reviewed by Steven Woodruff
There is a three minute video on You Tube of Tomatito playing a Bulerias accompanied by three men keeping the compas with palmas. The music is a kind of contemporary flamenco with unusual syncopations but it still has the “smell” of real flamenco. The Tomatito Sextet program at Irvine Barclay Cheng Hall on Tuesday evening, dressed up with song and dance, at times felt more like an evening of flamenco jazz with whiffs of a roots sound, music couched in the present for a touring band rather than instinctual playing from the core of the flamenco tradition.
Still, it was impossible not to acknowledge Tomatito’s (a.k.a. José Fernández Torres) riveting music making. He plays with an uncanny sense of relaxation that disguises the intensity of his improvisations. The five other players, including two guitarists, a percussionist and two singers, backed him with often overly deferential contributions. The percussionist Moisés Santiago added quiet backing on an ersatz trap set made up of a cymbal, snare drum, cajón, and an african djembe. They played in an uninterrupted two hour program of twelve works covering the standard forms Soleá, Bulerías, Alegrías, and Rumba but also delved into jazz inflected ballads and popular fusion. Two of the pieces, “Two Much” and “Our Spain” carried English titles. “Our Spain” is from the 2013 Soy Flamenco album; “Two Much” is a composition by Tomatito collaborator and pianist Michel Camilo.
The music was bookended by two segments of dancing from Paloma Fantova. Steering away from deeper gestural movement, her choreographies with the sextet leaned hard on blistering footwork and in your face movement. She danced on a resonant eight by ten foot platform in front of the musicians for the opening “Alegrías” and in the closing ensemble piece, “Mix Cantaores”. She delivered the only real visual show of the evening and looked the part of the hip flamenquista in a black tiered skirt, vest, and polka dot muffler. She and especially the singer Simon Román offered ocean going counter weights to Tomatitio’s playing during the well-paced show. Mr. Román has a powerful voice and was excellent in his keening, melismatic solos. He was joined by singer Kiki Cortiña with spectacular pitch perfect unison singing. They were especially brilliant together in the “Bolero” and the “Minera Por Bulerías”.
The program began precariously with Tomatio taking a bow alone and in the dark when the stage lighting failed to come up. You could recognize him only by his trademark silhouette of shoulder length hair. He opened with an elaborate improvised “Rondeña”, one of the older traditional palos with Arabic and Andalusian underpinnings before being joined by the band.
Flamenco as a traditional art is unusual for the virtuosic sophistication and integration of its instrumental, vocal and danced elements. Not surprisingly, the show clicked best when all the elements were together. But flamenco has also been durable and popular translated to the modern era of mixed or fused impulses. The sextet clearly had the updated version of the music in mind and made the most of a presentation that was musically accessible but also charged with Tomatitio’s wide-ranging modern playing.
(The reviewed performance took place on Tuesday March 11, 2014 in Costa Mesa. “The way I play now defines experiences I have been lucky enough to enjoy, both within and outside the sphere of flamenco. In this show I try to define what I do and feel at a given moment in life”: Tomatito from the program notes.)