Esteban at the Crooked River Festival - Riverfront Centre Mall

Saturday, July 21, 2001

Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

The Progress of Esteban

I heard Esteban (Stephen Paul) perform on a very torrid Saturday afternoon in July at the Crooked River Art Festival hosted by Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Owing to extreme conditions the audience was limited but appreciative of the performer and his 5-piece back-up ensemble.

In spite of recent articles on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and in Time Magazine this nylon string guitarist, poised for tremendous popular success, is not respected by many classical guitarists. Selling almost two million recordings via cable TV and having a recent CD and a just-released video positioned literally at the top of the Billboard sales rankings, ahead of 'N Sync and Britney Spears, are not enough to stifle criticism of the performer's talent for self-promotion and marketing.

With all this in mind and having never heard an Esteban recording, seen a video or tuned in to one of his cable TV sales sessions I was eager to hear a live performance.

Much of what I have read about him on the Internet is true:

He loves what he does.

He has a good rapport with the audience.

He is not the greatest flamenco or classical guitarist.

His music has vitality.

His music could be better.

He is a commercial musician and good salesman.

His 5 piece band is superb.

He is very successful at what he does.

Esteban is humble.

During the first set I saw little evidence in his playing of anything more than an average level of nouveau flamenco ability and style. There are plenty of well-known performers -- Jesse Cook, Strunz and Farah, Adam DelMonte, Paco de Lucia, Ottmar Liebert -- who seem to have much more fluid technique than Esteban; and yet, few have achieved a fraction of his commercial success.

The first piece, "The Lonely Bull," was a 1960s pop hit by the Tijuana Brass organized by Herb Alpert. Esteban's lengthy version featured skillful drum kit and Latin percussion solos by each of the two-man percussion team. The trumpet player also demonstrated considerable prowess playing elaborate corrida-style flourishes and falsettas. The ensemble also has a keyboard player and electric bassist. These are top flight musicians, one of whom, Joe Morris, is a Grammy Award winning kit percussionist.

Esteban took a moment to apologize for the half hour delay caused by a sound check. He also commented that his band's music comes from the heart and since their repertoire spans both new and ancient songs he feels the presence of Segovia, his guitar teacher, and all the other great guitar personages who have passed on. Next came a Beatles tune, "Eleanor Rigby," which churned like an asphalt roller following a meditative solo flamenco introduction by Esteban. The exception here was an interesting break taken by the keyboard player.

As the band rhythmically cooks, Esteban has the habit of creating a very loud textural strum by damping the strings and strumming next to the bridge; this sound is very harsh and quickly becomes trite, tiresome and annoying. Overall the guitar's sound was full but too electronically colored by the intense level of amplification.

Next he presented a recent composition based on some flamenco music he heard played late at night on the beach at a seaside Spanish Mediterranean resort. For Esteban, this is ancient music dating from the mid-19th century and appears on his recent "Esteban Live" recording. This tune featured ample dosages of Esteban's guitar work but his style seemed unnecessarily harsh and his scale work sounded rhythmically uneven to my ears. In general all the pieces end up being played with a pretty hard, driving Latin beat which references high decibel rock 'n' roll more than immersion in flamenco's rhythmic intricacies and dynamic expressive flourishes. It was extremely hot so my friend and I only heard one more tune: Del Shannon's "Runaway," another '60s hit which didn't gain much from the flamenco-rock treatment.

We sought some shade as we listened to last tune before a 15 minute CD-signing break. A bearded figure passed by wearing a serape and a Zorro hat. He stopped and momentarily gazed at the large stage where Esteban was holding court. He looked around with defiance, not unlike Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, and sauntered off. Later, we toured the rest of the festival venue before leaving. At the exact opposite end, in a large circular courtyard with a central fountain, we discovered this same fellow playing the classical guitar on a much smaller shaded stage with a sound system. Aside from the sound technicians there was almost no audience. At this point I recognized this man, whom I hadn't seen or thought of in years, as the Akron, Ohio answer to Esteban. In fact, his efforts along these lines pre-date Esteban's by at least 20 years. His name is James Kallal, a local guitar teacher who has presented himself as a student of Segovia's and has had a successful career performing lite classical and pop fare for corporate functions and sponsors. One can literally encounter Kallal at the grocery store with a table set up to sell his CDs and take names for lessons. He will also perform a snippet of the Chaconne or any other tune you might like to hear. It takes guts to do what he does. Years ago he gave some "serious" concerts but they didn't amount to much so he became more commercial and less classical. Some say he was always a good reader and could really play once. His efforts that afternoon during my brief encounter amounted to some expansive, disconnected noodling. At least he had a good tone through the sound system.

If Esteban and Kallal represent the state of commercial classical guitar at the national and local levels then I am somewhat discouraged. I can't fault anyone for making a living playing their music, even if it is not quite to my taste and liking. The problem arises when the results bear little resemblance to the great music which originally inspired them. I can't say that damage is being done because the instrument and some of the music is being presented to a very wide audience who will perhaps investigate and learn more about its artistic origins. On the other hand I certainly wish the playing were of higher quality.

I probably won't go hear Esteban again in the festival format. If he played a small club or concert hall venue it might be worth seeing if his playing adjusts for a more intimate setting. He seems to have enough sense and playing ability to be able to meet such varied demands. Let's face it: the huge sound system and the expectation to play before a madding crowd fueled by beer and fatty fried food could warp one's performance parameters. As he addresses his audience there is a mixture of humility, warmth and intelligence in his voice. I believe Esteban knows exactly who he is and where he stands as the front man surrounded by a band of much better musicians. This might explain his progress, along with ambition and the wisdom to not question his success. -- Roger Thurman

Esteban warms up during the sound check.

© Roger G. Thurman 1998-2008

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