Pianist and composer Guillermo Klein is a “jazz” musician because jazz is the only category that might comfortably hold his singular, fascinating music in its grip. Sure, Klein studied at Berklee in the 1990s, and there’s no doubt that his bands consist of trumpets and saxophones — played by jazz musicians. His large band had a residency at Small’s (a jazz club) in New York for a long time.
But his music ought to have it’s own name, somehow. It is that unique and intriguing.
Klein’s recent work, including the new Carrera, is with a mid-sized band (10 or 11 pieces) called “Los Gauchos”. This is a band that plays cool, intriguingly schemed-out music. The compositions and arrangements often have a puzzle-like quality, with many interlocking parts that wrap around and through each other. Klein gets the maximum number of colors from his group even as he specializes is a chill kind of impressionism.
Klein uses vocals (often in harmony) as well as horns, muted effects, interesting combinations of sound, and combining acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano. The result is music that is occasionally Ellingtonian, occasionally classical, and always beautiful. But it is a subtle beauty. There is little to Los Gauchos’ sound that has a sense of jazz swing or dynamic insistence. It is enigmatic music, perhaps. To its great credit.
“Globo” is a fine and astonishing example. This ballad sets up an austere vocal by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, usually shadowed by Klein’s baritone harmony an octave lower. The range of instrumental colors Klein accesses here has a gauzy beauty, from Ben Monder’s subtle guitar figures, to piercing muted brass, to buzzing low saxophones that barely register in the usual way. “AnteSano” embodies revelatory arrangement too, but in a different direction. Klein conjures fascinating sonorities by combining Rhodes and flute, handclaps and other percussion, Bill McHenry’s almost mathematical tenor sax solo with a set of written parts for other horns. This is music with the playfulness, say, of Chick Corea’s work, but it’s freighted with other unique flavors — kept close to the ground, for example, but a strong part for baritone sax. Wonderful.
“Ninos” is another classic Klein arrangement — a set of interlocking rhythms that use percussion, bass, guitar, and horns each in complementary but simple patterns what become hypnotic as they combine and recombine. The title (“Children”) would seem to refer to the sing-song quality of the melody, but the piece develops great complexity in the horn arrangement over time, working its way to a set of scurrying written runs that lead to the trumpet solo.
Perhaps the most appealing theme is the title track, “Carrera”, which sets Klein’s modest voice — etching a lovely melody with a shaky sensitivity — over just his keyboards and Ben Monder’s trembling guitar. This is an ideal chamber piece that seems to exist floating on a cloud somewhere, a stunning piece of impressionism that eventually grows more knotty as the patterns of the acoustic and electric pianos grow more insistent and complex.
Certainly different and notable here is “Piano Sonata op. 22 (First Movement)”, which is a quick-shifting tour de force that begins in craggy pianism with a classical bent and then moves into a snazzy jazz arrangement that is piquant and attacking rather than soft. The motifs move along quickly, but then they start to cohere and come to a satisfying conclusion.
The more you listen to Carrera, the more depth it acquires, with new counter-lines emerging from the arrangements or new colors phasing toward you ear from the bed of sounds. This is music that fools you by being pleasing at the surface but more and more intriguing in its depths.
Guillermo Klein is working territory that is almost wholly his own — always a brave act in art. Given the uncommon breadth of jazz expression in 2012, it’s tough to find a sound this unique and yet rewarding. Carrera has the power to carry a listener away and then back home again. A journey worth taking.