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Ethan Margolis: Perfect Mission of Feeling

Chris M. Slawecki By

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This album is meant to be a vocal fantasy of what might happen if James Brown or Robert Johnson or John Lee Hooker ended up singing in a wine bodega in Lebrija, Spain. —Ethan Margolis
Describing guitarist, composer, bandleader, producer and conceptualist Ethan Margolis as a citizen of the world barely does him or his music justice. Born and raised in Cleveland (OH), Margolis left the US when he was 21 to study the art of Gypsy flamenco guitar in Spain. He stayed there for more than a decade, living alongside and learning from many of Spain's most famous Gypsy flamenco guitarists, teaching his own master guitar classes, and writing and touring a "flamenco rock opera" (Spanish Day).

Margolis returned to the US in 2010. He set up shop in Los Angeles and, under the production pseudonym "Sir Sulty," began pulling together American and Spanish roots music into a most unique musical vision. Sir Sultry's first fruits included 2014's self-produced Soleángeles, recorded across Seville (Spain) and Los Angeles with wind player Katisse Buckingham, keyboardist Mitchel Forman (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Wayne Shorter) and other guests, and bearing a Sir Sultry productions logo drawn by comic strip genius Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

In July 2016, Margolis released Sonikete Blues, an exquisitely detailed recording that uses jazz to bring American acoustic delta blues guitar and Spanish Gypsy acoustic flamenco guitar together. How detailed? Percussion on two tracks comes from the fleet feet of flamenco dancers on a wooden floor; other percussion credits in addition to "footwork" include nudillos (knuckles) and palmas (handclapping).

Along with the returning Buckingham and Forman, Margolis' collaborators on Sonikete Blues include bassist Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets), Latin percussion ace Luis Conte, trumpeter Rashawn Ross and keyboardist Deron Johnson. Even so, although he's spent most of his life in the company of the world's finest music and musicians, Margolis' lifelong source of inspiration has nothing to do with music.

"The strife that black musicians and black people in general have gone through over so many years has probably been the thing that most shaped me. My hero from the very beginning is Jesse Owens," Margolis begins. "He's from Cleveland and went to the same high school that my Jewish grandfather went to, East Tech. My grandfather would tell stories of watching him run down the hallways in the winter because it was too cold to go out on the track, so I know about Jesse Owens."

"There's a famous photo of Jesse on the award platform at the 1936 Olympics, where everyone else is doing the Nazi salute while he's standing at number one atop the podium. That image, and that whole story, is one of the biggest shaping things of my life. That's shaped all my music, shaped all my musical endeavors, shaped me leaving the US, shaped me living among the Gypsies, it shaped this album, it shaped the 'Relevant' video, the 'Afraid' video—I mean, everything."

"I'm Jewish on my father's side. There was some sense when I was learning about oppression, the Holocaust, Germany, the Nazis, how that applies to myself. I don't know if I just didn't know about the Jewish athletes and people who stood up in opposition, but seeing how the black athletes, musicians and other people handled those situations was the most impressive thing I've ever seen," he continues. "Nothing has impressed me to that degree, not even close. And the spirituality with which they've handled and continue to handle that situation over all these years and continue to push forward, many with incredible spiritual positivity, there's been nothing more influential in who I am and what I need to do with my life. That's important to understand because it's in all of my music and it's a motivating source of my life. Jesse Owens had that effect on me, and it happened so young that it shaped everything."

In the language of flamenco, Sonikete roughly translates as having the rhythm and energy to play the music, and Sonikete Blues is full of strong energy and rhythm. Each track features Margolis on guitar and/or vocals.

For "Sultryanas"—a "sevillanas," or folk music originating from Saville—Margolis beautifully conjoins Buckingham's saxophone, John Daversa's passionate trumpet, and Natalie Cadet's breathless soprano vocals into a stunning Spanish mood piece. Maiya Sykes, who appeared in the 2014 season of The Voice, sets the otherwise dark and mysterious "Tricks for Treats" ablaze with her hard-driving yet soulful vocal.

Margolis' vocal frappes "Malted Milk," composed by the original Delta blues legend Robert Johnson, into a lugubrious moan that's so blue it spirals into deathly black, but closes with acoustic guitar chords that stretch flamenco into jazz. In "Go Down Blues," Margolis uses one of the most basic forms of flamenco music (the soleá) to pull the American Civil War spiritual "Go Down Moses," Leroy Carr's essential "How Long Blues," and a tribute to flamenco vocal legend El Chozas, into a seamless moaning and groaning, whispering and wondering, Delta blues. "Malted Milk" and "Go Down Blues" form the molten core of this volcanic set.

"The Soleángeles record was very much an attempt at finding a nice meeting place between flamenco and jazz, and composing that way," Margolis suggests. "This album is who I am, this Sonikete Blues. If you want to know me, that's this album."

All About Jazz: How does Sir Sultry know Bill Watterson?

Ethan Margolis: Let's start with "Sir Sultry," just so we get that straight. Sir Sultry is the name that I put on my initial project when I returned to the US after having lived in Spain for ten years. It's meant to be tongue-in-cheek on how we "Hollywood-ify" the Spanish, Gypsy, flamenco, "Latin lover" thing. I originally attached it to the band that I was in, the quintet whose album you reviewed (Soleángeles [2014, Self Produced). It's very far from being serious, like, "We're some sultry thing." But the American take on the Spanish or exotic is often very romanticized and fantastical and we often miss the essential point. I don't particularly go by that name myself, but it does go on some of my projects and I do use it as a production name when I produce things for other people.

The Bill Watterson connection is that he's actually from the Cleveland area, where I'm from, where I grew up. I had heard for years that he grew up in either the Cleveland Heights or Chagrin Falls area and never gave it a second thought until years and years later, when all of a sudden Bill Watterson develops a strong interest in flamenco music, and I was coming in from Spain to teach some masters' classes and he showed up. That's how we met. Years later, we still remain in touch and when I go back to Cleveland, we'll hang out, get coffee or whatever.

Maybe two years into this, he came up to me and said, "Hey, if you ever need any art for one of your projects, let me know. If we can come together on a concept, I'm game." I didn't seek him out. He volunteered himself and kind of showed up on the down low. He did the "Sir Sultry" logo for my production name, sort of a Quixote-esque, comical, foppy flamenco-looking guy, which we think is great, knowing that the name is kind of a jest at what foreign countries like to make out of flamenco music. Apart from that, he did a whole series of scratchboard drawings for the flamenco rock opera I toured. I admire him so much because he is the epitome of artistic devotion at all costs. Yeah, super cool.




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