Guillermo Klein: Muse and Roots

Eric Benson By

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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...
Argentine 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.

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.

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.

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?

GK: 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.

The Berklee Gang

AAJ: There seem to be a disproportionate number of Argentine jazz musicians who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Why did you decide to study there, and what was the experience like?

GK: I had a teacher who taught me classical music here in Buenos Aires, and he told my parents that it would be better if I left [Argentina]. He had studied at Indiana University, and he told my parents, "it would be good for Guillermo to leave to organize his learning a little bit." At the time, I was very disorganized. I played in a rock and roll band, and my father wanted me to study more seriously.

Berklee was great. They have everything there. The most important thing is the people, the other students that you meet. For example, I put together a big band, my first big band, and all of the members of the band were students at Berklee with me. That's how I know Richard Nant, that's how I know Juan Cruz de Urquiza, people that I've kept playing with. Jorge Rossy is another one. You can count up a whole gang of musicians. I met Danilo Perez there too. Miguel Zenon, who later came to New York, had gone to Berklee. How can you say that you're against Berklee? A lot of people like to complain about Berklee, but if Berklee was the place where I saw all these musicians developing, how could it be bad?

The New Buenos Aires Scene

AAJ: You played in New York for six years at Smalls and The Jazz Standard and then returned to Argentina. Why did you go back?

GK: Because I had a lot of desire to. I was [in Argentina] for two years, and they were very, very intense. I wrote a ton of music, I played a ton. It was an unforgettable experience. It was very important for me to return. Sometimes you can't explain your decisions thoroughly. Although I think that if you let yourself follow your desires, later, you won't regret anything.

AAJ: A lot of musicians have told me that ten years ago, jazz in Argentina was very different from what it is today; that there was a lot of jazz-rock fusion and the music was more imitative. When you returned to Argentina in 2000, what was the scene like?

GK: It's true. There was more fusion. But in New York it was that way too at the beginning of the 90s. What's happened is that, I think today jazz in Buenos Aires has a stronger connection to its roots. I feel that every time I go, there's more happening. It's much more interesting than before. I think jazz [in Buenos Aires] has evolved a lot over the last ten years. If you think about it, there are many more jazz musicians than rock musicians now. It used to be the reverse. It's probably up to a sociologist to see why this has happened, but thankfully, now when you go to Buenos Aires, you can always catch good bands.

AAJ: So when you went back to Buenos Aires there weren't a lot of great players, but there was something of a scene for creative jazz?

GK: I think that things have really taken off more in the last few years. I also think the [2001 financial crisis] contributed a lot. In a cultural sense, it had some very good effects: bringing us back to earth, not having so many foreigners come to play, making it so that we weren't always looking outside the country. People started looking inside the country a lot more. In a certain sense, I can say that I was lucky to be in Argentina at that time. It was a very powerful moment.

Thelonious (night club) opened at that time too. Thelonious was a new current. It was like Smalls [in New York]. For a bunch of months, I had a steady gig every Wednesday, like I'd had at Smalls. I'm doing the same thing now in Barcelona. I like to be a resident where I live. I like having a continuous gig.

Before Thelonious opened, you couldn't find anything like that in Buenos Aires. For that, we should build a monument to the guys who run Thelonious. It's where a lot of bands developed. I think Thelonious had a lot to do with [the development of the Buenos Aires scene]. It also had to do with a lot of people, who had been abroad, returning with open minds, like Richard Nant, Juan Cruz de Urquiza, Ernesto Jodos, and me, when I was there.

AAJ: What exactly did you guys bring?

GK: 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, it'll have things from [fokloric music innovator] Cuchi Leguizamon, it'll have things from traditional folkloric music, from [Astor] Piazzolla. All of that is much more authentic than playing jazz that's pseudo-Brecker, pseudo-Yellowjackets, or pseudo-whatever kind of fusion you want to talk about. I think that we've learned how to express our roots again. The new generation has embraced that tradition with a lot of pride.

AAJ: Do you ever want to go back to live in Buenos Aires?

GK: Yes. Buenos Aires gives me a lot of energy, but it's a kind of violent energy. I want to grow a lot more, so that I don't feel so violent when I'm there. It's tough because I fix on all of the injustice.

I've never stopped dreaming of Buenos Aires, but I have to go back when I'm ready. Returning to Buenos Aires right before the crisis was a very powerful thing for my wife and me. It's a thing that stays with you in your subconscious. [Buenos Aires] makes me crazy, but it's inevitable that I'm going to return.

What Lies Ahead

AAJ: Is your new album, Filtros, an extension of what you did with Los Guachos in the past? Or is it a new kind of development?

GK: The new disc is an extension, but what's very different is that that there's a lot of music that I've written in the last three, four years that I played in Buenos Aires, and played in Barcelona. There's a lot of singing as well.

We recorded this album right after doing two weeks at the Village Vanguard, and because of that it sounds really good, the music is very focused. It's a heavy disc with a clear message; very well defined. One thing that I've learned over the years is not to have too many musical whims. This is music without whims.

AAJ: And you're going to be playing at the Village Vanguard again in June...

GK: Yeah. Then we're going to play at the Newport Jazz Festival, and in October, I'm coming to Buenos Aires. In general, when I come to play in Buenos Aires, I pay for the flight. This is the first time that I'm not paying. That's a huge milestone for me.

We're going to do a tribute to Cuchi Leguizamon that will be part of the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival. I'm already writing every day. I wake up and I learn one of his songs. Distance is a very subjective thing. When I'm playing one of Cuchi's songs, I'm in [the Buenos Aires neighborhood of] San Telmo.

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