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For the past 15 years, New York has been virtuoso guitarist Ximo Tébar’s home away from home. The lifelong resident of Valencia, on Spain’s central Mediterranean coast, capped off his latest visit to the States performing with a stellar unit comprising pianist Jim Ridl, bassist John Benitez, drummer Donald Edwards and conguero Fernando García, playing repertoire culled from Tébar’s 2016 release, Soleo, and a forthcoming album titled Con Alma & United, both on Warner Music Spain.
Each album documents a concept that Tébar calls “Son Mediterraneo,” which hybridizes elements drawn from flamenco, pan-American flavors and jazz.
The guitarist and company recently were on point throughout a varied, kinetic late-May set at Smalls, opening with a number on which the leader, playing a Gibson-175, articulated impressionistic Pat Metheny harmonies with fresh single-note lines and resonant tone, backed with a swampy New Orleans-centric beat cushion from Edwards. Next was a florid, crisply articulated, highly reharmonized “Black Orpheus,” on which Tébar—using no effects—sculpted passages that soared in and out of overdrive, some intoned with a guitar-synth quality. Edwards propelled “Take Five” with a James Black-inspired five-feel, before Tébar presented his bespoke arrangement of the first movement of Valencian composer Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto De Aranjuez,” on which he projected an identity distinct from antecedent recordings by the late Jim Hall, and by Miles Davis and Gil Evans on Sketches Of Spain.
“For me, the philosophy of Mediterranean music is happy, for celebration,” Tébar, 55, said the following afternoon over a seafood lunch. There to translate, when necessary, was his daughter, Claudia Tébar, who lives in New York and sings on Soleo. “Inside my music, I want to create this mix of open harmonies and to be luminoso—to have a light sound,” Tébar continued. “In blues, the harmony is more closed; the sound is darker.”
Earlier in his career, Tébar developed his mastery of blues and bebop on gigs with such jazz luminaries as the Catalonian piano master Tete Montoliu and expat Hammond B-3 maestro Lou Bennett. Former Jazz Messenger David Schnitter, a tenor saxophonist, was a neighbor and mentor in Valencia during the ’80s. Such experiences bedrocked Tébar’s inspired playing on the self-released late-’90s and early-’00s albums Goes Blue, with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Idris Muhammad and Lou Donaldson, and The Champs, with Joey de Francesco and Muhammad.
“Ximo is a very fluid, flexible performer, and an inventive improviser,” said Arturo O’Farrill, who is the piano soloist on “Con Alma” from Tébar’s forthcoming album. During Tébar’s 2003-’09 New York residence, O’Farrill frequently invited the guitarist to perform with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra and included him in a short-lived group with Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, Dave Samuels, Dafnis Prieto and Benitez. “He brings a skill set from flamenco, which is a tradition of impeccable virtuosity, to the jazz guitar. It’s typical for flamenco guitarists to be ambidextrous, and Ximo does a lot more with his left hand than your typical jazz guitarist—it’s not just a picking and fingering thing. He can speak all the languages, sound like any style he wants. It’s a tribute to him that he played with those great organists in those settings, which a lot of guitarists don’t do well.”
Tébar began his extensive flamenco training at 7 with a well-known practitioner called El Chufa. During his teens, he encountered a jazz sensibility through recordings by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Spyro Gyra and George Benson. He transcribed Benson’s solos, and quickly progressed to Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and Charlie Christian.
“In flamenco, you play all the notes, not glissandos, which gives you a strong, clean, rhythmic sound,” Tébar said.
“He’s very rooted in Spanish music and also is a very strong jazz artist, and he creates a true mixture of the two,” said Edwards, who plays drums on and helped recruit personnel for post-2003 Tébar recordings like Steps (Omix) and Eclipse (Sunnyside). Recordings from that period feature the guitarist’s original tunes and reimagined repertoire by John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford and Henry Mancini, while Celebrating Erik Satie (Xàbia Jazz) showcases well-wrought arrangements of 10 items from the pianist’s corpus by Tébar, Edwards, Orrin Evans, Boris Kozlov and Ridl.
“Ximo is not a purist,” Edwards said. “We can sound like a pop group one minute, like a Latin group the next minute and a jazz group the next minute—he can do many different grooves. The bass-drum groove in Spanish music is very close to the bass-drum groove in New Orleans music and in Latin music, with the accents in a different place—for me, they’re interchangeable. The thing that’s constant in his music is improvisation; in that way, it lends itself to the jazz idiom. A lot of stuff is very planned-out, but some things are spontaneous.”
The spontaneous flavor that Edwards references is evident through much of Con Alma & United.
“I played bebop—and loved it—for many years,” Tébar said. “On Eclipse, Steps and Celebrating Erik Satie, I represented the New York sound. The attitude of the musicians here is very different than in Europe, where life is more relaxed, you have good weather, good food, it’s cheaper to live and the government has subsidized culture. Here, you live another reality. It’s a competition. The best musicians are here, and the energy is very strong. That attitude is very flamenco. I identify with it. ... Now I am mixing the New York feeling with the Mediterranean colors, which is my language, my form of communications. I play the guitar the same way in each context. When I was young, I’d bring three or four guitars to concerts: I wanted to sound like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. Now, I want to have my sound and put it into all of these musics.” DB
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