Oakland pianist Alex Conde isn’t the first musician to uncover the kindred roots linking jazz and flamenco. Born of diaspora, longing and communal celebration, the traditions share African lineage and an improvisational imperative. On the American side, jazz and flamenco first came together memorably on Charles Mingus’s uproarious 1957 masterpiece Tijuana Moods, and Miles Davis hugely popular 1960 collaboration with Gil Evans Sketches of Spain (which is more a moody evocation of Spanish folklore than a flamenco-infused project). Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde and rising guitar legend Paco de Lucía offered an unprecedented synthesis with 1968’s Jazz Flamenco, a session more talked about than heard.
Conde, a conservatory-trained Spanish pianist who moved to the Bay Area in 2009 to compose for local flamenco dance companies, contributed one of the finest examples of this still emerging hybrid with 2015’s Descarga for Monk (ZoHo Music), a set of classic Thelonious Monk compositions ingeniously reimagined as emotionally scorching flamenco. He performs Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory with bass master Jeff Chambers and percussion maestro John Santos, who are both featured on the album.
“I didn’t want to do the usual thing, getting a tune and imposing a rhythm on top of it,” says Conde. “I’d play for a tune for a couple of hours and if it didn’t feel natural. I drop it. I decided to keep respect the melodies, but took freedom to change the chords as much as I like.”
Conde credits the great Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez with sparking the album’s concept. Born and raised in Valencia, he first moved to the US in 2006 when he earned a full scholarship from the Berklee College of Music, which is where he studied with Perez. An enticing musical challenge, the project also seemed like an ideal vehicle for introducing himself to two musical worlds with audiences that don’t necessarily overlap.
“I knew the possibilities of this music, and always felt it was a good blend,” Conde says. “Besides my love for Monk, you need something to grab people’s attention. People who really love jazz usually don’t like flamenco. But some like both. Monk’s rhythmic sense and angular melodies with not many notes are perfect for flamenco.”
Sunday’s performance offers a rare chance to catch Conde, who now divides his time between Oakland and New York City, where he’s studying for a masters in composition and orchestration at CUNY. He makes the most of his time back in the Bay Area. On Saturday he joins rising jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House for a program billed as “flamenco meets the blues.”
He performs a free concert with the Diablo Jazz Company on Nov. 18 as part of the the Fridays at DeYoung Museum series, and returns to Berkeley on Sunday, Nov. 20 to play his “Piano Flamenco Concerto” with Awesöme Orchestra at Freight & Salvage (the typically eclectic Awesöme program also includes a guest appearance by Berkeley singer/songwriter Diana Gameros).
Conde brings a lifetime of experience with Spanish music to his writing and arranging. The scion of a celebrated musical family, he’s the son of celebrated vocalist Alejandro Conde, a master of the flamenco-related Andalusian song style known as copla. Studying piano as a child, his father encouraged him to improvise while his mother encouraged him to study the European classical tradition.
He spent 12 years at the conservatory in Valencia, but maintained a passion for improvisation, “which brought me to jazz,” he says. “I ended up in Barcelona to study jazz, and it was while I was there I got the scholarship to go to Berklee. That was my road. There’s a very good tradition of jazz in Spain, especially horn players. I got involved in this community and that’s shaped my path ever since.”
Recommended gig: Natalie Cressman and Mike Bono
The New York duo of guitarist Mike Bono and vocalist Natalie Cressman celebrate the release of their gorgeous new album Etchings in Amber at Jupiter on Saturday. A San Francisco native who followed in her parents’ footsteps (her mother is Sandy Cressman, a noted Brazilian jazz vocalist, and her father is trombonist/engineer Jeff Cressman), Natalie put down her trombone for this project to focus on delivering the lustrous, jazz-infused indie-rock songs she developed with Bono (they also perform Friday at the Red Poppy Art House). She’ll have her horn on hand when she returns to Berkeley on December 26 for a Freight & Salvage performance with Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparker, a Berkeley High alumni-laden ensemble featuring guitarist Will Bernard, drummer Charlie Ferguson, and special guest Erika Oba on keyboards.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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