Argentine pianist and composer Guillermo Klein brings his modern big band, Los Guachos, back to the Wexner Center for the Arts for another surefire hit in this year’s terrific jazz season, on Friday, March 18th (tickets here) in advance of their fifth record, GVachos. I had the honor to speak with Klein by phone in advance of this date. For more about the show and the players, including videos, continue reading.
Anyone who saw the Guachos’ 2012 stand at the Wex walked out stunned by the power of that band and the delicate quality of the coloring, I know I did. It was one of the finest examples of how unexpected those forms can still be. Klein advised me, “We dedicated that concert to the memory of my teacher Herb Pomeroy. This time, the concert will be more programmatic.”
In an interesting synchronicity or sign of the zeitgeist, one of the two suites comprising Klein’s new record he plans to play in Columbus is based on Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” which Wexner fans got to hear a different take on in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s smoking Bird Calls show. Klein’s approach is a three-part suite that takes on three distinct ways of looking at this classic composition. The first part, as described to me by Klein, recalled Georges Seurat’s pointilist painting – each member plays a distinct part of the melody but only that part so the full melody reveals itself in the air to the audience, a technique he started to work with on the piece called “Human Feel” on his brilliant record with Adam Goldbert, Bienestan. The second part is symmetrical, showing how strong the original’s construction is. The third section works the elements of the Parker piece into a 12-tone row, one of the tenets of modern classical composition. Klein chuckled as he told me the climax of this suite has been divisive, “Some people loved it, my wife hates it.”
The remainder of the Wex show promises a wide range of material. As Klein said to me, “I write tunes that I think I can play all my life. Pieces we first played 20 years ago, we still play.”
Despite many years in New York at the center of the US jazz world, since the early ’00s Klein moved home to Argentina and later to Barcelona. I asked him how he keeps a band this large and full of top-flight talent spread over a variety of cities and even countries, together in this, what he told me was the 20th year of playing with the Gauchos. “We like to get together, see each other, hear what we’re all working on. We have to schedule these tours a year in advance and nobody pays their bills from these gigs, but playing with this band is like going to Heaven. I’m not so interested in improvising as a player but here, I’ve got the best improvisers on my compositions. When Chris Cheek plays a solo, it’s the best solo and nothing I would have thought of.”
That stable group of astonishing players is a key piece of Los Guachos’ rich, artistic success. Miguel Zenón, Bill McHenry, and Chris Cheek are three of the finest reeds players you’re likely to ever see. Their explosive flights are reinforced and matched by a diamond-hard and razor-sharp brass section comprised of Richard Nant and Diego Urcola on trumpet and Taylor Haskins and Sandro Tomasi on trombone. The rest of Klein’s rhythm section can cook with a hard flame and handle the abstractions in his work with deftness, Ben Monder on guitar, Fernando Huergo on bass, and Jochen Rueckert on drums.
We talked about links and keeping up connections as well as always working on a diversity of projects. Klein had a suite commissioned by the MIT Wind Ensemble Solar Return which came out on a record last year alongside pieces by Don Byron and Chick Corea (with Bill McHenry on tenor). He told me, “I met the director of the MIT band through Herb Pomeroy. The first thing he asked me to commission was a piece for a High School jazz band he was working with. Years later, in 2005, I wrote this for MIT, thinking about science and Steve Reich. It premiered in 2006 but we didn’t record it until 2015.” Klein gets a lot of commissions for dance pieces, chamber music, work for other big bands – he’ll be working with Germany’s world-famous NDR Big Band (along with Bill McHenry and Chris Cheek from the Guachos) later this year in a packed schedule of touring.
At the end of our conversation that ranged from pop music to classical, from clubs in New York like Smalls and Jazz Standard (where Klein started regular runs in 1999), Klein talked about what informs his work. “Sometimes when you look to the past, you can see the future more clearly. In these personal connections… if I study Reich for a while, then I put on some Bach. I hear cells in Bach’s work. The more music I hear, the more it informs each other. What we as composers do is try to make it as clear as we can. So other people understand our voice. We share a desire to say something.” For anyone interested in contemporary music of any genre, this is a rare chance to see one of the world’s great composers with an ensemble finely tuned to his rare voice. I can’t recommend anything more highly.