Guillermo Klein is part of the rich and rewarding internationalization of jazz in recent decades. The pianist moved to Boston from his native Argentina in 1990 to study at Berklee, and his group Los Guachos made a great impact in New York in the late 1990s. Klein’s compositions and style reflect how jazz has become increasingly catholic, sweeping in vast influences. Once there was “jazz” and a single subgenre of “Latin jazz”. Today, and because of figures such as Klein, the music easily blends with scores of specific international sources with no need for a hyphenated (and diminishing) descriptor.
Domador de Huellas is Klein’s most specific and riveting project to date: a reworking of compositions by the Argentinean composer and attorney Gustavo “Cache” Leguizamon. Recorded at a time when Klein had recently returned home after years living in Spain and the U.S., this latest project is heartfelt but also rich with alchemy. Klein may be interpreting the work of a celebrated national legend, but he is also putting on a jazz clinic in inventive arrangement and band leading.
I am no expert on Leguizamon, as few jazz listeners will be. But what I hear in Domador is a pungent jazz record that sounds fresh and contemporary despite being based on folkloric compositions. Klein seems to have thought through the zambas and tangos of Leguizamon and achieved a truly new way of expressing them. This is a Guillermo Klein album, most assuredly, with the rich harmonic palette of a jazz musician coloring the pointed emotion of the source material.
“Me Voy Quedando”, for example, places a searching piano melody atop a simple repeated line played on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, all with the underpinning of a swift syncopated set of cymbal patterns. While this may be folk music on some level, Klein’s arrangement gives it the complexity or subtlety of bebop. “Carnavalito del Duende” has the swagger of a hard bop tune by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, with a punching front line of trumpet and saxophone, but the groove beneath it thumps with Latin authority. The band is able effortlessly to slip from a funky blues stomp into a magical, floating suspension of time, and the wild group improvisation is as hip as “Free Jazz” but much more fun. This is folk music?
Klein gets beguiling vocal performances on several tunes. Lillian Herrera is light but smoky on “La Pomeña”, with the horns floating behind her like a brassy chorale. She also adds to “Serenata del 900”, which begins as an impressionistic art piece and then moves into a slightly dissonant groove. Herrera sings a middle section as a ballad, and it is flat-out beautiful. Carme Canela is a sweeter presence featured on “Cartas de Amor que se Queman”, a long-form melody where guitarist Ben Monder also guests beautifully.
While the overall sound of Domador is drenched in jazz voicings and techniques, Klein wisely limits the conventional jazz soloing to keep the focus on the songs. The crackling trumpet solo on “Coplas del Regreso” is tasty and an exception, but more typical is the slow melodic development of the tune on “Zampa de la Viuda”. Klein himself plays lovely accompaniment, but he is hardly the focus of the instrumental work. Klein does sing modestly on several songs, but it’s all in the service of the tunes and his arrangements. They are both wonderful.
There are a couple of exceptional touches that mark Domador as unique and fresh piece of music. First, Klein uses the Fender Rhodes electric piano throughout these arrangements as a subtle but distinct voice—not merely another piano playing chords but a fresh color in the ensemble, usually playing single-note lines or other written parts. Second, Klein’s use of bass clarinet in the ensembles is rich and unusual. It is not so much that the instrument takes a lead role, but it is the way it lurks about the corners of the arrangements, filling out the bottom with some mystery. Nice.
One of the best things about Domador de Huellas (literally “the tamer of the footprints”) is the way Klein varies his ensemble sound from track to track while still maintaining a sense of focus. Aside from different vocalists, who do not actually dominate the record, Klein moves different instruments into the foreground on different arrangements. For example, the bulk of “Maturana” is a chorale for horns alone without accompaniment.
The effect of this shifting group sound over a menu of 14 relatively short tracks is mesmerizing. Domador has a new surprise or variation around every corner. For listeners with a taste for Argentina, Klein’s jazz prism on his countryman’s music amounts to a thorough reinterpretation. For jazz fans, Klein’s latest is further evidence that the art form is large enough to encompass super-specific subgenres that, truthfully, are no longer sub-genres at all.
With a talent like Klein, jazz seems larger and more profound than what might narrowly be thought of as our national music. He has got New York and Buenos Aires stewing together in the same glorious pot, and the world seems at once that much richer and that much smaller.