Guillermo Klein: Muse and Roots

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If you want what you're doing to be authentic, it has to come from the depths of your being. Sometimes what comes from those depths is going to have things from [Argentine rock musician] Charly Garcia, it'll have things from Spinetta...
Guillermo KleinArgentine pianist, composer, and bandleader Guillermo Klein is a musician for the global age. He grew up in Buenos Aires, studied in Boston, made his name in New York, returned home for two years, and then relocated to Barcelona. His wife is American; his children are Spanish. His most famous band, Los Guachos, has an international cast that has included the likes of Miguel Zenon, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, Luciana Souza, and Jeff Ballard, and features an adventurous genre-defying sound.

They will hold sway at the Village Vanguard from June 10-15 in support or their latest album, Filtros (Sunnyside, 2008), and will appear at the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, RI, in August.

What often goes unnoticed in Klein's music though, is the strong influence of his native land. Since Klein is an internationally famous exponent of the younger generation of Argentine jazz musicians, it's tempting to view him as an anomaly—a singular artist who soaked up everything from Stravinsky to Argentine rock star Luis Alberto Spinetta on his way toward crafting a bold, new sound. To some extent, he is an anomaly—his music doesn't sound like anything else—but that categorization disregards the profound role that Argentina still plays in his life.

Yet Klein's relationship with his native land is hardly one-sided. Young Argentine jazz musicians often cite him as one of their biggest influences, and musicians who cut their teeth in his bands—Richard Nant, Juan Cruz de Urquiza, and Pipi Piazzolla among others—have become leaders of some of the best groups in Buenos Aires. From his unique use of claves to his dexterous harmonies, Klein's music is a conversation between the remarkable curiosity that has propelled him throughout his continuing odyssey and the deep roots that have kept him dreaming of home.

Chapter Index

  1. A New Look at Rhythm
  2. Composing, Singing, Leading
  3. The Berklee Gang
  4. The New Buenos Aires Scene
  5. What Lies Ahead

A New Look at Rhythm

All About Jazz: Your music is often described as being polyrhythmic. Did you start thinking about rhythm in this kind of way while you were in the U.S. or was it something that was familiar to you growing up in Argentina?

Guillermo Klein: It began during my time in New York, because, rhythmically, I felt that drummers were too generic. Richard Nant and I started to feel the intention of the rhythm that was outside of the time signature. I started to realize that Argentine music and African music—like Cuban music and African music—in reality have the same roots. In all of this though, talking about styles backs you into a corner—it closes you off. What's important is that the music sounds authentic regardless of the style.

Guillermo Klein / Los Gauchos

The drums are a complicated subject, especially when you start to write rhythmically—when you start to lay down a rhythmic framework that's outside of a traditional style. I don't have any style. Every song has its own style. I like playing with creative musicians because they find the style for every song. Every time they play a song they create something new.

AAJ: Pipi Piazzolla told me when he played with you, the way you used claves changed his way of thinking about rhythm. Could you tell me a little more about how claves work in your music?

GK: What happens is that if you begin to find the rhythm of the melody, you can forget that it's in 3/4 or 4/4 or has a chacarera beat. You just follow the rhythm of the melody and sometimes the melody produces a certain clave. You find this a lot in tango, and you find it in Argentine folkloric music, and in Cuban music, and in African music. You feel a clave that lies outside of the standard beat. What we've begun to incorporate into our music is to play the clave and to feel the beat at the same time—it's bi-dimensional.

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Composing, Singing, Leading

AAJ: When you begin composing, do you think rhythmically, harmonically, melodically, or some combination of all three?

GK: It depends. I'm a curious guy and every song is a world in itself. Sometimes I start with rhythm, sometimes I start with melody, sometimes I start with harmony, and sometimes with an image I have. Sometimes I want to express a sensation and I go looking for a way to do that. Sometimes I start with an idea: for example, I want to write a canon at the sixth. Other times, it's a clave ... I write a clave and then I write everything else on top of it. If I didn't do this, I would have gotten bored by now.

AAJ: So then every song is a new adventure?

GK: Yeah, totally. The idea of every song is to explore deeply what that song is asking you to do. Those ideas don't need you to impose things on them. They're auto-sufficient. This is the method that I use for every song that I write. Sometimes they're little songs, sometimes they're works that are half-an-hour long, but that's the method. The important thing isn't the idea. It's where it's going and how it develops. It's one of the things that I'm very excited about.

AAJ: You use singing in many of your compositions, which is different from the majority of traditional jazz. When do you start doing that?

GuillermoGK: Since the moment I started playing music. The first thing I played was my voice. I sang songs in school. For me, the voice is more linked to the soul than anything else. A lot of melodies occur to me when I'm out in the street, and if they come to me as sung melodies, then why would I take out the singing? I sing a lot. I don't know if you've heard the stuff I've sung...

AAJ: I have Una Nave (2005), which has a lot of singing...

GK: Yeah man, that's me singing. I hire myself. The idea of singing works like this: If a melody occurs to me that has singing in it, why wouldn't I sing it? It's a very conscious decision that I've taken. When I write for orchestras and bands it's all very sleek, but when I sing it's much rawer. [Singing] puts me in another dimension. It's riskier. It makes me feel alive.

AAJ: Most of your bands are on the big side, which is a big contrast to New York, where I feel like it's rare to see a group with more than five people. Why do you put together big groups?

GK: First, because I like the way all of those musicians play. I call up people, not instruments. I also like the sensation of tone and the ability to combine the sounds of different instruments. I've always considered myself an orchestral composer. Sometimes I like to leave that world and play in a trio or a quartet, but I've dedicated myself more to writing. [Having a big band] is a lot more difficult logistically in every sense—rehearsing, finding gigs, getting paid, a whole lot of things.

AAJ: But it's worth it?

GK: Yeah, absolutely it's worth it. In the case of the Barcelona band, we're seven. When all seven of us are pulsing at the same time, it's very powerful. It's what I look for in my music. When a lot of people are feeling the same thing at the same moment, it's a very powerful relationship.

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