Born a world apart, flamenco music and jazz seemed destined to meet. Each was the product of an uneasy cultural and racial mix and harsh social conditions; each thrived on the tension between the need for tradition and constant change; each told the story of a disenfranchised people and told it with deep emotion but also imagination, technical brilliance and flair.

Over the years, the blues have been often compared to cante jondo, the deep song of flamenco. "Flamenco is the Spanish counterpart to our blues," said Miles Davis in 1960. Yet the story of the relationship between jazz and flamenco is one of hopeful encounters and awkward embraces -- followed by long, uninterested silences.

Several recent releases, both in Spain and the United States, suggest a renewed interest among musicians in what might be called flamenco jazz. So does a series of events this week in New York called "Flamenco Nights" at Jazz at Lincoln Center, featuring Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez, his ensemble and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. And while until now, jazz musicians have been far more curious about flamenco than vice versa, this time the flamenco musicians are taking the initiative.

"The first jazz recording was done 17 years after the first recording of flamenco, but while flamenco spent so much time holding on to the traditional forms with an almost absolute dearth of new harmonies, jazz continued opening up more and more," says critic Jose Manuel Gamboa, author of "Guia Libre del Flamenco" ("Free Guide to Flamenco"). "So the first impulses for encounters have actually come from outside, because flamenco musicians were completely closed up in their own world. A lot of what happened out there didn't mean much for them. Now that has changed."

That is not to say that there haven't been explorers in flamenco. In the 1920s and '30s, for example, Cuban saxophonist Fernando Vilches collaborated with flamenco guitarist Ramon Montoya, and a decade later the fabled guitarist Sabicas (Agustin Castellon Campos) recorded with a saxophonist known as El Negro Aquilino. These were not jazz excursions, however, but rather attempts at instrumental translations of the vocal stylings of the cantaores (singers).

The push for a flamenco jazz fusion awaited albums such as trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans's "Sketches of Spain" (1960) and saxophonist John Coltrane's "Ole{acute} Coltrane" (1962). A few years later, Spanish saxophonist Pedro Iturralde, nudged by the producers of the Berlin Jazz Festival, brought together his quintet and flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia. The collaboration resulted in three albums: "Flamenco Jazz" (1967) and "Jazz Flamenco Vol. I and II" (1967, 1968).

It took another decade for de Lucia to explore a truer fusion from a flamenco perspective -- in both his own work and collaborations with jazz musicians such as pianist Chick Corea and guitarist John McLaughlin. And it took yet another decade for these efforts to produce collaborations such as those between pianist Michel Camilo and the flamenco group Ketama, and the Grammy-nominated project "Jazzpana," featuring American and Spanish jazz and flamenco musicians, conducted by arrangers Vince Mendoza and Arif Mardin.

More important, says Gamboa, the '90s marked the emergence of musicians such as pianist Dominguez, guitarist Gerardo Nunez, saxophonist Jorge Pardo and the advent of "a new language -- not just jazz with flamenco touches or flamenco with some jazz things, but a new language." It is a language still in its infancy, says Dominguez, who recently released his first album in the United States ("Hecho a Mano," originally released in Spain in 1996).

"Flamenco jazz has all kinds of promise, a whole life ahead of it," says Dominguez. "Even the traditionalists, the purists, see its possibilities. There you have someone like Wynton [Marsalis], who defends the roots, the history and the tradition of jazz -- and he was the one who really pushed and made this happen at Lincoln Center. But we're just starting. We're sort of pioneers, but behind us there's a new generation that's already pushing."

It's a fascinating, and volatile, mix. Flamenco gives jazz a shot of raw energy, flash and deeply felt, visceral emotion. Jazz offers flamenco a certain intellectual coolness, a larger vocabulary of harmonies and the terse syntax of the blues. The combinations are endless -- from the muted passion of "Sketches of Spain" to the insolent, streetwise elegance of Dominguez's improvisations.

Unanimously, flamenco musicians credit the interest in jazz among their younger peers to the work of Paco de Lucia. Other factors cited range from greater communication and availability of recordings to the personal contact with American musicians at the jazz festivals that flourished in Spain in the post-Franco era. Nowadays conguero and trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez is a ubiquitous presence on the Madrid scene and has become a one-man jazz school for flamenco musicians.

