Miguel Espinoza learned to play guitar at age four, in the early ’60s, and spent a good part of his childhood studying the flamenco style. After high school, he moved to Madrid to apprentice with flamenco masters. Now he's turned the genre on its head, incorporating other global sounds and jazz with his band Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion.
Espinoza first encountered jazz in his late twenties, when he walked into a New York City bar with his guitar and joined a band for a set. After returning home to Denver, he became close friends with jazz saxophonist Laura Newman, with whom he would run scales. Newman gave him the 1978 album Roots in the Sky, by the band Oregon, one of the first groups to fuse jazz with sounds from around the world.
“That was it, man,” Espinoza says. “I was just smitten with that album, and my whole direction with flamenco changed.”
After that experience, he knew he couldn’t go back to traditional flamenco.
“It just didn't do it for me — it didn't have the colors," he says. But after recording with artists like Béla Fleck and expanding his sonic palette, he now considers himself "a world-fusion guitarist with strong influences in flamenco.”
In the mid-’90s, inspired by the sounds of Oregon, Espinoza and tabla player Ty Burhoe formed the band Curandero, which means “healer” in Spanish. The group’s 1996 album, Arás, includes Fleck and bassist Kai Eckhardt, who’s worked with jazz-fusion impresario John McLaughlin. On Espinoza's new album with Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion, Veneta, he pays homage to Oregon again.
Flamenco Fusion has been around for roughly two years. Espinoza formed the project with saxophonist Lynn Baker, cellist Dianne Betkowski, bassist Randy Hoepker, and tabla, cajón and djembe player Andy Skellenger. The new album also includes percussionist Mario Moreno, who recently joined the ensemble.
Although the root of the group is flamenco, Skellenger works in Indian rhythms and Moreno adds salsa flair. Betkowski, who has toured and recorded with symphonies from around the world, lends a classical sensibility. Baker, former director of the jazz studies and commercial music program at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music, is a skilled jazz player, and Hoepker, musical director for the Colorado Brass ensemble and director of instrumental music at Vista PEAK Preparatory High School in Aurora, brings tasteful and lyrical bass lines.
“I’m doing my own thing because flamenco’s become very trendy and there are a lot of new things that are cool,” Espinoza explains. “I'm staying away from the trendy thing and just walking my own path now, but respecting the fine line between tradition and innovation.”
Betkowski says she’s never been happier playing cello than she has been with Flamenco Fusion.
“I enjoyed learning the flamenco tradition and also helping to be part of that innovation, because cello is not a traditional flamenco instrument to begin with,” Betkowski points out. “I love to play the rhythmic elements of our music. But I also know that I can balance it out with lyrical passages that probably wouldn't be there without the cello and without the classical background.”
The opening cut on Veneta is a gorgeous rendering of Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne,” which uses bulería, a flamenco rhythm, while also having a Brubeck-like jazz feel. The arrangement of the piece, which dates back a few years, was one of the reasons Espinoza wanted to collaborate with Baker.
They recorded the song, "but it didn't come out like we wanted,” Espinoza remembers. "Then Dianne came into the group, and she did some artfully dissonant harmonies that are not present in the Satie piece, but it really worked well.”
While most of the six songs on Veneta were recorded before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the group recently recorded “Sad.”
“I think it has a bit of COVID sadness,” Espinoza says. “It's really beautiful, but it's also very melancholic. Dianne composed the intro, and it’s very baroque-ish.”
Espinoza says the song ties into the group's goal — “to use our music to remind people of their humanity.”
In the live setting, the group's own humanity is on full display as the musicians wind their way through various genres.
“We have the framework of composition, but we're always taking turns improvising,” Espinoza notes. “Sometimes it just goes into unexpected places. Every time we play a piece, it's never the same, so it's always fresh.
“We can feel each other so well on just another level, which is kind of this thing that happens,” he adds. “It's called 'duende.' The duende comes in, and it's like we're telepathic with each other.”
Hear more from Miguel Espinoza at meflamencofusion.com.