Interview with Guillermo Klein (by Reid Anderson)
(Reprinted from old DTM, originally posted June 2006, also published in DownBeat.)
REID ANDERSON: I moved to New York in the mid ’90s, a time when a new generation of musicians was converging on the city. New sounds and ideas flourished, most notably at Smalls, where bands had the opportunity to develop their music through weekly gigs. Of all the incredible experiences I had hearing music then, some of the most moving and profound were the nights when Guillermo Klein played with his group, Los Guachos. It was like nothing I had heard before. Ethereal yet accessible, Guillermo’s music is rich in detail, combining rhythmic and contrapuntal intensity with flights of pure melodic joy. He writes music for big bands that is not Big Band music, drawing as freely from Stravinsky, Bach and pop music as he does from Latin American folkloric music and jazz. Los Guachos has made three fantastic recordings: Los Guachos II and Los Guachos III (Sunnyside) and Live in Barcelona (Fresh Sound). His latest CD for Sunnyside, Una Nave, is a collection of driving rhythmic evolutions and evocative, mysterious, beautiful songs. It was recorded in his home country of Argentina in 2001. He now lives in Barcelona where I spoke with him recently. We began by talking about his Barcelona band where Jorge Rossy (known best as a drummer) plays keyboards.
GK: Jorge has such sharp ears and he has such great time. So we can do a lot of rhythmically challenging things for 2 harmonic instruments instead of only percussion instruments. We sometimes take the keyboards and use them like percussion instruments. We started doing that recently and it’s just taken us to a new place with this clarity…
RA: Is there anything that you find yourself doing to balance the 2 voices or to keep them distinct from each other?
GK: Well, he plays Rhodes and I play piano, but I usually write the voices exactly. I write exactly the notes that we are going to play so we know exactly what we are going to play. And even when I write chords, we just play and say “this sounds good,” so we keep that chord. It doesn’t matter… we just don’t look for something else. We stick to what we hear, like a pop thing, you know? And once we hear that and it’s fine after a while we know that we are playing that and we can arrange what we arranged. So if he changes and puts a tension I can definitely hear it to another level. For example, we play this song that I solo in F minor and C minor. And I said, let’s just play F minor and C minor and when I solo I will play some notes that are not [in those keys] and he can hear them. And if he changes one note of the comping it takes it to a completely different direction. We just do the opposite, like being very, very inside of the chord and it makes us create the sound of a band.
RA: So it’s about fully orchestrating the evolution of the music in real time as well as orchestrating the band.
GK: Yeah, man. I started giving the score to the musicians so they know what everybody is playing, so you have the sense that you are the arranger, too, or the composer. There is no hidden surprise – if you want to know what’s going on you check it out at home.
RA: When did you start working on your time-stretching concept?
GK: It’s a very powerful image… In Argentina there was a time (after the economic collapse) that every night at 9 PM people would go out to the street with pots and pans. Every night, man. So I would go with my wife and just sit there and start hearing this sound – AR-GEN-TINA, AR-GEN-TINA! And everybody was out there bitching about the situation, but at the end they’d always start – AR-GEN-TINA! – like, you know, “I love my country.” And I started hearing people doing this, but sometimes in a different tempo. And I said, how can I capture that? So I started [sings the song “Argentina” from Una Nave] and I wrote a song with that.
RA: That’s the first song on the record.
GK: Claro, that’s the first song on the record. But that was 2001 when I had the idea. And I started writing exercises with it and it developed. And I started every time getting more clear. And now that I’m kind of sharing it I have a way of explaining, so I can go further with that. I think it’s a good territory, at least for me. I’ve seen it. Stravinsky has it and a lot of classical people have it, but the challenging thing is to groove with it and to feel it like you feel it on your skin. The cells go faster and slower and you feel it. It’s a feel device. A feel device because to go from binary to triplet, it’s just a feel thing. You have to feel it, yes... It takes you, it grabs you. Like also the clave of the fugue. I was writing the fugue in 3/4, I took the Bach thing, and I was writing it in 3/4. I was doing this and I said, well, check it out, there is a 7 and another 7. It already had a groove in that cell, and then this clave came. It’s great to have claves inside the beat. I think the Indian People do that a lot – they have a lot of intricate claves inside the beat.
