Nuyorican trumpeter and conguero Jerry Gonzalez has often seemed like a musical nomad. Depending on one's perspective, Gonzalez is either a jazz musician with a penchant for Afro-Caribbean music, or a rumba player with a deep jazz streak. His credits include stints with Kenny Dorham, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie and avant-pop producer Kip Hanrahan as well as Latin music luminaries Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. He led the Fort Apache Band, arguably the most important Latin jazz band from the late '80s to the mid-'90s, but was also a member of the remarkable Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorkino, a roots group, and was one of the founders of Conjunto Libre, a much respected dance-music group.
Still, for all his restlessness, not even Gonzalez himself could have predicted that he would find fame and settle in Madrid early in this century -- as a result of his involvement with Fernando Trueba's film "Calle 54," a valentine to Latin jazz -- or that he'd become the hub of a flurry of flamenco-jazz activity. Recorded in 2001, released in Spain the following year on Trueba's Lola Records label and finally issued in the United States a few weeks ago, "Jerry Gonzalez y los Piratas del Flamenco" is a fascinating snapshot of some of his collaborations with a group of young flamenco musicians.
Fusion suggests compromise. But here Gonzalez, up-and-coming guitarist Nino Josele, the singer Diego (aka El Cigala), percussionist Israel Suarez (El Pirana) and producer Javier Limon create an un-self-conscious mix that does not betray its sources. The set includes a traditional Latin song ("Hubo un Lugar"), nods to jazz (including Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," noted here as "Donnali") and several originals, mostly by Gonzalez and Josele.
The music has both an elusive quality -- especially when Gonzalez, in fine form here, invokes Miles Davis on his muted trumpet -- and a distinct earthiness. It can suggest the Babel sounds of a crossroads -- a place somewhere between the Caribbean, Andalusia and the Bronx -- yet feel firmly grounded in tradition. It has a certain timelessness but also urgency. The highlight is the group's version of the classic bolero "Obsesion," which, as reinterpreted by El Cigala, becomes a streetwise lament. This is the music of gypsies, poets and explorers.