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World Music Features

Online Exclusive: Sir James Galway

By Jim Bessman
Published October 2, 2008

Sir James Galway spends some free time in Cuba.

The older gentleman looked a bit out of place during sound check at Manhattan world music club Drom.


With spectacles, salt-and-pepper hair and beard, and golden flute, he looked distinctly un-Cuban. And he was surrounded by four young players—pianist Jorge Gomez, percussionist Leandro Gonzalez, bass guitarist Tebelio Fonte and drummer Hilario Bell – who most assuredly were Cuban, being members of the Grammy-nominated Miami-based Cuban timba band Tiempo Libre.


“The flute doesn’t sound like a flute!” the older man complained, his rare club gig only hours away. “It sounds electronic.” He, however, was immediately recognizable – even in the unexpected setting. It was “The Man With The Golden Flute” himself, Sir James Galway, inserting a lovely flute theme into Tiempo Libre’s rhythmic ensemble play in the manner of their new album collaboration O’Reilly Street. Two nights later he would be on more familiar ground as host of the “Live At Lincoln Center” presentation of the opening night of the167th season of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, at which he performed Jacques Ibert’s “Concerto For Flute And Orchestra.”


If this sounds musically schizoid, let Sir James explain: “Let me draw a parallel with Robert De Niro,” says Galway. “He can do comedy, and he can do ‘Cape Fear.’ The reason is because he’s an interpreter—and that’s what we as musicians are, interpreters. We need to be able to do all these things.”


He points to French jazz pianist/composer Claude Bolling’s “Suites For Flute And Jazz Piano,” portions from which form the centerpiece of O’Reilly Street.


“There are bits that you can play as a symphony player because it suits the music, but when Jorge is playing it, it’s definitely not Avery Fisher Hall!” says Galway, noting that “the stage had been set” for their “Cubanized” version of Bolling’s “crossover” piece by such “terrific jazz flute players” as Herbie Mann, and of course, classical flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal, who jazz pianist Bolling wrote it for. “It was easy for me to follow in their footsteps, but we didn’t want to use the ‘big piano trio’ format with standard bass and drums. So we got in touch with Jorge.”