Interview: Guillermo Klein Searches for “People Who Resonate”

by Chris Vitiello on April 28, 2011

Guillermo Klein (photo: Lourdes Delgado)

The pianist, bandleader, and composer Guillermo Klein is renowned for his inventive, eclectic songbook and large, luxurious big-band sound—at least in jazz circles. Unlike, say, Vijay Iyer, who has built a quite visible edifice in the mainstream, Klein is less likely to be familiar to a general audience, perhaps because he quit New York at the end of the 90s to return to his native Argentina. Whether you’re catching up with an old favorite or learning about Klein for the first time, his April 29 show at Reynolds with Los Guachos—their first time performing in the Southeastern U.S.—is a rare opportunity. We caught up with Klein by phone last night to learn more about what he’s been up to and how this show came about.

The Thread: You play in the U.S. pretty rarely these days, and have never played in the Southeast before. What brings you South at the beginning of your stand at the Village Vanguard in New York? Why Durham?

Guillermo Klein: Basically, it was the interest of Duke to have us [that motivated us to come.] I would love to play everywhere, but sometimes it’s hard to move with so many players, with eleven, you know? So mostly, we play in New York, at the Village Vanguard. It’s very hard to move around. It’s a very logistical situation.

How long will this stand at the Vanguard be?

We will be playing dates from May 2 to May 8, the whole week. It’s our sixth year in a row that we will be doing this.

I’ve heard some of the sets from recent years. Are you going to be playing new stuff, or from the album Domador de Huellas?

No, we have a big book, and we choose songs we like to play each night. We have songs that date to 1994 that we’ve been playing since then. And today, actually, we rehearsed a new piece. We mix a lot of new music, old music, and things we’ve never played before. We’ll premiere a couple of pieces at Duke, actually.

Could you tell us something about the new music you’ll play?

I’ve been writing a lot of grooves that sound pretty good, actually. Like two different time meters together, that don’t sound cerebral but sound more evocative. It’s a new thing that I’m working on and it’s coming along pretty good. It’s kind of different actually, those couple of pieces that are more like… they make you feel instantly that you are in a dream or something.

I think my favorite piece of yours is “Amor Profundo.” The way it opens, it has that kind of a feeling to it. There’s a very definite rhythm as it opens, and then there’s a kind of stutter step. It only gives you half the pattern and then it starts it over.

Yeah, that’s a good clave. We play a lot on that clave. It feels tighter. It feels, like, broken, but it’s basically two bars of 3/4, so when you play it, it’s very grounded to the floor. That’s why it moves so well. It has a lot of ground, and you can hear the air of it. So that clave is very welcome.

Will you be playing from your most recent album as well?

No, Domador de Huellas, I don’t think we will play those tunes because I recorded them with another friend. We recorded those with other musicians, so we aren’t rehearsing those pieces. We might play some from Filtros, and some from previous records, and some fugues, and some other pieces we like to play a lot. But Domador de Huellas, no, because being recorded with a different band, I don’t really feel the urge to play that music. I love it, but I prefer to rehearse the new stuff.

Well, I’m sure that’s a lot more fun.

Oh yeah. That’s what I’m about, too, you know. Every chance I get to play with these guys, I bring new music and I share. Actually, today I rehearsed this arrangement of a piano sonata by Ginastera, who’s a classical Argentine composer. And we had a lot of fun with that piece. Ginastera was a composer who was very influenced by Bartók and Stravinsky and at the same times sounded very Argentine, so we spent like three hours with that piece today. So you know what I mean about bringing new music, it’s always very exciting.

When you get together with the group, is it just all kinds of music? You’re bringing a classical piece in. Do they care what genre the music is from?

Miguel Zenon

No, not at all. First of all, we’ve been playing together for almost 20 years, so we’ve been around a lot of genres ourselves, you know? And also we really like to exchange. We meet twice a year to exchange what we’ve gathered. It’s a very big pool, you know? Sometimes, it’s so uplifting to hear Miguel [Zenon] or Diego [Urcola] just bring something new in. We might even play this arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream” that I’ve done. I don’t know how it’s going to sound, but I tell you, this arrangement is like a mirror, you know? Anything that goes higher in the piece, also goes lower in the piece, as a mirror. So we’ll take that one and rehearse it, and if it doesn’t sound crazy or weird, we will play it. That’s what I mean, I like to share a lot of stuff. We’re all good friends, for real, and that’s a great sensation.

You’re all together but your sound is also really loose. I’ve heard jazz groups, even jazz quartets, where the sound goes kind of flat because they’ve played together too much. How do you keep your sound fresh each time you play?

[There is] a space in the book that we acquire, I would say, spiritually. Every time we play, we deliver what that piece means. It’s always fresh because we’re playing. It sounds kind of redundant. And there’s always a place for new interpretations. I don’t write drum parts, for example, and I seldom make guitar or bass arrangements. Sometimes I just give the idea of a piece, so every time we play, it takes a new form according to where the player is in time. And that’s a good thing. Those are the pieces that stay. You know, I used to write pieces that were very definite and precise at the very beginning. And some of them stay and some of them don’t, because they have a life of their own, no? And not to count the soloing, because soloing always makes a new thing.

There’s always such energy in the solos.

Yeah, I love to hear the guys solo, you know? I really do. That’s one of the highlights of this band, for me. Give them a song that’s kind of simple and see what kind of form it takes through improvising.

It almost sounds like you turn into an audience member.

That’s what happens with this band. We are all waiting and looking forward to hearing what they play. That’s why we have no problem in resting. We are eleven people, and sometimes we play a song in a duo setting, or a trio. So, no problem waiting and listening to what your friend is playing.

It sounds like a vacation, like you guys have a playing vacation together.

Guillermo Klein Y Los Guachos

Yes, yes, but at the same time it’s a good balance of hard work, digging into it. If we don’t do hard work or if it doesn’t lead to something new, then it doesn’t feel like a vacation. Like that Ginastera sonata we played, that’s hard work. That gives us a pass from these little simple songs. There might be, like two grooves together that last for a while… that’s basically a song. In four minutes you went to 25 places. It’s crazy, you know? I’m very happy and grateful that we’re able to share the music down there. This is very good for me, and for us.

I was hoping you could talk about the difference between being a jazz musician here in the U.S., and in Argentina and Spain.

Well, I would like to talk about being a musician, and not just a jazz musician, because I deal with a lot of different things. I think that, in the core, it’s always the same. You get together to play, and try to live as deeply and intensely as possible in that music. I always get with people like that, anywhere I go. I cannot talk to social differences. That’s who I am. I look for people who resonate.

Although with [Los Guachos], we have certain types of qualifications that sometimes, we don’t even need to talk about before we start playing. It’s something profound. And it’s due to the fact that we’ve been playing together since the 90s. The understanding of what the music means is really, really fast. Maybe in Argentina or Spain, the work has to be harder or more mechanical, and maybe getting the time to rehearse is more loose also. We are talking about South America. On the other hand, down there, there is more stretching of time. Maybe one rehearsal is eight hours. Here, you start right on time and you end right on time, and you all go to do other things. It’s a real multitasking society. In Spain, I would say there is definitely not the same intensity as in Argentina. Spain is more loose. This is my experience, you know?

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