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Jazz Pianist Guillermo Klein Tackles Iconoclast 'Cuchi' Leguizamón


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There is a select list of musicians in jazz who are far from being a household name, but they have the respect if not outright adoration of their peers. Argentine composer/arranger/pianist Guillermo Klein is such an artist. He's released a handful of CDs under his own name since attending Boston's Berkelee College of Music from 1990 through 1992. His canvas has always been bigger bands, and he has undeniable knack for matching beautiful melodies to brilliant but unconventional arrangements. At the center is a rhythmic heartbeat that pulsed with the blood of jazz, Latin (most notably the tangos and chacareras of Argentina), European classical and modern pop.

After moving to New York in 1993, he started a 17-piece band filled with some of the best young players on the New York scene. The musicians essentially donated their time to play the aptly named Small's on Sundays throughout much of 1995. Klein also had a second band called Los Gauchos, a dectet that included saxophonists Chris Cheek and Bill McHenry, guitarist Ben Monder and others. Klein got a second residency, at the Jazz Standard in 2000, before moving back to Argentina later that year. After a few years, he moved to Spain to teach and then recently ended up back to Argentina, where he's recorded his latest: 'Domandor de Huellas,' which honors the music of Gustavo “Cuchi" Leguizamón.

“Cuchi knew that the voice of the people had to evolve," Klein writes via e-mail from Argentina. “He hated conventional events and ways; he wanted the people think and feel. He is the true composer, the one that you know his songs, but you don't know his name."

Gustavo Leguizamón lived in the northeastern region of Salta and had a varied career before dying on Sept. 27, 2000 at age 82. Along with being a musician, composer and a prize-winning poet, Leguizamón was also a lawyer (even holding down a day job as the attorney for the province of Salta) as well as a professor of history, literature and philosophy. Often collaborating with other lyricists or composers, he wrote many popular folk songs in the chacareras, vidalas and zamba traditions.

“He, like Astor Piazzolla, was very lyrical," Klein adds. “The way he construct his melodies gives you a clear perception of the groove and harmony that goes along with the melody. So if you sing these songs a cappella, you can hear all the components. It is powerful."

According to Klein, the challenge was to absorb the essence of the pieces. He did this by playing them enough that he could make them his own and then turn his Argentina-based octet loose on them.

“To make the whole song balanced in every way it is quite a task," Klein points out. “And to play these songs and feel complete and present is very powerful. Also, I feel that this music is more like storytelling, a dance, a communal expression even. My own songs in general are more like confessions or reflections, more inward--the more we play this music, the more our two different approaches combine."

The Leguizamón project was originally commissioned by the Buenos Aires Jazz Festival in 2008, and it was performed there in 2009 (see a clip here). You can hear Klein's musical fingerprints all over the 14 songs here in the bold melodies and unexpected instrumental shifts. While not a great vocalist himself, Klein occasionally sings on his albums and does so again here, adding to the unadorned, folk-like quality of the music. He evens opens the album by singing 'Domador de Huellas,' which also features the lone original music from his pen, with Leguizamon providing the lyrics. When the song demands more vocal gravitas, there are three guest vocalists who alternately step in.

Unlike the broad gestures of tango, much of the music is subdued and thoughtful, complex and occasionally unsettling as it shifts between ideas. There is never a second when you aren't aware that you are listening to one iconoclasts vision of another iconoclast, particularly on the almost Philip Glass-like 'Coplas del Regreso,' where a lopsided four-note figure spins on the edge of control before the song opens up into an uneasy waltz. On a completely different tack but equally unexpected is 'Maturana,' which sounds like a choral arrangement that is instead played by the horn section.

It's not easy to remake a beloved genius's work. Before beginning, you have to wrap your head around that and the fact that his music is a public art form where others will hear the results--it's a daunting challenge if there ever was one. Yet the crowd reaction in 2009 was positive and Klein feels satisfied with the results. “The response was deep," Klein says, adding “this music is in the ears of many Argentines, so our approach has to be thorough so it gives a sensation of the present, a mix of respect and challenge."

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