Contemporary jazz fans have had a love affair with percussive and colorful pop flamenco music for a long time. Over the past 20 years, artists like Ottmar Liebert, Jesse Cook, Willie & Lobo, Strunz & Farah and Lara & Reyes have not only found a place on the smooth jazz radio format (in the 90s, mostly), they’ve also been popular attractions at genre festivals whose lineups have mostly featured urban jazz artists. Among festival promoters, Art Good of Jazz Trax—which puts on the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival every year—has been especially welcoming of these performers. So, while newcomer Russ Hewitt isn’t exactly jazz in any traditional or modern definition of the word, his music will appeal to those who embrace it and like a little world beat spice in the mix.
By calling Hewitt a newcomer, we mean to the instrumental genre. In truth, he’s been a fixture on the Dallas rock scene for nearly two decades as the driving force of the popular local bands Outrageous, Whipping Post and Hollow. In essence, he’s doing something like the “Higher Octave Shuffle,” a reference to the popular 90s indie label that hosted smooth, mostly instrumental efforts by veteran rockers Jon Anderson, Jonathan Cain, Neal Schon and Craig Chaquico. “In many ways,” he says, “I’m starting over. New band, new music, a different way to approach music and a different target audience.” His decision to go by his middle name—his first name is Saul—is a reflection of this shift. “I’m shedding old skin, if you will,” he adds. If you like the Jesse Cook style of “nuevo flamenco,” which takes the rumba style and puts it into song form and adds a melody over it, you’ll dig instantly infectious tunes like the title track “Bajo El Sol,” which rolls easily along over a swaying groove and soaring atmospheres and breaks every so often for some sizzling percussive flourishes.
Other tracks that lope along magically over a dramatic, filmic landscape are “Lydia,” the hypnotic “Palma De Mallorca,” the coolly shuffling “Inger” and the thoughtful and reflective, yet delightfully seductive “The Pampas.” The likewise sweet and easy flowing “Tranquilo” may in spirit and melody, remind longtime format listeners of “Possession Obsession” by another rocker turned instrumentalist, Slash. There is always room for a little Indian and Arabic texturing in the mix, most prominently on the trippy and spiritually expansive “Byzantine.”
While Hewitt’s focus throughout is on organic rhythms and melodies created by his six string and live percussion, the opening atmospheres of “El Beso” show an affinity for “out there” electronic textures that add a mystical element to the mix. Rather than dissect the music of Bajo El Sol, however, it’s best to just let it play all the way through and let its rhythm and romance sweep you away (a tropical beach and a cold Corona or margarita should be in the picture).
If all this doesn’t convince you to give Bajo El Sol a spin, his ensemble should; Hewitt is working here with Walfredo Reyes, Jr. (Santana, Strunz & Farah) on drums, Rafael Padilla (Miami Sound Machine, Shakira) on percussion, Bob Parr (Cher, Brian Setzer Orchestra) on bass and flamenco guitar prodigy Alfredo Caceres. Hewitt’s touring band did over 200 gigs in 2007, so it’s obvious he’s committed to this new vibe for the long haul—which is great news for fans of instrumental music with an exotic twist!