"I made up this little story that kind of describes what I do," says Miguel Espinosa, the extraordinary flamenco guitarist who makes up half of Boulder's Curandero. "I imagine a little boy who is walking on this road. So he sees a marble. He puts it in his pocket. Then he sees a really cool little stick, and he sees a leaf and a pop-bottle cap. And he keeps walking and collects all these things. At the end of his walk, he sits down and pulls all this stuff out of his pocket and he makes something with it. That's me."
Two years ago, while metaphorically taking just such a hike, Espinosa picked up Ty Burhoe, a percussionist who specializes in the tabla. According to Burhoe, the single father of a ten-year-old son, his musical career came upon him unexpectedly. He was toiling in the human-relations field (he holds a psychology degree from the Naropa Institute) when he suddenly realized that he needed to make a major lifestyle change. "It was about four years ago when my hobby of drumming Indian music really came to a choice point, because people were wanting me to play out, and it started digging into my professional time," he remembers. "So I decided to go with the music and see how it goes." He laughs as he adds, "I'm still seeing how it goes."
As judged by Curandero's second album, Aras (available on Boulder's Silver Wave label), things are going very well indeed. But it took a while for the group, whose Spanish moniker translates to "healer" or "folk doctor," to truly blossom. Espinosa and Burhoe hit it off from the beginning: As Burhoe notes, "It was clear that we had really good chemistry. A lot of our fieriness and a lot of the techniques that we enjoy playing matched each other. We've also had similar musical inspirations. The things that excited him also excited me." Moreover, the pair didn't have to pay many dues; just over six months after their initial meeting, Curandero was signed to a four-album deal by Silver Wave, a company whose roster includes Peter Kater and Wind Machine. But the act's first album, Curandero, was somewhat disappointing. The players did a fine job of balancing two disparate genres, but despite their instrumental skills, the platter as a whole fell too neatly into the new-age category.
There's no disgrace in being a new-age act, of course. A great many listeners enjoy this accessible but often unchallenging style, and plenty of performers with thick skins and a disinterest in critical acclaim have found it a fine way to make a living. But Espinosa and Burhoe were obviously capable of producing far more intriguing sounds, and Aras represents an important step in their musical evolution. Along with the expected flamenco and East Indian rhythms, the CD contains jazz, salsa, funk and Celtic influences. As a result, there's not much on Aras that could be considered new-agey.
A pair of impressive guest artists--banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Kai Eckhardt--helped the men behind Curandero take this creative step forward. Espinosa credits Burhoe with making contact with their collaborators. "I'm a dreamer, but Ty--he makes things happen," he confides.
As Burhoe tells it, getting Fleck to work on Aras was not nearly as complicated as he expected. "Miguel and I had been listening to some of Bela's work, and we really liked his compositions," he points out. "So Miguel said that it would be really neat to play with somebody like Bela Fleck. Well, I figured that we shouldn't just have somebody like Bela--we should have him. You know, where there's a will, there's a way. So I was able to get his address in Nashville from someone we both know. I wrote him a really nice letter of introduction and sent him the first CD and a demo of some of the stuff we were planning for the new recording. I told him that we'd love to have him come and play with us, and I gave him the dates we'd be recording. I asked if he'd like to show up if he wasn't busy then. Well, he called back almost immediately and said he loved the music and would love to play with us. It took off from there."
Landing Eckhardt, a choice session man who's worked with jazz pros such as guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer/big-band leader Thilo Berg, proved even easier. Why? Because the bassist happens to be a good friend of Zakir Hussain, a California-based tabla master with whom Burhoe studies. "My teacher gave me Kai's phone number and address, and I pretty much did the same thing with him that I did with Bela--sending the letter and some music. He called and said he'd love to play with us."
Predictably, both Fleck and Eckhardt turn in superb performances on Aras, as do Boulder's Ars Nova Singers (a group of amateur vocalists) and bassist Eric Thorin, who kept time during sessions that Eckhardt couldn't attend. Burhoe and Espinosa describe Thorin as the only bass player in the area who can handle all of the different types of music they play.
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Neither of Curandero's principals are willing to guess in which directions the group's music will go next. Espinosa reveals that he's been exploring jazz of late, but he insists, "I don't want to play jazz. I don't want to play 'Girl From Ipanema' or ''Round Midnight.' I have my own things to say. So I'm pretty much taking the things that move me and using them.
"I don't know what will happen after we finish our contract with Silver Wave," he goes on. "I know that nothing lasts forever. Everything is transitory. It could go on, or this could be it. But either way, what we have created here is very special. Our time together now is a time to be cherished."
Curandero. 9 p.m. Friday, December 6, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, 294-9258.