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Gabriel Szternsztejn: A Different Kind of Fusion


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Everything worsened for music in Argentina--which is a lot to say since the previous situation wasn't that good to begin with. Recession stops people from investing money in music, whether it is live or recorded, or in taking classes.

Researching a project for Jazz in Norway, Gabriel Szternsztejn—an Argentinean guitarist living in Spain—appeared featured on a Norwegian website. He is a musician's musician, with a singular compositional voice and a varied conceptual—as well as experiential—background.

AAJ Contributor Javier Antonio Quiñones Ortiz spoke with Szternsztejn about his music and self-titled release.

All About Jazz: What brought you out of Argentina?

Gabriel Szternsztejn: In reality, my musical life in Argentina was becoming quite monotonous, aside from a couple of truly interesting projects in which I was participating, and the recording of my album. I was already longing to spend time in Europe and was interested in the possibilities that my musical endeavor could facilitate. Once out of the country, the crisis that further defined things added itself to the exit equation.

AAJ: How are things going for you in Spain?

GS: I am in the initial stage of adaptation, getting to know and letting myself be known. Professionally, things work out slowly. I am participating in some projects and giving classes. I put together a quartet with good musicians to play the music on my album. I am rehearsing, playing and moving the material in Spain and the rest of Europe. I can't complain but one has to be patient.

AAJ: In brief, what can you tell me about Spain's musical life?

GS: I believe there is an interesting jazz movement with good musicians and places to play, as well as many festivals. Aside from Madrid, there are many musicians in Barcelona, Valencia and the Basque Country. The circuits is a bit small given the number of musicians available. The flamenco environment is another thing altogether. It has much to offer. It is still difficult for me, however, to find more alternative music. It's too soon to have a more complete panorama.

AAJ: Given the social and economic circumstances in Argentina, the cultural industries are suffering what I consider their worst reversal. Any comments on how such circumstances affect musical life in Argentina?

GS: Obviously, everything worsened for music in Argentina—which is a lot to say since the previous situation wasn't that good to begin with. I left the country just before the crisis. The news I get from musician friends, however, is bad. Most popular items for daily use are imported and costly after devaluation. Recession stops people from investing money in music, whether it is live or recorded, or in taking classes. It is logical, therefore, that the already meager governmental budget for culture would decay. It is also difficult to bring foreign artists in, which will limit information and interchange. The saddest thing is to see so many musicians fleeing the country. Countervailing that, I think, self-reliant and independent productions are growing, which is very positive.

AAJ: How did the Norwegian contact come up?

GS: I met Ole Amund through a common friend during a trip he made to Buenos Aires. He's particularly interested in Argentinean music and exchanges. Luckily, he really liked my music.

AAJ: How is your music being labeled?

GS: It is rather complicated. Generally, it shows up, as world Music—which doesn't please me much—or jazz, which it's not.

AAJ: How would you describe your music?

GS: For me, it's original acoustic instrumental music that fuses different rhythms and has elements from contemporary jazz. There's space for improvisation and the guitar is a leading character. Indeed, it is hard to find a category that fits it well.

AAJ: How difficult is it to find musicians that can back you up?

GS: It is a bit difficult. Although the music does not represent serious technical difficulties, I am interested in musicians with what I call a mixed background: in contact with the classical tradition—mostly for the interpretation—and a jazz background, in order to play freer; hence the need to be able to improvise and understand the more functional harmony that appears all the time. I assembled a quartet with very good musicians, with these characteristics.

AAJ: Could you tell me about the public's reaction to your music?

GS: Live, this music is almost virgin. I came to Spain with an Argentinean group under formation and recently debuted the quartet to good reviews and appreciation. I appeared in Buenos Aires before finishing the album and people responded very well. The album has received a good response from musicians and the public, which pleases me. I also had the big satisfaction of being praised by Egberto Gismonti, who is a monster as far as I am concerned.

AAJ: How about your formative musical experiences?

GS: It is a long list because I have an eclectic background and have been exposed to very diverse music throughout my life. I had many incentives at home and an early contact with classical music, folk, tango and popular music in general. As a child, I studied three years at the Collegium Musicum, a private traditional institution in Buenos Aires, and at a very good level. Later, as any guitarist from my generation, I heard and played rock and pop. Having done conservatory studies for the next seven years served me well technically and offered training in reading and composition, although I always felt a bit out of place in that environment. Even later, with things clearer, I began to study jazz—improvisation in particular—and to listen and play a different type of music.

If I had to name guitarists who influenced me, at first you have different artists like David Gilmour, Andy Summers , Van Halen and Brian May. Later, already interested in jazz and fusion, I started listening to Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Jim Hall, Mike Stern, Scott Henderson and Allan Holdsworth . Artists including Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Towner and John McLaughlin were—and are—fundamental. Beyond the guitar, I listened to a lot of Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Coltrane and Weather Report, amongst many others, and quite a bit of Brazilian music. The Beatles and Astor Piazzolla have been significant throughout my life. Despite listening to a lot of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner and some contemporaries, and having interpreted a conservatory's repertoire, I heard less classical music than I wanted.

AAJ: How do you compose?

