Miguel Espinoza started playing guitar when he was just four years old, began accompanying flamenco dance troupes in Denver when he was in his early teens, then moved to Madrid after graduating from high school to apprentice with flamenco masters.
But Espinoza didn’t come into his own as a musician until after he walked into a New York jazz club one night when he was in his late twenties. He’d been rehearsing for a flamenco tour, so he had his guitar with him. He sat in with the band, but since he’d grown up on traditional flamenco, all he knew were the harmonic minor scales used in the genre and falsetas, musical passages that flamenco guitarists use to link verses together. As for jazz improvisation, he was clueless.
“I went into a little bit of a depression,” Espinoza says. “I thought, ‘I wasted all my life playing traditional flamenco, and I’m kind of getting bored.’”
So he set out to learn about jazz.
Espinoza moved back to Denver and was told to look up Dale Bruning, the master jazz guitarist who has taught approximately 1,800 students over the past five decades, including the great Bill Frisell. Bruning taught Espinoza how jazz worked and gave him the tools he needed to improvise, plus the music theory he didn’t already have.
Armed with new knowledge, Espinoza began to see parallels between flamenco and jazz. “Flamenco comes from the Jewish, Moroccan and gypsy traditions,” he says. “Jazz kind of comes from the black blues, from those kinds of roots. Those are kinds of music of the people. It’s kind of like an expressive thing. If you’re good at flamenco, you get to a place where you’re making your own falsetas and creating and improvising. The common ground is where there’s this magic of ‘duende.’ Duende is like the spirit of flamenco, and it’s like the duende that’s in jazz, too. It’s kind of like we’re mixing this duende, which is like this deep spirit of flamenco that comes from — like, at three in the morning, people get possessed with the spirit. That happens in the jazz world, too.”
Espinoza borrowed from elements of flamenco, jazz and Indian music in his flamenco fusion band Curandero, which he formed in the mid-’90s with tabla player Ty Burhoe. The name Curandero, which means “healer” in Spanish, was given to Espinoza as a young boy by an aging shaman when he and his mother visited a small Mayan village. The band’s outstanding second album, Aras, includes banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and bassist Kai Eckhardt, who’s worked with John McLaughlin.
Curandero did its thing and ran its course, Espinoza says, but he’s recently started a new group called Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Fusion. About a year ago, he heard that Lynn Baker, saxophonist and professor of jazz and improvised music at the University of Denver, was teaching a course about flamenco mixed with jazz scales.
The two ended up jamming in Baker’s office and eventually brought in cellist Dianne Betkowski, who has toured and recorded with the St. Louis, Utah, Honolulu and Colorado symphony orchestras; bassist Randy Hoepker; and tabla and cajón player Andy Skellenger. The musicians have gone into the studio with guest sitar player Bijay Shrestha, and Espinoza says they’ll be releasing music later this year.
Espinoza, who’s in his late fifties, sees Flamenco Fusion — which mixes flamenco with European and Indian classical, Afro-Caribbean music and jazz — as part of a new chapter in his life. He no longer feels he has to seek approval from gypsies or flamenco players.
“It’s my own identity I’m creating myself,” he says. “I’m just doing this because it’s where I am. I’m not paying attention to what [other flamenco musicians are doing], because flamenco has a tendency — especially nowadays — to be a bit trendy and formulaic. So a lot of the modern flamenco, I’m kind of away from that. I’m just doing my own thing. It feels so free. It feels wonderful. I have my own identity, I have my own voice, and I don’t need to seek approval. I made it pretty big in the traditional flamenco world, and a lot of the elders were disappointed that I stepped away and started doing my own thing and fusion. But there’s so many guitarists out there who are just fine playing note-for-note Sabicas stuff.”
While there are indeed players who might learn every note from a song by flamenco masters Sabicas and Ramón Montoya, Espinoza says that when people first delve into the genre, they have to learn where it’s been before they know where they’re going.
“After you learn [by] copying them and playing note for note, all of a sudden you realize, ‘I think I can make my own falseta.’ A falseta is like a musical passage that flamencos make up, and they link a bunch of them together, and that’s what makes a flamenco, like a bulería [a flamenco rhythm]. You just link a bunch of falsetas within a rhythm of a bulería. Then once you get that, you start making your own falsetas.”
Espinoza, who teaches flamenco guitar, says the art form can’t be taught by watching YouTube videos. Flamenco has traditionally been taught by ear.
“I get people who come to me, and they’ve been studying on YouTube, and they don’t get corrected,” Espinoza says, “and they have no sense of what’s going on, really. It’s supposed be a personal thing, where it’s passed down from mentor to student.”
In addition to practicing and having humility, Espinoza says, being a good musician requires an ability to resonate with listeners emotionally.
“That’s the main thing,” he says. “You can have only three chords, but if you can make an emotional impact, you’re successful. It’s not how much technique you have, how much music theory you know. You have to be able to make an emotional impact.”
Espinoza clearly knows how to make an emotional impact, whatever style he’s playing or fusing. In fact, he considers himself more of a world fusion guitarist these days. He says it’s like he’s got this boiling vat of tradition he can pull from.
“And the problem that I see is, there are a lot of people that don’t know very much about flamenco, but they know enough to sound like it, and then they call themselves flamenco fusion, and people don’t know the difference,” he says.
And in flamenco, he says, there are innovators and imitators.
“A lot of people play note-for-note flamenco pieces that they learn from a recording. They’re just happy playing everybody else’s stuff, a bunch of Sabicas material or whatever. It’s like they’re living their lives in a museum,” he explains. “Then there are people who are creative and invent themselves and create their own voice. That’s a true success if you can be playing and you create your own voice. And it’s a whole collection of experiences that make you unique.”
Espinoza has been honing his own voice since starting on flamenco guitar as a young boy, after his mother, Carlota, one of the first Chicano muralists in the United States, fell in love with flamenco dance after taking classes.
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“She had me when she was sixteen years old,” Espinoza says. “I was an only child. No father. She was kind of a hippie artist. All her friends and all the people we knew were poets, creative people, artists. I would go to civil-rights marches with her back in the mid- and late ’60s; I was there. She decided she wanted to take some flamenco dance to learn the lines so she could draw. And she fell in love with it. The next thing you know, I started getting into flamenco. Vicente Romero was this wonderful flamenco dancer from Santa Fe. He was the original flamenco dancer who brought flamenco to Santa Fe. He became my mentor. I would play for his dance classes when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. I learned the rhythms so well because I was just accompanying dance.”
These days, Espinoza says, he’s glad to be where he is in life.
“I’m in my late fifties. I think I’m at the best — evolved spiritually with my music. I’m just now starting to have all this knowledge and all this access to express myself.”