Eric Benson: What’s changed in Argentine jazz over the last ten years?
Juan Cruz de Urquiza: A new kind of musician has appeared who’s concerned not only with being a good improviser and a good craftsman, but also with composition, with exploration, with searching for his own language. It’s something that’s gaining strength every year.
EB: A lot of people have told me that Quinteto Urbano was a very important group in launching this new wave of jazz...
JCU: It helped kick start the movement. When I returned from the United States in ‘94, I had my group and I had original songs, but there was something missing. People would get together only a few times to rehearse, then they’d play a gig a month later.
EB: You couldn’t play consistently...
JCU: No. But that was our decision. We didn’t dedicate ourselves to playing regularly.
Quinteto was based on two pillars: to rehearse and play every week, and to play original music. We’d rehearse on Mondays and play on Thursdays. It was a totally unique experience for me here in Argentina. Unique because we played sophisticated music and made it sound good simply by working at it. That’d never happened to me before. Now, we’re accustomed to playing more consistently, and we’re more accustomed to playing original music.
EB: And is part of that due to Quinteto Urbano?
JCU: In its moment, Quinteto Urbano represented the appearance of something important and novel. There were always good individuals here, but you’d run into problems when you’d try to put out a true artistic project.
Quinteto Urbano was a rare moment. It was six years and three albums. The group hasn’t disappeared, but now it’s in stand-by mode. It’s possible that at some point we’ll get back together, but only if it’s to realize a really solid concept.
EB: You were at Berklee with Guillermo and Richard. I know that was a formative experience for both of them. Was it for you as well?
JCU: It was very important for all of us. Argentine kids who want to study jazz have a different reality now. There are a couple of good schools in Buenos Aires—they have ensembles, the whole experience—and there are a lot of musicians here who can serve as mentors. In our time, we needed to study abroad.
EB: One thing that Richard and Pipi told me is that jazz here has a lot to do with Argentine roots. Richard told me that this started for him at Berklee. How did it work for you?
JCU: I feel the same way as Richard. Before I went to Berklee, I was focused specifically on the jazz tradition—bebop and before. When I was young, my father took me to an academy where they played traditional jazz. I loved Louis Armstrong, Buddy Hackett, Bix Beiderbecke. Later, Clifford Brown appeared, who is my greatest influence to this day. Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell—I love those guys. I was really focused on learning the language of classic jazz. I wasn’t searching for a jazz language of my own.
I think the trip awoke a certain restlessness in me—the need to start writing music. We all motivated each other. Guillermo always mentions a time when he passed by a practice room at Berklee, and he heard Richard and me riffing on the harmony of an Anibal Troilo song. We were starting to use jazz as a way to channel our roots.
EB: What did you take from your Argentine roots? Was it something rhythmic? Harmonic? Melodic? Or more the vibe of the music in general?
JCU: I think it was the vibe in general. I wanted to keep being a jazz musician, but I wanted to be an Argentine jazz musician, to have an identity as a jazz musician with all of the jazz foundations—improvisation, interplay—but to try to combine those aspects with Argentine music. And once we started Quinteto Urbano, it was all about the search for an Argentine sound.
EB: Did you see other groups start to join that search?
JCU: For sure. Ernesto Jodos put out a really interesting album with Martin Iannaccone and Sergio Verdinelli. Richard had just come back. And Guillermo was here as well. Guillermo’s stay here was incredible. We played a ton. It was an injection of tremendous creativity.
Then there was Escalandrúm. At the end of the 90s, Escalandrúm sounded like more standard fusion. Then they started exploring the acoustic side of things and in 2002, they put out a disc, Estados Alterados, that had a lot to do with this movement.
EB: Pipi told me Escalandrúm’s sound changed during his time playing with Guillermo.
JCU: I think the crucial moment was the confluence of Quinteto Urbano, Ernesto’s album, Richard’s return, and Guillermo’s arrival. We played together all the time. I think Argentine musicians needs that. We can’t make music that sounds incredible on the first reading like they do in the US and Europe. We need to organize the music beforehand more. That also means we have music that’s very tight, that has a deeply rooted sound.
EB: So a lot of this had to do with building the idea of a group?
JCU: I don’t want to say that Argentine jazz was born nine years ago, but what happened is that we started to explore the question of the concept, the question of experimentation, the question of composition. There have always been good soloists here—Gato Barbieri, Baby Lopez Furst, Fats Fernandez—but the scene was very informal. No one every rehearsed. You’d go to play standards from the Real Book, and it wasn’t bad, but audiences didn’t really respond to it.
Now, audiences really are responding to the music—it’s original music, rehearsed, worked over. Groups like Escalandrúm perform in places like La Trastienda. That’s a venue for 500 people. Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable for a jazz group to play there. I’m not saying there’s a massive audience for this. Putting out an album is still complicated. But now there’s a real following for what we’re doing.
This interview has been translated from the original Spanish. It was conducted on July 17, 2008 in a café in the Barrio Norte neighborhood of Buenos Aires.