Guillermo Klein Grinds Quickly, Yet He Grinds Exceeding Small

by Brian Howe on May 2, 2011

Guillermo Klein

According to a story on WBGO’s The Checkout, Guillermo Klein played a key role in making Argentine jazz safe for Argentine music. During the country’s economic boom of the 1990s, Klein was one of the many young musicians who were able to go abroad, studying at Berklee before moving to New York to form his Big Band and Los Guachos. On April 29, Klein Y Los Guachos blew the roof off Reynolds Theater with a songful and virtuosic performance where arcane filtros—the granulated polyrhythms Klein layers over folk cadences—were armored in a burnished-gold harmonic environment that sometimes resembled a South American Gershwin. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small,” in Longfellow’s famous translation, but Los Guachos go one better. They grind exceeding small very, very quickly.

“Before 2000,” The Checkout’s Eric Benson asserts, “few Argentine musicians saw jazz, tango, and folkloric music in the same continuum.” Klein, who had reconnected with the music of his homeland while in Boston, returned to Argentina in 1999, a time of economic crisis when the prohibitive cost of bringing in American stars opened a space for local musicians. For him, bop grooves became basic starting points for exploring not just Argentine chacareras and composited claves, but European-style counterpoint and minimalism. We heard all of this and more at Duke, from the limber drummer Jeff Ballard’s “Child’s Play” (which is reportedly based on a native Ghanaian rhythm in 9/8 time, and thus resembles the chacarera) to a new piece by trumpeter Taylor Haskins, “The Habit of Melody,” whose muted colors and baggier shapes offset Klein’s own vibrant, chiseled compositions.

Taylor Haskins (photo: Hekli Andi)

When Klein left Buenos Aires again, for Barcelona, Guachos-like young bands sprang up thickly in his wake, and when he returned in 2009, he did so as something close to a jazz patron saint. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time,” Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald understated as he introduced the show, and he wasn’t the only one. A couple chuckles from the audience implied, “Me too…if by for a long time you mean freaking forever.” But at Los Guachos’ first appearance ever in the Southeast, Klein wore his ambassadorship lightly. He didn’t speak much, nor did he need to, as eloquence is one of his music’s defining qualities. When he did speak, it was in a quiet and sultrily accented voice that projected a sprit that was humble and tender, moody yet quick to light up with joy. One smoking solo by saxophonist Miguel Zenon caused Klein to lay his head on his arms on the piano, like a child napping in class, as if overcome by the music.

In marked contrast to some other terrific jazz pianists we’ve seen this year, like Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson, Klein was a languid presence at the keyboard, with a retiring sound and hands that moved almost imperceptibly. His Guachos are a thrilling band that can flood with blinding light in an instant, and Klein led them soaring over a virtually uncountable metrical terrain that could seem no beat and all accents, but almost always felt fluid and natural. On this blog last week, Patrick Jarenwattananon speculated that Klein makes these tricky meters work for listeners by keeping the melodic material accessibly catchy and bold, and after witnessing this show I’m inclined to agree. For all its structural complexity, the music moved in big majestic swoops, always aimed toward mighty unison surges and harmonic epiphanies, be they wicked tritonic flourishes or blasts of zooming fanfare that made you feel like Adam West was punching the Joker somewhere. Pow! Biff! Sock!

Ben Monder (photo: Ralph Gibson)

The cunning rhythms, at times, felt literally unreal. One that flipped quickly back and forth between a fast, even scurry and a jagged strut didn’t feel like two meters grafted together at the ends, but a seamless wax and wane. This magical feat was reprised, albeit with a bit less polish, on a brand new Klein song that featured a bizarrely speeding-up and slowing-down electric guitar arpeggio, courtesy of the implacable Ben Monder. It felt like hearing a music box with dying batteries, with that same sense of seconds being pulled and stretched. In our recent interview, Klein discussed the way that time feels different in the U.S. and South America, and in his music we can hear him synthesizing these paces into rhythms that are wholly personal.

It’s hard to pick a star player of the night—this 11-piece band is loaded with firepower. But each musician brings a distinct personality to the mix, as is best evinced by the different saxophone soloists. Zenon was the most flamboyant, blazing through notes as if playing several solos at once. Bill McHenry was the most deliberate, intent on playing the right notes with the right inflections, rather than all of them. And Chris Cheek, I thought, had the most soul, allowing some guttural blues into a music geared toward massive but buoyant effervescence. Klein’s monastic drone of a voice—more concerned with dusky emotional evocation than perfect pitch—had a plainness that offset the impeccable music with a fragile and somehow trustworthy human presence.

Bill McHenry

This showed through again on an encore that included the first movement of a Ginastera piano sonata that the group had only recently begun to rehearse. While Klein got to show more virtuosity on the piano than elsewhere, it has to be said that it sounded rough around the edges. And that was fine, because we were made to understand that the piece was raw and in-process, and felt privileged to hear it. Even when Klein Y Los Guachos are playing far from home, for the first time ever in a new city, they aren’t content to mine the sure shots from their deep book—every show is a chance to push the music forward. That came through strongly at Duke, where I think most of us were ready to follow Klein, the self-effacing shepherd,  wherever he wanted to go.

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