RA: It seems like when I hear even an older tune like “El Rio” it has a premonition of that.
GK: Exactly. I agree, brother. “El Rio” was like a Steve Reich and Phillip Glass impact. Like an innocent sensation because, again, the feel of going from 4 to 3. And at the same time I used a 4-tonic system. I go from B-flat sus to G sus to E sus to B-flat seven. [Proceeds to play the individual parts on the piano.] In Argentina we have that 3 against 2 – it’s our folkloric rhythm. Like in Latin American countries – Venezuela, Colombia – 3 against 2 is the thing. Folkloric. And it comes from Africa: 6/8. It’s just all living together. It’s amazing that, like, Latin music, what people call Latin music, developed that a lot, you know? Where jazz music developed the beat. But they come from the same root.
RA: When you first came to Berklee [school of music in Boston], was that the first time you came to the States?
GK: No, I came to Disney World with my family. And I went to NY when I was 18 and I was like, this is it! I was really overwhelmed. I was 20 when I went to Berklee. I knew a lot about American music. In Argentina there is all the pop, so much American music. All the pop was there.
RA: I’m curious to know how much a part of your life was more traditional Argentinean music like Chacarera, for example.
GK: Chacarera was… I used to play in masses and play the organ, the harmonium. And there were a lot of songs in 3/4 that, I didn’t know it, but they were Chacareras. Like [sings a song…] It’s like, imagine this. It’s like, for you, country music. It’s kind of the same. It’s like you have it in your blood. You have it – it’s your root. But it’s not like you listen to it at your house, or that I listened to Tango, because Tango was for old people, you know? But you have it, and you start playing and it comes. That’s what happened at Berklee. I wasn’t a jazz musician at all. I did exercises and that groove came with different harmonies, like jazz harmony. And I said, fuck it, man. I have to play it. It’s an assignment and I have to play the piano and I can play this, you know? And I realized that a lot of… especially the Americans, they couldn’t play it. And I was like, come on! It’s so simple! But, in the same way, I couldn’t play jazz. So I started realizing that I had it – I just had it. I’m not a folkloric musician, but it’s something that you have.
RA: That’s a mysterious thing. And also I often think that it’s a combination of that and feeling legitimized or legitimate. For example, sometimes I get the feeling that American musicians feel more legitimized playing jazz than musicians who aren’t American.
GK: I think there is a big difference between being legitimized and being legitimate. I see some Argentineans, they play Tango and Chacarera just to create themselves like, “this is my root.” The root is what you hear, it’s what you feel – what you feel in your blood and if you want to do it, that’s your root. You believe in what you do. And that’s the difference between being legitimized and legitimate. Of course if I play straight-ahead jazz or be-bop it’s going to be double work for me because I didn’t grow up on that. But if I always stick to Chacareras, having lived in the States and now in Barcelona it’s like, ok, wait a minute, I closed the curtain! There are no Chacarera bands here [in Barcelona]. There are no churches playing Chacarera, there are no bonfires in the night with people playing Chacareras. That’s what hits you, you know? Like when you are at a bonfire and there is a girl that you like and she plays the guitar and plays a Chacarera – that hits you! It’s true, you know? [But] I don’t want to exploit that image. I don’t care about it, I really don’t. I never did. I don’t market that way. I feel that a lot of people market themselves like that.
RA: Right. You don’t want to be “The Argentinean Composer/Arranger.”
GK: Claro, no! The thing is, I would say my masters: people like Bach or Stravinsky or Duke Ellington. Duke! He was, like, “American Jazz.” You hear Far East Suite and you hear “Koko” and it’s like completely different music. Or you hear “Sophisticated Lady” played in the ‘60’s… And he is, like, “Jazz.” But so wide. That’s how I feel about music: go for it in every song and forget all that you know before you start again. Of course we return to the same places because we have a vibration. Sometimes I fall into this 6/8 feel because I just started playing it and it feels good, so I keep going with it.
RA: I think that’s the folkloric element that everyone has access to: a kind of honesty about the things that come naturally to us.
GK: It takes a lot of courage to be able to see that, to see what comes naturally and to be able to accept it without dressing it or without hiding it. It takes a lot of awareness. The way you grab it – the way you keep it. That’s the hardest: when you grab it, to grab it completely.
