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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1327

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Louis Winsberg: Jaleo
by George Graham

(Sunnyside 3013 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/11/2003)

For the better part of two decades, the Wolrd Music scene has been the source of some of the most interesting and downright refreshing music. In 1986, Paul Simon's Graceland album opened many American ears to the joys of contemporary music from the Third World, though by the early 1980s, there were already a number of African and other world music releases being issued in the US. Since then, the world music scene has burgeoned and gone in a hundred different directions, with influences as diverse as the various cultures from which the music originates. For me, the real creativity happens when disparate influences are mixed in a kind of musical melting pot that combines, for example, rock and African folk. Brazilian with electronic dance, Celtic with salsa, and so on.

One of the more popular World Music groups in the US has been the Gipsy Kings, who despite being from France, draw on Spanish flamenco influence and add a kind of pop theatrical flair. This week, we have another recording which draws on flamenco and brings a it to a new level of eclecticism, combining it with jazz-rock fusion reminiscent of Pat Metheny, Indian, Middle-Eastern, and atmospheric electronic music for a sound that is at once dizzying and exhilarating, running from beautifully melodic to passionate in the flamenco tradition. Interestingly, like the Gipsy Kings, this music is also from France.

The artist is Louis Winsberg, and his CD is called Jaleo. The son of an artist-painter, Jacques Winsberg, Louis Winsberg grew up in the South of France, near Avignon, where he heard the Gipsies who frequented the area, play their music on guitar, drawing on their Eastern influences as well as the more traditional flamenco, which itself is a blend of Spanish and Moorish Arab influences.

Winsberg took up the guitar at age 12 and immediately gravitating toward jazz, and has played mainly jazz for the first years of his career. But he writes that by age 30, we was drawn back to the music from the Gipsy guitarists he heard in his youth.

Flamenco has its origins going back to the time when the Arab Moors of Morocco invaded and controlled Spain, bringing their cultural influences, which persist to some degree in the country to this day. Winsberg, in his CD booklet notes, traces the Gipsies back to India, and so on this CD, he brings in some definite Indian influences, including frequent use of tabla drums, as well as instruments like amplified sitar. He also incorporates some near-East influences and instruments like the oud and bouzouki.

His group embodies that multi-culturalism, with Nanda Kumar, concentrating mainly on the tablas and Indian percussion. Also on percussion is Miguel Sanchez, who frequently provides the rhythmically intricate clapping that is part of flamenco. Jean-Baptiste Marino's main instrument is the flamenco guitar, the smaller-size acoustic guitar that is traditionally used with the style. Vocalist Jose Montealegre most often sings wordlessly in a style reminiscent of the Metheny Group. Another interesting addition is mallet percussionist Norbert Lucarain, who plays vibes and marimba in a flurry of notes that evokes old Frank Zappa. Rounding out the group are synthesist and exotic string player Jean-Christophe Maillard, and dancer and vocalist Isabel Pelaez, who provides the authentic sound of a flamenco performance.

Flamenco fusion has been around for quite a while. In addition to the Gipsy Kings, and their various imitators, there was the group Songhai in the early 1990s who combined flamenco with a jazz bassist with an African kora player. But for me, Winsberg's music is the most creative and wide-ranging flamenco-based amalgam I have heard. For one thing, the combination of instruments and sounds is almost breathtaking, but album's biggest strength is the quality of the compositions. It's not just a lot of fast, minor-key guitar improvising, but pieces with complicated structures that evolve, almost symphony-like from one section to another, with shifting moods, meters, instrumental colors, and downright interesting melodic and harmonic lines. Winsberg has obviously been listening to the Pat Metheny Group's recent work, since one can occasionally draw a parallel to the particular blend of instrumentation, along with the Metheny Group's trademark extended pieces with shifts of dynamics and colors, and almost journey-like quality they give to longer pieces. But Winsberg is even more eclectic in his instrumentation. Just when you think a track has settled into a certain musical mood or set of influences, it will veer off and launch into another fascinating direction. The transitions can almost sneak up on you, and there are very few lapses when the mixtures fail to gel.

The opening piece sets the pace. Sacromonte features Winsberg's distinctive musical amalgam -- there is the prominent flamenco sound, but the Eastern influence is also heard with the tabla drums and the percussive singing. Add the kind of multifaceted electro-acoustic instrumentation familiar to Pat Metheny Group fans, and you have a thoroughly engaging and original sound. <<>>

A piece called El Niño follows that also draws on Winsberg's distinctive mix of the flamenco and Eastern influences, including a middle Eastern instrument called the saz, played by Maillard. Lucarain's vibes and marimba adds another facet, while the arrangement moves from one phase of the composition to another. <<>>

The marimba and vibes play an unexpectedly salient role in the opening section of a multi-part piece called Balkanñ Selvillan. It's an interesting mixture of flamenco dancing with the mallet instruments. <<>>

That leads to an actual flamenco dance in the second section, again with the addition of the Indian tabla drums, which sound right at home. <<>>

The other multi-part suite is called Ragallegria, whose title is likely a combination of "raga," as in from India, and the Spanish allegria. There's a little New Age spaciness thrown in as well. <<>>

Winsberg blazes yet another musical direction on a short piece called Rumba Dos Mil. The synthesizer line can evoke old Weather Report music while the piece spins to a dervish-like climax. <<>>

The most "mellow," if you will, piece on the CD is En Una Palabra, or "in one word." But despite the slower tempo, there is influence-mixing galore. <<>>

The CD ends with a piece with another coined combination word for a title, Bulerembao. It mixes the passion of the Spanish buleria variety of flamenco with some Brazilian rhythmic influences. <<>> It also provides a nice opportunity for a vibes solo by Lucarain. <<>>

While others have tried mixing flamenco music with different styles, and some have been artistically satisfying, Louis Winsberg on his CD Jaleo, has created the most absorbing and downright exhilarating flamenco fusion recording yet. The combination of creative, enthusiastic, and often head-spinning musical boundary-breaching, along with the impressive level of musicianship, makes the CD both fun to listen to and absolutely fascinating from a musical standpoint. One might not expect that flamenco fusion like this should be coming from France, but it's actually not surprising given the large number of Third World musicians who have been gathering in Paris, and creating a really thriving and cross-cultural music scene that has made France the source of some of the most interesting music being made today. This CD was originally released in France in 2001, and is only now being issued in the US on the jazz label Sunnyside.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A minus. The mix of the different acoustic and electronic instruments is outstanding, with the disparate elements being brought together rather seamlessly. But as is so typical these days, the dynamic range between loudest and softest passages is somewhat restricted, reducing the impact of the music when it rises to a climax. The CD is also provided with a satisfying computer-viewable video of the opening track Sacromonte, which is not noted in the booklet.

At a time when the big media commercial music scene is just giving us more of the same-old same-old, or resorting to Baby Boomer nostalgia to try to sell records and other products, it's great to hear music as refreshingly innovative as Louis Winsberg's Jaleo.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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