Still, all that said, among flamenco purists there remains resistance. Tradition is a strong concept in flamenco, even though, as Gamboa once wrote, "all flamenco [culture] is a product of miscegenation. . . . Flamenco's 'purity' is the distillation of its long history of 'impurity.' "

Flamenco emerged in the southern region of Andalusia in the 19th century, first as dance and later as song. Contemporary flamenco has three components: the dancing, the singing (or cante) and the guitar playing. It's a music of high drama -- a mix of raw emotion, rhythmic drive and instrumental virtuosity. It's also a music of paradox: spontaneity and passion, but within well-defined structures. In fact, within flamenco music there are a number of palos, or styles, each of which has not only a definite theme and mood but also a specific form, rhythm and harmony.

"Flamenco has always been a music of fusion," says guitarist Tomatito, who performed Friday in Washington at a flamenco festival at George Washington University. "It's a music so rich, so strong, that it will never lose its identity for mixing with other musics. I'm not afraid."

Tomatito (Jose Fernandez Torres) was the longtime accompanist of the great cantaor Camaron de la Isla, following Paco de Lucia. After the singer's death in 1992, Tomatito embarked on a solo career, working within and without traditional flamenco. Fittingly, in 2000, he won Latin Grammys in the traditional flamenco category (for "Paris 1987," a live recording with Camaron) and jazz, for "Spain," his collaboration with pianist Camilo. His latest album, "Paseo de los Castanos," features on one track guitarist George Benson, an admirer.

"Whatever is not worthy, it will wash away," says Tomatito. "And what is good will remain -- and many years from now, the kids who'll learn flamenco will think of it as pure flamenco."

Examples of this abound. Perhaps the most recent one is the turning of the cajon, a wooden box, into a standard instrument in flamenco. It is actually a traditional Peruvian instrument. It entered flamenco in the 1980s, brought by Paco de Lucia, who discovered it while on tour in Peru. So much for tradition.

"It has always been that way," says Dominguez. "It's part of the history of flamenco -- only that now there is more communication, people have more access to records, instruments, other musicians and that continues to change the music."

Tomatito, who says he first got hooked on jazz listening to de Lucia with McLaughlin, says it's very hard for flamenco guitarists to play like jazz musicians. "Especially for me, since I don't know how to read music. I do it by ear," he says. "So I envy the way they improvise. That's my passion. They have certain patterns and scales they study and practice all the time and they put together the solos like puzzles: today they place this phrase here this way, tomorrow they put it upside down . . . so it's always the same and always different."

Javier Limon, an important young, up-and-coming flamenco composer and producer, notes that the improvisation in flamenco is very different from that in jazz. "In jazz, the basic song structure is fixed and you improvise harmonically and melodically. In flamenco there is no harmonic improvisation, some melodic improvisation -- but you also improvise the very structure of the song."

Nino Josele (Juan Jose Heredia Heredia), arguably the budding star of flamenco guitar, comes from a family of musicians. Although still in his twenties, he knows the tradition and is a sought-after accompanist. But he is also restless. "El Sorbo," a collaboration with Limon, took them as far afield as 12-tone music. But he also released "Teatro Real," an impressive live recording of more traditional flamenco with singer Diego El Cigala, and has just collaborated with Jerry Gonzalez on "Jerry Gonzalez y los Piratas del Flamenco" ("Jerry Gonzalez and the Pirates of Flamenco").

"As an accompanist, you just follow the singer, and if he is very restless, like El Cigala, he never ends his lines the same way twice," he explains. "You have to be wide awake, paying attention and really plugged in to what's happening. If the singer is more basic he would do the basic things with a flourish here or there. I prefer taking risks. When a person takes chances it means he's alive."

It's an attitude jazz pianist Camilo recognizes. "Flamenco musicians have been improvising all along; they just don't think of it," he says. "When they go into the void following the singer, that's the jazz spirit. They know how to jump without a parachute and survive. . . . And they value the coloring, the silences, the dynamics, the shaping of a phrase, and all that is part of flamenco -- and jazz."

Flamenco guitarist Tomatito with jazz pianist Michel Camilo. They won a Latin Grammy in 2000 for their collaboration.