Breaking through on the U.S. jazz scene is tough enough for American-born musicians. European players often face another hurdle when they make the move stateside, facing the implicit question: What do you have to tell us about our music? In the case of 38-year-old Spanish pianist Alex Conde, the answer is an emphatic “plenty!” The scion of a storied musical family, Conde is a conservatory-trained musician who fell in love with jazz and earned a full scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
After settling in San Francisco in 2009, he earned a far-reaching reputation as a composer via numerous commissions from leading flamenco dance companies. But Conde established himself as a major new voice in jazz with his 2015 album Descarga For Monk (ZoHo Music), a brilliant collection of arrangements setting the seminal modern jazz compositions of pianist Thelonious Monk to an array of flamenco rhythms. Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Conde returns to the Bay Area for a series of performances around the region introducing a new program of reimagined bebop with Descarga For Bud Powell.
He kicks off the Bay Area run with two shows at the Red Poppy Art House on Saturday, Feb. 15, with his two key Monk collaborators, bassist Jeff Chambers and percussionist John Santos. The group expands to a quartet with drummer Colin Douglas Feb. 19 at San Rafael’s J-B Piano Company, Feb. 21 at the Every Blue Moon concert series in Inverness, and Feb. 22 at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano Company.
A Mission District native who’s played a central role in the Bay Area’s Latin music scene since the 1970s, Santos was more than impressed when he started playing with Conde a decade ago. “I was amazed at his skill level as a virtuoso player, composer and arranger,” he says. “He was too young to have that much skill. He can play anything at all: classical, flamenco roots, jazz, and I watched him master the Afro-Caribbean part. You’d think he’s been doing it his whole life. I’m really in awe of him.”
Santos hadn’t played much flamenco when he started working with Conde on the Monk material, an experience that introduced him to the traditional music of Andalusian Gitanos (or Roma). Like with Santos, what caught the jazz world’s ear was his seamless synthesis of flamenco rhythms with Monk’s knotty compositions, offering a new window into a celebrated body of music that’s already been reimagined in hundreds of different ways.
“Monk’s music is so amazing in that way, so chameleon-like,” Santos says. “You’d think you’d heard every possible way to arrange his tunes, and then Alex comes along with something so smart and fresh and different.”
Conde has been a scarce presence on Bay Area stages since he moved to New York in 2016 to study at the Aaron Copland Conservatory. In 2018 he earned a master’s degree in piano jazz performance and released Origins (Uprising/Ropeadope), another acclaimed flamenco jazz sojourn and the first recording out of Latin music legend Eddie Palmieri’s new production company. Working with a cast of New York heavyweights like trumpeter Brian Lynch, trombonist Conrad Herwig and saxophonist Dayna Stephens, Conde melded jazz harmonies and improvisation with flamenco forms like the simmering soleá, the passionate seguiriya, and the pulsing 12-beat bulería.
He credits his deepest educational experience to his studies with pianist Barry Harris, one of the last direct descendants of the bebop patriarchs. Along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and drummer Kenny Clarke, the Harlem-born pianist Bud Powell was an architect of bebop, the modern jazz idiom that emerged at uptown Manhattan jazz spots during World War II. With his telegraphic, stabbing left-hand chords and blazing right-hand single note lines Powell’s style was pervasively influential throughout the 1950s, and it continues to inform today’s scene.
Like his close friend Monk, Powell was also a nonpareil composer who contributed at least a dozen tunes now considered standards. Conde spent two years honing the Powell material, “playing flamenco on the sound, figuring out what rhythms fit where,” he says. “At the end I realized I had this amazing repertoire. Why not make another Descarga album?” He’s scheduled to record the Powell tunes shortly after the Bay Area performances.
One of Conde’s insights was that jazz, flamenco and Afro-Caribbean music share rhythmic DNA. Singing the jagged melodic line of Powell’s “Hallucinations” (also known as “Budo”), he shifts the underlying pulse to lilting 6/8 feel. “There’s a clave on all of it,” Conde says, referring to the fundamental rhythmic pattern that connects West African and Cuban music. “I was taking some classes with Barry Harris and he was talking about swing and clave and montunos, and those connections. When you listen to Bud playing on a live recording, he’s tapping foot on one and three like a montuno. And if you put a conga behind it sounds great.”
Conde brings a lifetime of experience with Spanish music to his writing and arranging. He’s the son of Alejandro Conde, a beloved master of copla, an Andalusian song style related to flamenco. Studying piano as a child, his father encouraged him to improvise while his mother urged him to study the European classical tradition. He spent 12 years at the conservatory in Valencia, but maintained a passion for improvisation, “which brought me to jazz,” he says.
Conde still loves the swing feel of straight-ahead jazz, but he has truly found his own voice through the Descarga projects. “It’s a great feeling when I’m swinging,” he says. “But when I really speak is when I have a flamenco twist. Playing Bud Powell with a soleá, I feel closer to his music doing it that way. When I’m doing jazz, I’m trying to sound like him. But when I bring it into my territory I’ve really got something to say.”