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Alex Conde Makes Magic at the Intersection of Jazz and Flamenco

February 18, 2020

Red Poppy Art House

Growing out of a modest patch of ground in the Mission District the nonprofit, volunteer-run Red Poppy Art House is the Bay Area’s foremost incubator for extravagant musical hybrids and luscious cross pollinations. Spanish pianist Alex Conde, a former Bay Area resident now living in Brooklyn, is back in town for a spell, and it’s no coincidence that he kicked off a series of concerts around the region at the intimate storefront venue, premiering his latest flamenco jazz program, Descarga for Bud Powell. Like on his breakthrough album Descarga For Monk, one of 2015’s most lavishly praised releases, he joined forces with the brilliant Bay Area rhythm section tandem of percussionist John Santos and bassist Jeff Chambers.

Before diving into the new material, Conde opened Saturday’s second concert with an extended medley of his original pieces, accompanied only by the propulsive flamenco clapping (palmas) of Cindy Sanchez and Radha Svetnicka. Evoking the coiled grace and eruptive power of flamenco baile (dance) at its best, he slowly built from an aching “Soleá” into the slashingly passionate “Palabritas de Amores” and “Barrio del Carmen” (both from his 2013 album Barrio del Carmen), concluding with “Bulerijazz,” a fleet and exquisitely balanced synthesis from his latest album Origins.

With the women sitting out, Chambers joined Conde for a duo version of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” at what the pianist described as a “medium-well” tempo. Stripping the contrafact of “Just You, Just Me” down to bare essentials, they captured the loping feel and jaunty spirit of the tune, with Chambers slipping in a quote from the standard “It Could Happen to You.” Joined by Santos on congas for Bud Powell’s “Wail,” the trio recalibrated the ensemble sound, creating a richly textured Latin American chamber bop that reflected Conde’s flamenco roots while staying true to Powell’s seminal compositions.

Powell was an architect of the modern jazz movement known as bebop, along with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Kenny Clarke. His influence as a pianist, with his lightening right hand runs and stabbing left hand chords, was as pervasive and daunting as Parker’s was on alto saxophonists through the early 1960s, though Powell was also a composer with a deep and disparate body of tunes. The trio tackled one of his early standards, “Tempus Fugit,” at a ferocious tempo, with Santos keeping an eye on the sheet music stretched out across his congas while the sharp pop of his fingers on the bongos meshed with Chambers thick bass lines. Time and notes were flying at an almost breathless pace.

Rejoined by Sanchez and Svetnicka on handclaps for Powell’s “Oblivion,” a tune that barely contains a surging tide of chaos, the ensemble tamped down the tune’s frantic edge. Anchored by the flamenco tango palmas pattern, Conde channeled the unbridled emotion into a terpsichorean realm. As Chambers took the lead and the women dropped out, he turned his head and said “You can keep clapping,” which brought them right back into the mix. It was one of several moments where a musician arranged the music on the fly, sometimes at hurtling tempos.

Conde closed the evening with all five musicians for a sassy, mischievous take on Powell’s “Hallucinations” (a tune introduced by Miles Davis as “Budo” on the first Birth of the Cool session). At the end of the set there was the definite feeling that a new, deeper synthesis of jazz and flamenco was taking shape. Joined by drummer Colin Douglas, Conde’s quartet also performs Feb. 21 at the Every Blue Moon concert series in Inverness, and Feb. 22 at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company before recording his next album, Descarga For Bud Powell.

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.