quick hard bop tunes with the occasional foray into instrumental rock. A fusion musician might take time away from their big rock beats to dip into free improvisation or Latin tinged dance music. The world has shrunk over the past twenty years, and so have the boundaries between jazz styles, giving jazz musicians complete liberty to dip their toes into different musical directions.

Pros and cons exist around this newly liberated approach to musical explorations. On the one hand, creative musicians should experiment and they need to take trips into unfamiliar artistic territory. It helps them grow artistically, reflect upon past musical directions, and become an artist with a full perspective. In an ideal situation, a musician might create something brilliant, bringing out a completely new side to their musicianship. This only happens when musicians explore these musical directions intelligently though. The casual insertion of cultural elements into jazz result in shallow creations that don't really do justice to either musical tradition. Musicians that take this path run the risk of undermining long legacies of established musical practice and century old cultural traditions.

The traditional jazz world holds a long running practice of integrating cultural traditions from South America and the Caribbean, from both an intelligent and casual perspective. Jazz musicians with roots in South America or the Caribbean such as Mario Bauza, Tito Puente, Jerry Gonzalez, and Hilton Ruiz have long produced smart cultural hybrids. Today, the tradition has spread to musicians that don't carry a connection through heritage, but have taken the time to study the cultural traditions. At the same time, there are too many examples of a lack of respect towards Latin traditions, ranging from albums that simply throw a conguero behind a straight-ahead jazz album to vocalists forcing jazz and pop phrasing over breezy bossa nova songs. There's a historical precedent for this thoughtless approach to Latin Jazz and in the era of bold mash-ups, things have only gotten worse.

With this convoluted history sitting in the background, jazz artists that want to explore Latin music really need to approach cultural elements thoughtfully. The use of distinct sounds such as percussion or instruments unique to South American or Caribbean countries reference a culture outside of jazz. The same could be said for instrumental techniques or even melodic ideas found only in popular or traditional music of Latin American countries. Simply inserting any of these elements into a song creates a Latin-tinged texture, which is the first step towards creating a Latin Jazz sound. Unfortunately, too many artists stop at this point, providing a thin veil of cultural texture that once again cheapens the fusion. Artists really need to consider the performance conventions that surround these sounds and the appropriate application of them within a song. This takes time consuming study, but will lead to a more evenly balanced Latin Jazz that respects all the music's roots.

———- Bassist Dave Holland has led a long career of creative innovation as both a sideman and leader, and his position as an established leader in the jazz world makes his venture into Latin Jazz, Hands, something to consider. Holland collaborates with Spanish guitarist Pepe Habichuela on the recording, blending jazz harmony and improvisation with flamenco performance techniques. Holland's affinity towards flamenco styles sit outside the traditional realm of Caribbean or South American based Latin Jazz, making his project all the more interesting. It also means that Holland doesn't have an established tradition of flamenco jazz fusions to use as role models, making his fusion a risky experiment. He has spent years earning the respect of countless musicians and listeners who are likely to follow his example in Latin Jazz fusion—leading to either a long string of culturally relevant projects or shallow musical references.

Fortunately Holland takes his trip into flamenco seriously, working to find an even balance with the jazz world. The bassist surrounds himself with a cast of experts consisting of Habichuela and two additional guitarists, as well as two cajon players. All the musicians improvise with fluidity and style, but Holland stands as the only pure “jazz" musician on the album. He doesn't try to force his years of jazz experience onto the musicians though; he actually listens to the music around him and tries to find a place to fit into the mix. If anything, jazz actually gets downplayed in preference of flamenco aesthetics, providing the album with much more cultural meat. Holland's journey into flamenco music moves far from simple references as the bassist dives headfirst into a new musical world and strives for understanding.

In a smart play of wise musicianship, Holland lets Habichuela and his group run the show for the most part and sits far in the background on Hands. Habichuela's guitar moves to the forefront of the mix, providing authentic melodies, executed with the proper techniques that simply resonate flamenco. Jose Antonio Carmona contributes the majority of the compositions, ensuring a solid connection to flamenco aesthetics and authentic performance contexts. The two cajon players, Juan Carmona and Israel “Piraña" Porrina, control the groove throughout the album, with a distinct rhythmic push from the guitarists. At many points on the album, Holland simply doesn't play, letting the other musicians lead the way through the songs. In so many ways, Holland is a guest in Habichuela's world; he's also a strong enough musician to realize that in order to serve the music well, he needs to be in the role of a learner until he understands the tradition.

The bassist is far from a passive observer though—Holland shines at several points on the album. He didn't reach legendary status by simply playing the changes in the jazz world; Holland is an extremely insightful musician that can highlight the best in any music. He supports the compositions with his characteristic strength and steadiness, finding smart ways to outline the harmony and push the groove. He also provides some beautifully lyrical solos that let his personality shine through the context. Holland has done his listening on this count—his improvisations not only draw upon his jazz experience but also the vocal inflections of flamenco singers. Holland is a quick and respectful learner that keeps his ears focused upon his collaborators, applying everything that he learns in a tasteful fashion.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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