2 worlds meet in the warmth of a single piano

Times Staff Writer

A female fan took advantage of a brief silence between songs to shout out some encouragement for Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez and his flamenco jazz group during their performance Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"Long live the Gypsies!" the woman exclaimed in Spanish after the applause had died down.

Her cheer came after a particularly rousing number, "Vamonos pa' Cai," that invites listeners to come to Cadiz, Spain, the Andalusian city that is a stronghold of Gypsy traditions. It's also the birthplace of Dominguez, who happens to be payo, as non-Gypsies are known in Spain.

"And the payos too," responded the pianist, without turning away from the keyboard, his back to the crowd. "Long live them both."

His words in Spanish -- "Que vivan los dos" -- were spoken almost under his breath, but they resonated with a pointed conviction in the quiet concert hall.

Most of the audience, which appeared predominantly non-Latino, probably missed the meaning of the brief exchange. Yet nobody would misunderstand why this artist in particular would want to counter any expression of cultural division, no matter how innocuous. His music is a testament to the creativity that comes when two worlds meet freely and meld into a new and harmonious whole.

Dominguez, 43, has emerged as a leading exponent of a fusion that is still in its infancy, the blending of jazz harmonies and improvisations with the passion and rhythms of flamenco. Under his disciplined command, it's a mix that sounds natural and organic, arising from two seemingly disparate musical traditions that share spontaneity, deep emotion and historic roots in the experience of oppressed people.

When he released his self- titled debut album 10 years ago, Dominguez was unsure how his mongrel music would be received in the fields he was trying to bridge. Both are also known for polarizing polemics pitting traditional against modern, authentic against commercial.

"I thought I would be crucified by followers of both jazz and flamenco," he says, speaking in Spanish during an interview at his hotel before the show. "And to my surprise it was quite the contrary. People on all fronts called to praise me and encourage me to continue this work that struck them as very fresh, as something new."

This short, slightly pudgy musician is considered a pioneer for incorporating the piano as the dominant instrument in a genre where guitar is king. On stage with his band, he regularly wipes his brow from the physical effort of turning the grand piano into an explosive, percussive driving force, replacing the brilliant flash of the flamenco guitar. At one point, he even seems to want to hold the piano like a guitar, reaching into the body of the instrument with his left hand to touch the strings while playing the keys with his right.

In the interview, over a late lunch of cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, the road-weary artist becomes animated when talking of his love for the instrument he taught himself to play at his parish church.

"Forgive me, but an acoustic instrument is the most affectionate thing in the world," says Dominguez, a flicker of joy in his tired eyes magnified behind his strong prescription glasses. "You know, it's a living thing, almost. You touch an acoustic piano and you feel the sound in your fingers, caressing the keys and applying the different pressure you want to give each note. To me, there's no pleasure like playing the piano."

Dominguez started out playing guitar as a child. But eventually he decided the piano "offered the widest spectrum to express myself." His 90-minute concert in Orange County, his only Southern California stop on this tour, seemed to demonstrate the point, with moods ranging from fragile to fiery and feelings pulsating from tender to intense.

Dominguez played with exquisite delicacy during a soulful solo number. He hunched over the keys, lingering over the song's lovely melody with a church-like reverence. When he finished, he offered a brief explanation in halting English: "This is a song written for my father."

Dominguez recalls that his late father, a devoted family man and flamenco aficionado, bought him his first guitar and instilled a love and understanding of flamenco.

Though immersed in flamenco at home, the young artist had few ways to learn jazz. Spain was emerging from the culturally restrictive Franco dictatorship as Dominguez was entering adolescence. Jazz records were hard to come by and concerts by jazz artists even scarcer.

The situation began to change, says the pianist, with the founding of the Taller de Musicos de Barcelona, one of Spain's leading music schools. Dominguez, who says he's almost entirely self-taught, got his first formal instruction in jazz during a weeklong workshop sponsored by the school and taught by a visiting U.S. musician, Bill Dobbins, now a professor of jazz studies at the Eastman School of Music, part of the University of Rochester in New York.

Dominguez has released more than half a dozen albums during the last decade, but he's best known in the U.S. for his appearance in the acclaimed Latin jazz documentary, "Calle 54." His success from the film, which spawned a soundtrack and live tour, led Dominguez to refine and strengthen his fusion concepts. The result is last year's stellar "Oye Como Viene," which he considers his best album to date and which accounted for seven of the 10 songs in Thursday's set. (Still unreleased in the U.S., it's on the Madrid-based Lola label.)

His touring group includes only two of the six musicians he gathered for that session, however. They are both Gypsies, the long-haired and brooding vocalist Blas Cordoba, with a style as rough and sweet as raw sugar cane, and the quirky Tomasito Moreno, a rail-thin dancer whose bursts of flamenco footwork were spiked with unexpected break-dance moves.

Billed as a sextet, the group was actually missing a percussionist who had passport problems. Rounding out the group were Alfonso Gamaza on electric bass and Marc Miralta on drums.

During the pre-show sound check, Dominguez showed he could be a strict taskmaster. Bristling, he called for his road manager to rearrange the musicians on stage. ("Why isn't Victor here when you need him? We're very poorly positioned.") And he chided the bass player for overextending the duration of notes. ("These parts are written. The notes must last what they're meant to last.")

Dominguez fussed over the amplified sound of the Barclay's Steinway until he got the warm tones he wanted. When he's playing, his hands are so fast and nimble you hardly see them. But up close and still, they seem surprisingly small, his fingers almost stubby.

Size doesn't matter, explains the artist. He mentions the late Michel Petrucciani, a French jazz pianist who played with extraordinary vigor despite being born with a disease that stunted his growth and weakened his bones.

"He was a little dwarf this high," says Dominguez, holding his hand only 3 feet from the floor. "But he was one of the great virtuosos of the world with a hand that was half the size of mine. He was the world's smallest pianist with the world's biggest heart."

Dominguez taps his hand over his own heart. "I think it's all in here," he says.

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