Octave Records has released one of its most musically satisfying and emotionally powerful albums yet: Gabriella by Miguel Espinoza Fusion. It’s a dazzling blend of flamenco, Latin, Indian, fusion jazz, world music and much more. The album features Espinoza on nylon-string guitar, bandmates Dianne Betkowski on acoustic and electric cello and Randy Hoepker on bass, plus special guests including violinist David Balakrishnan of the Turtle Island Quartet, and harmonica player Howard Levy of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Trio Globo. Recorded in pure DSD 256 high-resolution audio, Gabriella conveys the musical virtuosity of the group with remarkable realism, combining impassioned performances with extraordinary sound quality.
“The inspiration for these songs comes from just living life,” noted Miguel, who composed all the songs for the album. “The good, the joyful, the sad, the tragic – we wanted to put all the human spectrum of emotions in this record.”
Gabriella was recorded in Pure DSD high-resolution audio at Octave Records’ state-of-the-art studio in Boulder, Colorado using microphones from Microtech Geffel, Neumann, Coles, AKG, Audix and others, to best capture every detail and nuance of each instrument. The album was recorded and mixed by Jay Elliott, and mastered by Gus Skinas. Along with David Balakrishnan and Howard Levy, the musical guests on the album include Andy Skellenger (tabla, cajon), Dave Hagedorn (vibraphone), Priya Hariharan (Carnatic violin, vocals), Victor Mestas Pérez (piano) and Christian Teele (percussion).
Gabriella features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256, DSD 128, DSD 64, and DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 176.2 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)
The title track, “Gabriella,” kicks off the album with a driving combination of Latin, Indian and swing rhythms, with Dianne Betkowski and Dave Hagedorn playing the melody on cello and vibes. “Howard’s Tune” combines a fusion feel with an open, airy acoustic sound. “Rune” showcases Miguel’s guitar and Dianne’s cello playing, with the two weaving and complementing each other in a musical dialogue. “Buleria Estila Antiqua” (“Old Style Buleria”) is based on a fast flamenco buleria rhythm with the cello and Priya Hariharan’s vocals carrying the melody on top of the brisk tempo. Gabriella offers some quieter musical moments, like “Mermaid” and the meditative “La Lluvia” (“The Rain”), and concludes with the lively “Barrio Latino,” featuring propulsive percussion by Christian Teele, and piano playing by Victor Mestas Pérez.
“The number one goal for all of us in this group is to have an emotional impact and to remind people of their humanity,” said Espinoza. “Any time we play, that’s how we feel as well.”
I talked with Miguel Espinoza and Dianne Betkowski about the making of Gabriella…and we went off on a few tangents.
Frank Doris: How did this album come about? How’d you wind up recording with Octave and choosing this selection of songs and players?
Miguel Espinoza: The president of Octave Records [Paul McGowan] had heard us play and wanted us to do a recording with all of us. And we wanted to record with people such as David Balakrishnan and Howard Levy. But [this would] involve a lot of composing [music] on a deadline we weren’t used to. Other times we would record when we had compositions ready.
FD: How did you find the players on the album?
ME: We went to the Goodwill (laughs) No, I had worked with Howard [Levy] before. I used to have a group called Curandero in the mid-nineties. It was really popular, and we hit a lot of the world music charts. And I worked with Béla Fleck, and had composed an album called Aras in 2009. That started me kind of stepping away from doing traditional flamenco and collaborating with other musicians. I’m still doing it and still loving it.
And I’m a big turtle lover. A few years back I contacted David Balakrishnan from Turtle Island Quartet. And I’m like, “dude, I’m really into turtles. And here’s some of my music that I’ve done.” We kept in touch over the years, and then Dianne said we should ask him to record with us.
FD: The album is really an amazing mix of players and music. There are so many influences. Latin, fusion, classical guitar, Indian, pop…I even feel like I hear a little bit of a Mahavishnu Orchestra influence there.
ME: I’m very close to [Mahavishnu Orchestra leader] John McLaughlin. He was the one that helped me when I had Curandero In 1995 I needed a bass player [for a recording], and he said, “why don’t you use mine, Kai Eckhardt?”
How do you like the variety [of the songs] on the album?
FD: I love the variety. “Gabriella” is just like “bang” right out of the gate. “Joy” kind of flows and there are different rhythms against rhythms. “Barrio Latino” It ends on such an upbeat note. And then you have “La Lluvia.” It’s contemplative. The album goes through such a wide range of moods. I was floored, actually. Everybody is playing at such a high level of musicianship.
ME: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you, bro. Appreciate it.
FD: I think listeners are gonna flip out. I ask every Octave artist this: how does it feel to listen to your music in such good sound quality?
ME: It’s an honor. Jay Elliott recorded us. To have such a prestigious recording studio and all these really, really expensive microphones and everything was placed very meticulously, and you shut the door and your ears just kind of boom because [the room] is air tight. (laughs)
FD: Let’s talk about how the songs on Gabriella came about.
ME: First of all, I don’t write anything down. It’s all composed, but not written.
FD: No kidding. I was gonna ask you how much was written out. I just assumed much of it had to be.
