Guillermo Klein's Bienestan, which Sunnyside released in June, is the first minor album of his career—a milestone that I view as a triumph. For the last decade and half, Klein has been releasing big albums. I don't mean that in the rock sense. He and Los Guachos aren't holing up in Scottish castles for 13 months to write and record. I mean they're big in their sound and their vision, accentuated by their rarity. When Klein gets around to releasing an album, it's greeted by a certain kind of jazz fan and critic (I'm obviously among them) as a major event. Indeed, the three albums Klein released prior to Bienestan made the New York Times jazz critics' end-of-year top-10 lists. (Una Nave in 2005; Filtros in 2008, and Domador de Huellas in 2010.)
Bienestan is the first Guillermo Klein release that doesn't feel like a major event, and I'm betting it won't find its way onto the year-end lists. I don't mean that as a slur. In fact, it's a gorgeous album. Aaron Goldberg, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland form a masterful piano trio, slinking through Klein's arrangements with tightly coiled intensity and rhythmic precision. The best tunes, like "Manha de Carnival (Orfeo Negro)," are restrained but nonetheless carry the latent wallop of undetonated TNT—every snick-snack from the drums suggesting potential explosions. When Miguel Zenón and Chris Cheek come in on saxes, they're both (no surprise here) big-toned, dazzling—a pleasure.
Yet, unlike Klein's previous albums, the dominant mood here is casualness. Whereas Klein's other albums have felt like the main attraction, this is all after-hours playing. Half the band has left; Guillermo is fooling around with his distortions of Bird's "Moose the Mooche;" Miguel walks in (he wasn't playing the gig) happens to have his horn and starts soloing. Instead of brooding through some 12-minute-long composition with a full complement of horns swooning around him, Bienestan is about Klein dashing off a music-nerd retake on "All The Things You Are" then tossing it over to Goldberg to have fun with. Klein and Goldberg met in the early 90s when they were both college students in Boston, and I'm betting Bienestan is as close as we'll ever get to hearing what was going on in those Berklee and Harvard practice rooms.
The album is also a clear glimpse into Klein's process. It's his only album so far that doesn't feel finished. "All The Things You Are," which kicks off the album, is a disfigured skeleton of the tune, the odd-time-signatured bones on which Klein could have hung his typical thick, harmonic flesh. "Implacable," the second track, is a Reichian jigsaw puzzle that appears in more confident form as the introduction to "Coplas del regreso" on Domador de Huellas, an album which—tellingly—was recorded seven months after Bienestan but released almost a year earlier. Some of Klein's originals on Bienestan, "Burrito" and "Human Feel," were given richer renditions when Klein's flagship group, Los Guachos, played them at the Village Vanguard in May. (Both may very well make it onto Klein's next Los Guachos album.)
Bienestan, then, is a sort of sketchbook, Klein working out ideas that we'll find more fully illustrated on future recordings. That's no reason to lament what Bienestan could have been; rather, it's a rare opportunity. Delayed in its release for two years, with an odd mix of tunes, and an unfamiliar lineup, this is the kind of album that in another era might only have found its way to us posthumously. It's a sign of the progress of Klein's career that it's with us in his prime, and that this dashed-off work of old friends feels not only revealing but profound.