GS: I have no method; I try to begin with some melodic motif that interests me, a sequence of chords or some rhythmic idea. Afterwards, it is all about evaluation and not entangling yourself with whatever looks good at first. I seek to never lose sight of the melodic aspect. I try to record or write things that come up and revisit them later. Some things come up through the guitar and others do not—the search is always intuitive and from listening, followed by analysis.

AAJ: What difficulties do you face when composing?

GS: It is rather common to get stuck in some cyclical idea, or not being able to find a good B part or an interesting bridge, although in general many things come out of me in one shot. When composing, undoubtedly, the most difficult thing for me is to find the same dedication normally invested in the study of the instrument.

AAJ: Any anecdotes concerning the compositions on your record?

GS: It is difficult to remember any concrete anecdote, but I can tell you that the tunes I had little faith in, generally speaking, became the most popular ones. Actually, naming them was quite a hassle.

AAJ: You colored your recording with several percussive effects. Would you tell me a little bit about them and their function within the musical vision of your CD?

GS: Although not present on every tune, percussion is fundamental on the album. I did not want a classic set up with drums. I needed to preserve the occasional intimate acoustic color of the tunes. The grooves needed to be defined, with interacting melodies of varied timbres, generating interesting climates. The contribution of Santiago Vázquez was very important in this regard.

AAJ: Is there a common thread throughout the production?

GS: The idea was to look for a homogenous sound, different instrumentation notwithstanding. We tried to make it sound warm and open, with setting and depth, without loosing definition. Mixing and recording everything in the same studio with Sergio Liszweski helped. Aside from managing his own studio, he's a great musician and guitarist. We had a very special vibe, working and experimenting a lot. Furthermore, all the musicians that collaborated played very well, with much enthusiasm and the ability to get in synch.

AAJ: Musically speaking, what are you searching for in this recording? Do you think you found it?

GS: Since it is my first album—after so many years as a musician—I could've put in everything I've accumulated thus far, which I avoided—as luck would have it. I took this album as the beginning of both a way and reencounter with the acoustic. In hindsight, it is logical to want to better some things, but I feel good about the album and I think it represents me faithfully as a musician. I am very happy with the sound we achieved and, in general, find it to be balanced in terms of the compositions and their interpretations. The experience was intense and enriching.

AAJ: Could you talk, briefly, about each of the songs in the CD?

GS: "Tan bien was among the last to be composed. It is based in ternary rhythms that give a folkloric air to it. With defined A and B parts, it has a guitar solo over a fusion modal harmony. It has a fresh character and it suited me for opening the album.

"Dias [sic.] de lluvia sounds a bit ethnic and has a tango sort-of-melody. It is built over an aleatory harmony that comes from experimenting with chords. The main section is in 15/8 (4+4+4+3). It is one of the first songs I composed. It sounds ECM-ish and is one of the two tunes from the album where the melody is carried by the soprano sax.

"Trenes pasados has a song format with quite a melancholic air. It has a certain Latin flavor in the groove, and is one of the tunes I like the most. It reflects that warm sound that I mentioned to you before.

"El compartimiento is an instrumental song that I originally composed as the title track for a short film. It has the typical acoustic sound of a guitar duo (although there are several overdubs) with short alternate solos. It is one of the other oldest tunes.

"El viento is one of the denser ones; at times, it features a Piazzolla-esque air. The first section has quite a contemporary harmony and the development is a bit more song-like. Since it is a duo, Mario Herrerias' piano part is quite fundamental. He's an impressive composer with whom I played for six years. .

"Tanto tiempo has, at times, a Spanish air. Rhythmically it is quite complex, with many amalgamated bars and changing accents. It is from the latest batch of tunes I wrote and it resembles the format I am thinking of using live. The bass and the Peruvian cajón parts are extremely good.

"Una vez, una tarde is a ballad composed as the title track for another short film. It has the kind of atmosphere conceived for a movie. It is another guitar duo, although with some overdubs and synthesized parts.

"Remar is a chacarera, an Argentinean dance folkloric rhythm in 3/4-6/8, in the form of a song. It is from the latest batch of tunes I composed and the only one recorded with the current quartet of guitar, piano, bass and percussion.

"Farol has the same instrumentation and ethnic color as "Dias [sic.] de lluvia. It is based on several amalgamated bars from guitar arpeggios that sound a bit like a milonga, an Argentinean rhythm, and a bit like Leo Brouwer . It is the only one conceived more as an ambience, where the melody doesn't tower over everything else.

"Estrella de piedra is the only guitar solo and it suited me well for closing the album. I think of it as a ballad that has the air of a movie. The name is related to my last name.

AAJ: Are you going to record the same type of music in your next work?

GS: It would most likely be acoustic music along the same lines, but my idea would be to record the entire album with the current group live and after playing the material for a while.

AAJ: What motivates and inspires you in life?

GS: It's difficult to say something concrete. My main motivation is to grow and evolve as a musician. I have a kind of permanent anxiety and when inactive, I feel funny. I hope I answered your question...

Selected Discography

Gabriel Szternsztejn, Gabriel Szternsztejn (PAI Records, 2001)

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