ME: I come from a real strong Gypsy tradition. I went to Spain right out of high school and lived in the slums with the, the Gitanos in the old cities of Jerez, Cadiz, and Triana. If you learn flamenco nobody writes anything down, it’s an oral tradition. You have to have really good rhythm. Flamenco kind of chooses you, so you have to have the qualities. So I never learned to read music. And here I’m playing with Dianne, who’s played with symphonies from all over the world. So Dianne would write charts.
Dianne Betkowski: In the beginning, I didn’t know the extent of what we were gonna be doing. So for like four or five or six [of the] pieces, I wrote them out. And then I needed a music stand, and I needed a light, and I needed clips to keep the music from blowing away when we were outside. (laughs) Then we had a photo shoot, and everyone just broke out into one of our pieces. I’m like “I’m the only one that can’t play it ’cause I don’t have my music. So I bit the bullet and I memorized what I had already written. From then on I began to help develop pieces and learn them and put my two cents in without any music.
Miguel Espinoza and Dianne Betkowski.
ME: Right now, the music that we are composing, this is it, man. We are so seasoned and ready.
FD: Did you play it live in the studio in one take, or how did you actually put it together?
ME: Well, some of the pieces are so long. “Barrio Latino” is at least 12 minutes long. So we probably ran through it four or five times and picked the best take. Sometimes we would say, “oh, dang, that was a mushroom.” A shiitake.
DB: A lot of us were in the same room at the same time. We were not all isolated. Miguel was, and sometimes one or another musician, but mostly we ended up being in the same room, which is why I used an electric cello on “Barrio.” I had two other people in the room and we would’ve bled into each other. It would’ve been kind of miserable.
FD: I’ve been asking: how did COVID affect your writing or your ability to play or get together? But for the last couple of interviews, I haven’t asked people that – it’s almost like I’ve forgotten about it, which I shouldn’t, especially since I got it a few months ago, but yeah. When did you record the album?
DB: We recorded it in the summer and fall [of 2022]. But the previous recording, Living in a Daydream, was difficult because we didn’t get together and rehearse. Most of our compositions start with Miguel. He has these wonderful rhythmic and harmonic ideas. Then he brings them to me and I come up with melody. We would meet in the park; during COVID it would be in the park, six feet apart, all that stuff.
ME: [Before recording Gabriella] we were on tour. We had signed a contract with Octave Records and during most of July we were on tour back East. And when we came back we had an agreement to start [recording] on this certain date. So not only were we driving eight hours a day to get to the next town, we were under the gun with having to write music. Dianne and I were just plowing through, [writing] the whole tour long, every morning. We’d go do the concert and then get in, get up in the morning, drive for seven hours or whatever, and do the [next] concert. And then the mornings or late at night we’d be composing.
So these compositions have some of the magic of [places like] Maine. I’d never been to those places, and I was blown away by how the lush and beautiful the trees were in Pennsylvania. When I hear the pieces now, I see visions of these places.
FD: Well, I live on Long Island. Sorry I missed you. I could have driven for seven hours to see you.
ME: That accent, man! [referring to FD’s heavy Long Island accent]
FD: Oh, I know. I can’t shake it. (laughs) I don’t know if you ever saw The Sopranos, but I try to tell people, they’re not exaggerating. This is how people from around here actually sound.
DB: Being in Colorado and hearing someone like that is so cool. My father’s side of the family is all from New York City.
FD: You never know where life is going to take you.
ME: Isn’t it wild? I want to mention my roots. My mom is Chicana and Native American. My father was Scottish and Irish. And I’m (laughs) My family’s from the southern Colorado, northern New Mexico area. When the Jews were expelled out Spain some of them ended up here. So we have Sephardic Jews in us as well.
Did you grow up in a tough area? Like John Travolta?
FD: No; my father did in Brooklyn, but when I was young we moved into about as lame of a suburb as you can imagine.
FD: Manhattan was pretty funky in the 1970s and early 1980s. I played in a new wave band and we played CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City and all those places, and everybody sort of glorifies them now. But the bathrooms were uninhabitable and there was graffiti on the walls and the bands played in these cramped, sweaty spaces. I never took my eyes off my guitar and amp.
But before I forget, who were some of your musical influences?
DB: I used to listen to Pat Metheny and Average White Band (laughs) and the Fifth Dimension and Herb Alpert. When I was pretty young I had a turntable and used to try to transcribe what I heard on Average White Band records. But people say that my compositions sound a lot like Bartók and Shostakovich. [I like] French composers as well. [Betkowski is a composer whose works have been performed by the Rochester Philharmonic and the St. Louis, Houston, Honolulu and Colorado symphony orchestras, among others – Ed.]
ME: For me, what stabbed my heart was Wayne Newton’s greatest hits. (laughs)
Just kidding. I grew up accompanying flamenco dance classes. So rhythm is a big thing for me. It has to have some rhythm. I listened to Dion; I really loved the funk era, man. When Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album came out…yeah, boom. I fell in love with Brazilian jazz. I learned every song by ear of Sérgio Mendes and Brazil 66.
And then, India. I love raga and I think that’s one of the most spiritual and technically demanding art forms. I love world music.