Tesoro's Tale

The young musicians of Tesoro set up shop at Club Congress to present flamenco on a grander scale

A slender blonde went slinking through the crowd at Club Congress and sat at a small table at a corner of the stage, where a five-piece band was playing hot flamenco music spiked with jazz and rock licks. Soon, the woman was joined by a male figure; they sat together awhile, then stood and began to move with the music, their upper bodies shifting and posing in classical flamenco dance style.

But all was not well in Club Congress' Andalusian dream world. Two women in black, their hair pulled back severely, appeared on the dance floor below and began intense, rapid stamping patterns that signaled the presence either of flamenco dancers or of the construction crew at the Chicago Store down the street.

This pair looked like trouble, but they were nothing compared to a new dancer, her hair as wild as her ankles were precise. The dark pair sprinkled some glittery duende dust on the lovers, and the dour flamenco queen tried to split the couple, initially to no avail. But ultimately--well, this is flamenco; there's no such thing as happily ever after.

Unless, that is, you're a member of the band Tesoro, the local group behind the Saturday "gypsy flamenco theater" performances at Club Congress. Founded by a couple of guitar players fresh out of Salpointe High School, the popular Tesoro--whether as the guitar duo of Justin Fernandez and Brian Scott, or as the full ensemble--has become one of the most active bands in town. It plays for Sunday brunch and dinner at Hacienda del Sol, does four or five gigs a week at Sullivan's Steakhouse, squeezes in regular appearances at Zona 78, and since the beginning of this month has been doing the more theatrical productions Saturdays at 7:30 at Club Congress.

"We've got a cabaret thing going with sangria and tapas," says Hotel Congress manager David Slutes. "With these early shows, we're going after the nonsmoking demographic."

Unfortunately, the more successful the Congress shows become with the nonsmoking demographic, the less of a cabaret atmosphere there will be. Some of the tables will inevitably be moved out to create standing room for more bodies.

"I've always wanted to manage this kind of band," says Alan Thomas, the man who manages this band. "They're young guys who are passionate about gypsy-flamenco fusion. You don't find many other young players doing this; they're influenced by Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and there's a rock flair to a lot of what they do, but at the same time, they can really hit the traditional flamenco."

Thomas is a partner in Ultra Groove Entertainment, an event and entertainment design company, which he returned to Tucson to operate after a stint in the Los Angeles music industry. Even before coming back to his home town, he'd heard about guitarists Scott and Fernandez, when they were playing under the name El Toro.

Fernandez started studying flamenco guitar when he was 14 or 15; as soon as he saw his sister perform in her flamenco dance class, he was hooked on the music. His parents were already into the Gipsy Kings and their progressive pop-oriented flamenco, a style known in Spain as Sevillana. In the late 1980s, the Gipsy Kings' departures from strict flamenco tradition riled hard-core aficionados, but it brought the general flamenco sound to a much wider audience than ever before. So did the German-born Ottmar Liebert, who incorporated South American percussion plus elements of pop, rock and jazz into his (admittedly not virtuosic) flamenco guitar playing. Liebert positioned flamenco as something more seductive than anguished and dangerous.

All this music was already playing in the Fernandez household when young Justin teamed up with another student in his Salpointe guitar class, Brian Scott.

"I was doing Nirvana when I was 12 or 13," Scott says. "In high school, I was doing heavy metal and death metal. But then I saw Justin play, and I knew I had to try flamenco, too. It's pretty much the hardest style you can play on the guitar, because the right-hand rhythms are so complicated."

The two started jamming together, picking up elements from one another's musical influences, but in public (such as gigs at the Westward Look), they stuck pretty much to pure flamenco style. Then the band started growing, and new members Andrew McClarron (bass), Ruben Palma (percussion) and Aleksey Login (drums) brought new ideas.

Says Fernandez, now 22, "I don't listen to much Spanish music anymore. I'm getting more ideas from rock'n'roll and classic rock."

Yet this seems not to appall many old-school flamenco fans. "There's one guy who follows us around who's a real flamenco connoisseur," says Fernandez. "He's studied all the traditional players, and knows everything about their work. But he can still come in and groove to us.

"Our music is more intricate, with more ups and downs of moods, and it incorporates lots of melody--that's why we don't have to work with vocalists."

Everything really fell into place last year when Tesoro produced its first CD, Como en Vivo.

"The work in the studio has made these guys incredibly tight," says Thomas, "and their passion really rubs off on you."

It was Thomas who talked the band into doing something on a grander scale at Club Congress. Percussionist Palma came up with a story that could be conveyed in dance without vocals, and wrote a poem to be included in a printed program. Flamenco dancer Angelina Ramirez, now based in Phoenix, developed the choreography. She and another traditional dancer, Melissa Aguirre, quickly signed up to perform at Congress, as did Sophie Everatt, who runs a dance studio, and the similarly but not identically named Olga Goryunova and Anastasia Gorbunova, young Ukrainian women who would show up and spontaneously dance at the band's gigs at Sullivan's.

The series launched on Dec. 4, and because Tesoro already had a following, the place was packed. Almost every show will have a different plot, and some will incorporate more strictly traditional material than others. In any case, it's not a very easy gig.

"Even though we work things out carefully and rehearse, there's still a lot of improvisation," says Fernandez. "We have to work hard just to read the dancers."

The next show, on Christmas night, will be unusual in this series, more free-form. But you'll have plenty of opportunities to see what Tesoro can do; performances are scheduled at least into February.