Catalan jazz, combining the blues-based American idiom with flamenco, is having a moment, and Manel Fortià is in the thick of it. The Catalan double bass player spent some three years in New York playing with the likes of Dave Liebman, Eliot Zigmund, Ari Hoenig, Chris Cheek and others. Now he’s back on his home turf digging into traditional Catalan repertoire without tossing aside jazz. The result is an exciting update for both jazz and flamenco, at least the way Fortià’s ensemble Libérica does it, mixing flamenco, folk songs and free jazz.
The ensemble here is billed as “Manel Fortià & Libérica featuring Antonio Lizana.” Lizana is a saxophonist and cantaor or Andalusian style flamenco singer from Cádiz in southern Spain. Also joining in here is the Catalan flamenco singer Pere Martínez, along with pianist Max Villavecchia – both are members of the flamenco jazz project Los Aurora – plus French modern jazz drummer Raphael Pannier, who splits his time between Paris and New York.
I’m not really qualified to speak to the flamenco elements here. In fact I gather it’s unusual to combine Andalusian and Catalán styles in one performance, but it seems to work via the uniting element of jazz. I can speak to the jazz elements here, and they’re uniformly excellent. Within the constraints of the “jazz plus flamenco,” there’s a lot of variety here within seven tracks.
The album opens with a rubato tenor solo from Lizana, who pays an open line that almost sounds more like a Turkish ney or duduk than a sax, before the tune launches into a jazzy flamenco 6/8 rhythm. Lizana sings and plays here, and takes the first of the solos on this tune, and it soars wildly into the stratosphere with an abandon that echoes the emotive vocals. Pannier’s intense drumming pushes everyone to their peaks on this one, a great way to open this album.
The two singers provide hand percussion while Fortiá plucks the bass’ strings in the intro tothe enchanting folk song “El Cant Dels Ocells” or “The song of the birds.” He plays an impressive bass solo on this emotionally packed ballad as well, the two singers displaying their varied styles and vocal ranges – Lizana a piercing tenor and Martínez a gravelly baritone. The saxophonist and Martínez see this one out in spectacular fashion, Lizano wailing a free solo and the singer comping vocally along with him.
Pannier takes a lengthy solo intro, appropriately, to “Els Tres Tambors,” or “the three drums,” which maybe blends jazz and flamenco best. Lizano sings the intro to the song proper with accompaniment only from Fortiá’s pizzicato bass. There’s no stopping the beautiful folk melody here, and it provides a lovely launching place for a spectacularly swinging solo section where Lizana really shines.
Pianist Villavecchia may be the secret sauce that holds this whole dish together, and he gets to shine on “La Presó de Lleida,” lending a Cuban feel to his comping and swapping hot solos with Lizana’s sax. The date ends in fine form with “La Calma de la Mar” (after a superb solo intro on bass). It’s a calming song at first, lots of bass and piano duetting and Pannier more or less soloing continually behind the others, but it rises to a thunderous climax before simmering back down to a languid coda.
File this one under jazz and world music, and it rises to the top of both categories. Manel Fortià & Libérica make jazz and flamenco sound like a match made in heaven.