Guillermo Klein and Los Guachos open their week-long run at the Village Vanguard tonight, and loyal readers will know that I'm very excited about it. I've been writing about Argentine jazz for the last three years, and this blog offers plenty of resources for those who are new to Klein and his jazz argentino brethren. First, there's my radio documentary "Sounds of Upheaval: Guillermo Klein and the new Argentine jazz," which played last August on The Checkout. Then, there are the interviews and commentary that a source no less than National Public Radio dubbed "a treasure trove of Argentine jazz." (How's that for horn-tooting!)
Last year, as I rushed to translate and edit said treasure trove, one essential interview fell through the cracks: a discussion about Guillermo Klein with his friend and collaborator Fer Isella. Fer is an award-winning record impresario, a top-notch producer, and a wonderful pianist and singer. His first album, Doña Furia Gaucha was an elegant and lyrical document of his years in New York with the band Makanudos. His upcoming album, Cosecha, features a lot of the key players on the Buenos Aires scene—among them Guillermo Klein's closest collaborator, Richard Nant. Fer is one of these people—specific to certain sectors of the music business—who's so talented he ends up performing pretty much every role, from negotiating major distribution deals to laying down backing vocals. This is not the last you'll hear from Fer Isella on this blog, but in honor of Klein's visit, I thought it high time to post this short discussion.
Eric Benson: Limbo Music, your record label, distributes Guillermo's albums in Argentina. How did that start?
Fer Isella: I had this dream of Guillermo being a person of recognition in his own country. He’s a composer who doesn’t only have a beautiful soul, he also has a very brilliant mathematical mind. He combines rhythms in this very smart way; but it’s not cold. He doesn’t start making some multiplications or something like that. He finds a very organic way to twist rhythms, like Ligeti used to do.
Anyway, when I moved back to Buenos Aires from New York in 2005, I discovered that none of Guillermo’s albums were out here. The musical community knew Guillermo very well, but the larger audience hadn’t started to follow him. So we started talking about getting his albums released in Buenos Aires, and that happened on my label, Limbo.
FI: Well, first, I want to say something about El Cuchi. He was this amazing folklore composer from Salta, in the north of Argentina. During the 70s, Argentine folklore was very popular throughout the world, and the voice of that era was Mercedes Sosa. A lot of the songs she was singing then were composed by Cuchi Leguizamón, but most people didn’t know that—even here in Argentina.
I actually saw El Cuchi a lot growing up. My family is from Salta and my father, César Isella, is a famous songwriter. He composed the Latin American anthem, and he was also very popular in the 70s. So my family was very close with El Cuchi. We used to have these beautiful music sessions and barbecues—all the things we do in Argentina. I captured him on video once, which I think is the only video that exists of him playing in a concert.
EB: What about El Cuchi as a musician?
FI: As a composer, I’d compare El Cuchi to Thelonious Monk. Both had this very strong base in the roots of the music—in Monk’s case jazz, in El Cuchi’s case folklore—but took it to some other level of complexity. And El Cuchi was a great performer, again like Monk. He didn’t have a perfect technique but a very personal technique.
So when Guillermo came to Buenos Aires to stay, in 2009, we started talking with Sunnyside records about doing a Cuchi album. It's been very intense and very emotional having this amazing, but not very well-known composer reframed in the brilliance of Guillermo and this band.
EB: Do you see this project as being part of some larger trend in Argentine jazz.
FI: Well, there are a lot of crossovers. The thing about Buenos Aires is that it's not so limited in styles. A musician who does rock might be great jazz piano player, and I think that affects the scene. Look at Guillermo. He’s doing this really folkloric music but framing it in contemporary jazz. That’s happening a lot. There’s Escalandrúm. There’s Ramiro Flores. Then there’s this school I have of being open to people like Bjork or Radiohead. Even if we’re doing jazz stuff, we’re trying to get closer to the feel of that music than to, say, standards.
EB: And where do you think that comes from?
FI: Well, part of it comes from following some steps that guys from the US have taken. I could mention the Bad Plus. They’re huge here. People are fascinated by the way they're presenting jazz. They see them, and they start recording jazz with a rock attitude. That's also happening in the compositions. People are composing music they know, but with some other twist. You have a lot of people doing things in electronic folklore like tremolo. Then there’s this style that’s booming here called cumbia digital—it's a mixture of folkloric cumbia and the electronic scene. My friends from Zizek Records are touring all over Europe with digital cumbia right now.
EB: In the US, there’s been this tortured discussion about how jazz is dead, how jazz is losing the young audience...
FI: Here it's for people in their twenties! You were in Pedraza, [a club in a private house], the other day and it was people in their 20s and 30s, but mostly their 20s. The scene is cool, it's a nice play to hang.
EB: When did that kind of scene develop?
FI: We had a really horrible tragedy that happened in a rock club here, [a fire at the Cromañón in 2004 that killed nearly 200 people], and since then all the clubs have been suffering to stay open. So now a lot of the really interesting things are happening in people's houses. They're not legal, but a lot of the scene is happening there, and they're even more packed with people than the regular places.
EB: Who’s in the audience mostly?
FI: I see a lot of students. Now there are five of six good music schools here. There are a lot of people studying here who aren’t thinking only about Berklee. I don't see a lot of people leaving like they did before. And then you have a lot of people in the audience that are coming for the hang, who are coming because it's not pretentious. It's good vibes.
This interview was conducted on December 16, 2009 at Isella's office in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires.