José Luis de la Paz at the Arsht Center, Miami, Saturday photo by Migdalia Salazar ©
The better artists are alchemists, turning seemingly impossible challenges into sources of light.
For José Luis de la Paz, flamenco guitarist and composer, the trials of the COVID 19 pandemic ranged from personal isolation, loneliness, and despair to, professionally, overnight, having no work and no prospect of work for weeks and months on end. And he turned it into Introspective, an album of deeply personal new songs he presented at the Adrianne Arsht Performing Arts Center in Miami, Saturday.
Introspection is perhaps not something readily associated with flamenco, but de la Paz has long established himself as an unusual artist. A student of flamenco guitar virtuoso Mario Escudero, de la Paz is a phenomenal technician on the guitar, clearly well educated in the tradition — but also curious and courageous, willing to probe and take chances to stretch the conventions of his chosen art form. He can go, and has gone, from a tablao accompanying a cantaor to taking the stage with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and elegantly navigating the traditional palos (flamenco styles) one moment and working on an electronic music project next. And by the way, no, not many flamenco artists have pieces with titles such as “Rondeña existencial” (Existential Rondeña).
Accompanied by an ensemble featuring Ana Ruth Bermúdez, cello; Alberto Puerto and Rodrigo Valdéz, guitars, and Adolfo Herrera, cajón and drum kit, and contributions by singer Gema Corredera and dancer and choreographer Siudy Garrido, de la Paz offered Saturday a program featuring a first half comprised of older material and a second featuring the music from the new album.
His sound seemed fuller than on pre-COVID performances — and with an edge. He set the tone of the evening with the first two solo pieces, eschewing pyrotechnics and athletic displays in favor of storytelling. Flamenco can be disorienting for those expecting conventional song forms, but still, de la Paz built his narratives clearly and patiently.
As the accompaniment around him grew fuller – first the additional guitars, then the cello and the percussion — the music gained in shadings and possibilities, but the focus remained. The story, however, was sometimes told in the choices of rhythms and styles. “La niña de mis ojos” (The Apple of my Eye) a guajira, part of the flamenco of ida y vuelta (roundtrip) drawing from the music of the Americas, elicited a stirring performance by dancer Garrido. The powerful “La fuente vieja” (The Old Fountain) featuring cello and percussion seemed to nod to the foundational Arabic elements in flamenco.
The program of the second half included titles such as “Alone,” “Desire to Escape,” and “A Crazy Day of Confinement.” It is rare to have a performer share their vulnerability and struggles so openly and directly. The mood darkened, the pace slowed, and the intensity and unexpected bursts of light (such as the tender “Elissa’s Lullaby” or the open feel of “The Deepness of the Ocean”) suggested a soundtrack for a story, and its attendant feelings, awfully familiar to many of us limping to the end of this COVID nightmare.
To make poetry of such misery, that’s art.