By Rebecca Bulnes
By Lee Zimmerman
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Sixteen years ago record company executives scoffed at the idea of marketing the work of genre-fusing acoustic guitarists Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah. So after one too many rejections, the duo decided to release their first album themselves. Now, after seven Strunz and Farah albums on a host of labels, a 1992 World Music award from Billboard magazine, and a 1993 Grammy nomination, perhaps those shortsighted executives have gotten the message: Modern jazz is hot, world music is hotter, and the combination of the two under the banner of "world jazz" can be downright incendiary.
"We didn't start out thinking about a role in world jazz," Strunz insists during a recent phone interview from their home base in Woodland Hills, California. "It took us time to get the broader picture beyond the guitar itself."
The duo's most recent release, Heat of the Sun, issued on their own label (Selva) merges musical styles from Spain, the Americas, and the Middle East, plus adds ample doses of jazz-based improvisation while showcasing the percussion-heavy work of their eight-piece band. Although Strunz and Farah's music remains steeped in the flamenco style of their previous albums, Heat of the Sun finds them branching out, with slinky Afro-pop rhythms lurking beneath "Anaconda" and choppy guitars lending an almost Jamaican feel to "Terremoto."
The pair has been performing and writing together since 1979, but even before Strunz and Farah hooked up they shared common musical ground. Both had been raised on classical music; both had a passion for jazz. To this mix Strunz brought the Latin and Caribbean sounds he heard while living in his native Costa Rica, while the Iranian-born Farah added the influence of the Middle East.
Both guitarists began playing at age eleven and were surrounded by a vast range of musical styles. Strunz's father was a diplomat, so the young guitarist was constantly moving, absorbing the music of Mexico, Colombia, Spain, England, Canada, and the U.S. By the late Sixties, the teenage Strunz was playing flamenco guitar professionally as both a soloist and a sideman. In the Seventies he formed the Latin jazz-fusion ensemble Caldera, which recorded four albums for Capitol before Strunz left the group in 1979 to concentrate on acoustic music.
Farah was inspired to take up music in the mid Sixties by a violin-playing uncle who performed with the Tehran Symphony, but his family didn't approve. They sent him off to school in the early Seventies, first to England, then the U.S., where he earned a degree in architecture. But he continued to hone his six-string skills throughout the decade, performing in the States with exiled Iranian musicians before connecting with Strunz in the late Seventies through a mutual acquaintance in Los Angeles.
Even from the beginning the men were able to fuse their diverse backgrounds and musical influences into a songwriting process based on collaboration and improvisation, with dramatic flamenco-style guitar lines skittering atop a rhythm bed of Latin percussion and darting bass riffs. "I do most of the basic composition," Strunz explains. "But sometimes Ardeshir and I divide what we're working on into sections. Each composition has a place, usually in the middle, where either I or Ardeshir will freely improvise for a time, using the music's harmonic foundation as a template."
The pair has also found inspiration in the work of flamenco, jazz, and rock musicians such as Sabicas, Paco de Lucia, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, and Jimi Hendrix. "There aren't necessarily any similarities between our music and theirs," Strunz cautions. "We're influenced not so much by their content or styles but by the techniques and high standards those musicians used to get their results."
Although the two live in Southern California, Strunz says Miami feels "a bit more like home" to them. "We feel closer to our roots here, rhythmically speaking, because of the strong Latin substrate and the Latin and Afro-Cuban influences that meet here." He adds that, paradoxically, they have found it difficult to reach Latin audiences in the U.S., mostly owing to the restrictive programming of Latin radio stations. "They are very conservative and tend not to play much instrumental music," Strunz claims. "The result is that many Latinos don't think of the guitar as a solo instrument. They tend to think of it only as something that accompanies vocals."
Still, their previous shows in Miami have drawn enthusiastic and demographically mixed audiences. "They run the gamut of ages and they're a nice cross section of the population," Strunz notes. "They add up to a composite of people who are interested in the guitar and people who like the Afro-Latin bass and Middle Eastern components of our music. And if there's room, people usually dance. Our music speaks to the body as well as the heart."