RA: But also, especially in your case where the music is often composed with larger groups in mind, to keep that concept clear with everybody. So that it’s clear that everybody wants to play that music.
GK: I always had this image when I write: if it’s pretty or ugly, it has to be a place to be. The music will lead you. I’ve played with really great musicians. I admire everybody that I’ve played with and I’m very blessed in that. So I imagine them playing with Paul Motian, then with Charlie Haden and then with Brad [Mehldau] or Joshua [Redman], and then they come to play with me. And I say, ok, maybe you forgot what [this music] is all about. But just put the part and start playing and it will take you there. That’s the feeling. And I’m convinced that they feel the same way, because when we play, it just rolls. And, yeah, I had to work on that. It wasn’t easy. When at the beginning [the music] wasn’t sounding and I was like, they don’t understand me! But of course they didn’t because it wasn’t well written. If you have a lot of whimsical things and that whimsical thing doesn’t sound good, just take that out, you know? I think that’s very important especially in larger groups (like you said) – to have clarity and completeness. For Los Guachos we have this solid base, and then we take this step – just one step. And then we take another one, but if you fall, you only fall to the last step. We grow together. Even [though] now we play scarcely, the base is very, very clear and strong. And you don’t have to be Argentinean to play, you just have to feel the beat and give what you have to give.
RA: And the music itself creates that space for people. I suspect that that’s how you’ve been able to keep that kind of band going for all these years and to have that commitment from people to the music. It’s not like anyone was committed to getting a paycheck.
GK: No, in my case definitely not!
RA: What was that like from the early days? How did you establish that, what were the struggles, what were the lessons in terms of the ideal of keeping a band together?
GK: I think that Smalls was a blessing. I remember Mitch [Borden] – I used to live one block away from Smalls when it first opened and I told him, man, listen, I have a big band. And he said, if you can fit them here, you have a steady gig. It was just like that. And the fact of having a steady gig every Sunday or every Monday, it made it a place, it made it a hang, you know? So, we had that gig every Sunday and the music was growing. So everybody wanted to play.
RA: And this is when?
GK: ’95. And we played up to 2000. We played at some other places, but basically Smalls was the joint.
RA: And that’s about the time that people of our “scene” – of our generation – were moving to NY.
GK: Claro, our generation. They were, like, post-Berklee, saying: what are we going to do? Are we going back home? No, let’s move to NY and see what’s up… And there were some other people joining, like Ben Monder or Jeff [Ballard]. Smalls was a great port… And Kurt [Rosenwinkel] was playing on Tuesdays. That’s definitely a big place in my life – I have it in my heart, you know? Sometimes I evoke Smalls when I’m writing a song – the vibe of Smalls comes to me. So, coming back to keeping the band, that was a very important thing. And the other thing is to keep breathing music, keep going forward – trusting to go forward. And somehow we managed to rehearse before the gig, or we’d get together in the basement… And there was all this eagerness to make new music that was happening and made it the place to be. And when we played, that was the place to be. I was very, very proud of that.
RA: I remember being blown away by the commitment of everybody to the band – people showing up and rehearsing for hours. Because even back then, when none of us had any gigs, it still wasn’t that easy to get people to be so committed to rehearsing.
GK: That’s the funny thing. I never even thought that. I’d say, ok, we have a rehearsal on Sunday. And everybody made it, you know? But, like you said, at the beginning we had more time and the hang was happening! Then time kept going, and a lot of the guys are really well known now. Of course that wasn’t any surprise at all because they are killing musicians. Now it’s harder to get it together because everybody has commitments and is very busy with great bands and their own bands, everybody. So it’s a different story now. I think that I would call then very enthusiastically. Like, “Man, I did a new song that’s the shit…” And they were interested. That enthusiasm, our discovery… It was like we were discovering ourselves. There was never even one guy that said, “So, what do you want me to play here? How do you want it?” How do you want it. Just listen to the music and play the way you want it and it will be right.
RA: That was such a powerful time. It really was. I think that it was really important to have a place that was communal. Even if you weren’t playing there all the time you could just show up and you were automatically part of the scene.
