On a stopover in Madrid during a six-month European tour in 1956, Lionel Hampton recorded what's possibly one of the strangest and most interesting albums in his discography. The album is Jazz Flamenco (RCA), and what makes this big-band recording such a standout is the inclusion of a local castanets player named Maria Angelica. By featuring castanets—the instrument we most often associate with Iberian peasant dances and Carmen—Hampton added a unexpected peppery flavor. In Angelica's hands, the castanets actually swing—sounding more like Castilian tap dancing than just exotic percussion.
Recorded on June 30, 1956, Jazz Flamenco featured Hampton's full 17-piece band plus several unnamed Spanish percussionists. Hampton also recorded three tracks with a smaller, breakout group he dubbed the "Flamenco Five." The album showcases a wide range of beats—I've Got a Brand New Baby, for example, is a roadhouse blues while Bop City Flamenco has an Afro-Cuban undertone, and Lovely Nights in Spain has much in common with Midnight Sun. And all feature the castanets!
Before I tell you more about the album's other potent tracks, here's an excerpt from the original liner notes:
"Hamp's was the first band to tour Spain, where this record was cut. In Barcelona, the band performed in a bull ring to a roaring, rocking audience of 19,000. Hampton played the familiar strains of the famed Toreador theme in swing tempo. For his contribution to Spanish-American understanding, Ambassador John Lodge presented Hampton with an official commendation. Recalling the huge crowd in the amphitheater, Hampton says with a grin, 'Man, it's probably the first time the cats outdrew the bulls.'
"One hot summer night in Madrid, Hampton, who has the showman's instinct for absorbing something of the flavor of wherever it may be that he's working, conceived this album. He came roaring out of a monumental 48-hour session in one of the city's best flamenco spots. Hampton said, 'There was a chick there, Maria Angelica, one of the great Spanish flamenco artists, and I dug her the most. I said to myself, 'Man, you got to get this together with the band.' So we did."
Six of the 10 tunes on this album were written by Hampton, but the arrangements unfortunately go uncredited. If I were to guess, I'd say the big band numbers were the handiwork of Bobby Plater, who contributed charts to Hampton's band prior to this date and is on alto sax and flute here.
To give you a sense of what's makes this album so exciting and cutting-edge, the standard Spain opens with just the heat of Angelica's castanets. Then Hampton comes in with those ice-blue vibes, Angelica drops out and doesn't re-appear until the end. Very cool! On Hot Club of Madrid Serenade, Angelica swings on the castanets throughout, adding a hot-tempered tension to the swinging big-band track.
Perhaps the album's biggest surprise is the duet between pianist Tete Montoliu [pictured] and Hampton on Tenderly. This was the blind pianist's first record date. He was spotted by Hampton back in March 1956 during the band's stopover in Barcelona. Montoliu then toured with Hampton's band for the balance of the European engagement. On Tenderly, Montoliu solos for the first five minutes of the track before Hampton joins in, and the brilliant ballad execution established Montoliu instantly as a serious jazz artist.
Every track on Jazz Flamenco is fresh and unpredictable. The combination of Angelica's fiery castanets and Hampton's frosty vibes is magical. Hampton's incredible band of 1956 is along for the ride.
Interestingly, one additional big band track—Embraceable You—and four others with Angelica in a small group setting were recorded but never released, according to Hampton's discography. Too bad they weren't included as bonus tracks on this BMG re-issue.
JazzWax tracks: Jazz Flamenco is easily one of my top-10 finds of the year. As I listened over and over again to the album, I couldn't help but wonder whether the sound of castanets here had any influence on Charles Mingus' decision to feature them on Tijuana Moods, recorded a year later, also for RCA. If you want to buy Jazz Flamenco, you'll find it here.
JazzWax video clip: To see just how wild and hot Hampton's band was on that 1956 tour, go here. Dig the Dutch fans going absolutely nuts during this Netherlands concert, and catch Hamp's megawatt enthusiasm and joy. And keep an eye on what Hampton does with those drum sticks (how that drum head supported his weight is beyond me). Man, they don't make 'em like they used to!