It’s not for purists, but his flamenco is full of passion

Boston Globe, February 10, 2006

Vicente Amigo looks the part. With his long, dark hair, high forehead, and brooding gaze, the Spanish guitarist appears ideally suited to express the drama and heat of flamenco. Through five albums and many collaborations, the 38-year-old Amigo has become a key name in the genre, earning a Latin Grammy in 2001 and Spain’s Ondas award in 2002.

But Amigo, who plays the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday, has forged a sound that appeals beyond flamenco’s traditional confines. His technique and panache have made him an international guitar star, his face splashed across the cover of music magazines.

Though he trained from childhood at the knee of flamenco masters such as El Tomate and Manolo Sanlucar, Amigo takes liberties with the form. His 2000 disc, “Ciudad de los ideas” (City of Ideas, referring to Cordoba), featured Algerian pop singer Khaled, as well as a harmonica.

Amigo’s new album, “Un momento en el sonido” (A Moment in Sound), features as much jazzy solo improvisation as foot-tapping, hand- clapping, structured flamenco rhythms. Some songs begin as quiet, atmospheric solo explorations, then, once they find their structure and beat, bring in the percussion and lament-like vocals. Another incongruous instrument makes an appearance, this time the accordion.

Despite the stylistic departures, Amigo feels his new album takes him closer to the essence of the music than ever before.

“Fundamentally it’s more of a flamenco work, in the sense of the simplicity of the sound,” Amigo says in an e-mail from Spain. “It’s an encounter with notes that express my sentiments. It’s more intimate, more natural. But all of my previous albums are just as personal, in that they all reflect something of me.”

According to Boston-based guitarist Jonathan “Juanito” Pascual, Amigo has made a durable mark on flamenco.

“Vicente has definitely expanded the art form,” says Pascual. “Technically he has a very powerful energy; in Spain they call it `nervio,’ nerve. There’s an almost electrical quality to his playing.

“He’s expanded the range of sounds, using tonal colors that aren’t traditional to flamenco. On the musical front, he’s been one of the people to explore. He always adds unusual instruments. And he’s very influenced by Pat Metheny in terms of production aesthetics: atmospheric, sound-oriented production techniques.”

Indeed, the parallel with Metheny’s solo work can at times feel uncanny.

Like him, Amigo uses technical brilliance and a keen understanding of musical roots to give meaning to phrases that might otherwise come off as noodling.

At the same time, Amigo’s work is firmly in the flamenco idiom, so that any meanderings always return to the fundamentals of the form. The current tour features longtime collaborators. “Some of them have been with me forever,” he says.

They include guitarist Jose Manuel Hierro, bass player Antonio Ramos, Patricio Camara and Paquito Gonzalez on percussion, and a new member, keyboard player Jose Maria Cortina. A singer, Blas Cordoba, and dancer, Rafael Campallo, round out the ensemble.

The attention he pays to balancing orthodoxy and innovation places Amigo in a distinct creative tradition, says Pascual.

“There’s this lineage of solo guitar players in flamenco that’s about 100 years old. Vicente is probably its most notable embodiment today. He’s the one who has most straddled that interesting position of being both technically and musically forward-moving and popularly accessible at the same time.”

Some purists might object, of course.

“Flamenco pop is big in Spain, and some of Vicente’s music approaches that,” says Pascual. “There’s always going to be a camp that finds these kinds of things offensive and not flamenco. But my surprise is the degree of acceptance he has among people who would be expected to frown on him.”

For his part, Amigo steers clear of the burdens and expectations associated with any musical label. As popular as he has become, he rejects the idea that he is an ambassador of flamenco.

“Maybe in the sense that I travel around the world performing my music,” he says. “But I don’t pretend to erect myself as representative of anything or anyone.

“Orthodoxy is useful for understanding the past, but it shouldn’t constrain you in defining your creative personality. And besides, purity can be found in freedom.”