GK: That’s for sure. And if you came to a gig of Los Guachos, Los Guachos played for you. I bet there might be another Smalls for the next generation, like we talked about. There might be another one, man. Maybe it’s not playing the same stuff that we were playing then, but every city needs that.
RA: Also, it’s important to put it in perspective that musicians were really doing it for the music. No one was paying their rent from Smalls.
GK: Man, like Fernando Huergo, Richard Nant, Sandro Tomassi – they were coming from Boston every Sunday to play and then after the gig they went back to Boston. Luciana [Souza] did that, too. So there was definitely a hang. Not only for the music, there was a hang there to make you travel 9 hours to play 4 hours of music and get, like, $40. We were part of the growth.
RA: Do you keep updating, re-orchestrating your tunes over time?
GK: Not really. The thing is that I lose parts so I have to write them again… But in Guachos, in almost 10 years, there are like 10 songs that are untouchable. If I touch it Billy [McHenry] will be like, come on, man! Why have you done that?
RA: Then the other ones are still forming?
GK: No, no. There are some songs that I do with a lot of enthusiasm and then we play them and they take on a life of their own. And then there are [other ones] that are just complete. As a composer, some songs you didn’t even think that they were complete, but every time you play them it’s like, man, it’s taking it to a new level and I didn’t touch anything of the song. This song is a great platform to play.
RA: So now you’re writing for a band here in Barcelona.
GK: Yeah, now I’m local, you know? I’m local in Barcelona. We’re going to start doing a weekly gig.
RA: What’s the instrumentation?
GK: Sandrine plays the cello, Carmen [Cannela] sings, [David] Xirgu, drums, Jorge [Rossy] plays mainly keyboards and a little percussion, Giulia [Valle] plays the bass, Gorka [Benitez] plays flute and saxophone. We are seven. It’s great – I love this group.
RA: And so the idea is that this is the group – there are no substitutes.
GK: No, there are no substitutes. It’s what I do. I’m a composer; I write music and I want to listen to it. I have this image: instead of orchestras that play once a year, I prefer orchestras that play often. I like to play. It’s part of my life.
RA: So you create the situation no matter where you are.
GK: Yes, I create it.
RA: And the idea is always that it’s a band.
GK: It has to be. That’s what I love. I’m a band guy. I like to feel like everybody is going to the same place and I can forget about everything and just focus on the music. I don’t like that All-Star sort of reunion with one rehearsal. I like something that has a life, a gestation. And to get people to work on that gestation, that’s the point.
RA: And this latest record that was made in Argentina…
GK: Si, that’s another good example of band people. We rehearsed… Everybody was so busy, but we found a rehearsal space on Mondays from 12 midnight till 2 AM, and we had to travel an hour to get to the rehearsal space. But we found a way. And we would rehearse and play a lot. We’d even play in parks…
RA: What’s “a lot”?
GK: Every week and sometimes more than once a week for 6 months. …That’s the way it has to be with bands. You not only build the band, but you build the environment. If you are strong enough to play for months for low money and create the vibe, then you have a band. And it’s very needed. We even played [Stravinsky’s] Symphony of Psalms. I re-orchestrated it and learned it, and we rehearsed it every week. It was beautiful, really incredible. That was intended to be on the record and the CPU broke in the middle of the recording.
RA: And that’s stuff you had been playing for 6 months?
GK: Yeah, “Venga”… There are a couple of songs that you can tell that we had been playing a lot. “El Rio”… “El Rio” is a great song to, like, get the band together.
RA: Yeah, it’s so important to have something that brings people together like that, that makes it clear, the sacrifices that are worth making to keep going and continue to build a sound…
GK: And that’s like, in my case, like we were talking about Los Guachos. Of course if I do a new band I have to tell them, man, listen, I’ve been doing this and that – that’s who I am musically. And a lot of the Los Guachos stuff, the Guachos wave comes as a beautiful embrace. It’s not like it’s the past… And things keep evolving. That clave that I did in the fugue, it kept evolving in Argentina, and now it’s evolving in Barcelona. It doesn’t belong to anybody, you know?
If there is a guy, an Argentinean musician that influenced me… Of course Piazzolla… but after that, this guy Ginastera. And then I realized that I used to like Emerson, Lake and Palmer as a teenager. Now, Emerson used to study with Ginastera. And Ginastera was a fan of Bartok. And Ginastera was a teacher of Piazzolla. So you can see how things spread, you know? Style, or to belong to a style, is all bullshit. For me it’s bullshit. Some people use it as a focus for ways of working, or whatever. But music is a constant evolution. Like that song “Venga.” I had in my mind, very clearly, “Resolution” – from Coltrane. It has 3 parts and “Venga” has 3 parts. And the vamp from “Venga” comes from “Native Dancer.” So everything is linked. I believe in that, and if you grab the core of it, it’s yours… I think that what has an impact is what you hear as a teenager; because it is the first time that you have the power of abstraction. Stravinsky, you know when I heard Petrushka when I was 12 or 13 I was blown away. Debussy, Children’s Corner or La Mer. I think that the more we grow, we cherish that the most.
RA: And that certain quality of not only hearing things for the first time, but the real mysterious qualities that they have before we’ve done all this studying and formed all our opinions, before we have a clearer picture of where those things are coming from and how they’re constructed – when you’re hearing these things as a teenager for the first time they really hit you like, wow, this is some seriously mysterious shit…
GK: And it’s amazing to realize what things we were ready to hear. It’s like what Borges says: every book has a reader, but you have to be ready for the book or the book is ready for you. It’s how you perceive it. I believe in sensations. I still don’t get 12-tone music. I understand it theoretically, but emotionally I still don’t get it. Some people say, so, you’re a composer. You should be writing 12-tone music…tonal music is all done. But I don’t care about that. I just care what I feel.
RA: Some people want you to write or create music just to prove something in the world. They have a certain point that they’re trying to prove and they want you to prove that point, instead of being fully free to express yourself.
GK: Yeah, yeah. Everything is valued. I don’t put Schoenberg down at all. I think it’s great what he did. But he did what was needed for him, and that’s the important thing. I don’t think he needed to prove anything. He just needed to do that, you know? There are some people who can’t even distinguish between a major chord and a minor chord and they write 12-tone music. That’s when the thing falls down. Or these people that write Chacarera and they cannot even play one folkloric song. That’s when the thing crumbles. You have to be honest. What you do has to be a picture of your experience because if not you don’t have a base.
RA: There is a whole jazz world out there that only wants things to justify what is “Jazz.” And these days there are so many schools churning out all these musicians and so many people who are trying to play this music and are trying to develop the skills to play it, but there aren’t enough teachers or people in authority emphasizing that the folkloric nature of the music is something that comes up from the ground that you grow in.
GK: Definitely. I don’t know if I consider myself a guy that knows jazz. I can appreciate jazz. I love to hear what people call jazz: Paul Gonsalves, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, I love it. But I think that you have to be able to play the blues. You have to be able to play the blues, if not you’re never going to play jazz. And at the same time, jazz is not be-bop. Be-bop is just part of it. So, when I see in schools, the teachers get so crazy about be-bop. And what about if you just don’t want to play chromatic scales, you know? I understand that you can do it in the future, but why does that have to be first? That’s a thing that I question myself. It’s still a mystery to me because I cannot play it. I never gave the time to play be-bop and stuff. I love it though. That’s why I say I don’t understand what jazz is. Sometimes people write about my stuff and say “you cannot really call it jazz.” And they really debate that because you see all these jazz musicians playing with me. I say again, I just do whatever I think needs to be done, where I feel like a better musician, a better person. The people that sell [the music] are the people who put the label on it. I don’t think there is any mystery of why I am kind of underground. Because I’m free and I don’t care. And that’s why maybe the cats care about playing with me, because they understand that, you know? That’s my conclusion. I don’t know if I’m wrong or right. For me it’s very sad when I hear people trying to first put the vibe and then create towards the vibe. In my case it doesn’t work – in other cases it might. The world is big, who am I to say? I don’t know. Everybody has to be honest with themselves. That’s it, man. I cannot judge anybody else; I just have to be honest with my own vibration. And that’s what makes me worthy to be in this world. And that’s what makes it, for me, that I can look at you in your eyes and talk about music. I have to be consequent to what I believe; to what I can offer. And the rest, you know, it’s cool.