Guillermo Klein's composition "Vaca" is typical of the music played by his big band, Los Guachos. It begins with a teasing Argentinian folk melody, and it ends with excerpts from 20th-century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's "Hungarian Rock."
"There is a certain sense in his music of, like, 'Oh, yeah, of course,' you know?" says Ben Ratliff, jazz critic for the New York Times. "'This makes complete sense, and yet I haven't really heard it done this way before.'"
For the Argentine composer and pianist, these stylistic mash-ups are nothing new. Ratliff says that part of what makes Klein's music so strikingly original is its classical elements, from Bach-like fugues to minimalist repetition to a medieval technique of parceling a melody out in a kind of round robin.
"For instance, one thing that he likes is this very old device in music called 'hocketing,' which is where you have — let's say you have a row of trumpet players," Ratliff says. "And they're going to play a melody. Well, instead of all of them playing the same melody at the same time, each one of them, in sequence, will play a single note of that melody. So it sounds like the melody is being pecked out by a row of musicians."
These days, the members of Los Guachos rarely perform together; Klein now lives in Spain. But last month, the band celebrated the release of a new album with a one-week residency in New York. Soon, it'll be featured at the long-running Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
It's music to the ears of many of New York's jazz musicians, who still count Los Guachos as one of their favorite bands. Over the past 14 years, some of the city's hottest young players have agreed to work for peanuts in order to have the chance to play Klein's challenging mix of Latin rhythms, classical harmonies and singable melodies.
Around The World
Guillermo Klein's music, Ratliff wrote in a New York Times profile, "resembled nothing else." That takes the composer a little aback.
"I'm surprised that no one is doing what I'm doing — if it's that original," Klein says. "Because for me, it's not original. It's like a lot of people should be doing these type of things. Things that are cross-stylings. Because that's what we are."
Klein is an international musician; he's lived in Barcelona, Boston and New York. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1970 to a well-to-do family. He says his father was a "self-made" man who started out as a laborer and ended up as the head of Argentina's telephone company.
But his parents were not musicians. His teachers discovered his talent in grade school.
"And then they give us a flute — boom — and I was the first one that [knew] the song," Klein says. "Then I started playing Superman theme. And I start playing S.W.A.T. theme. And I realized I could really play any melody that I heard. And I remember that time, I was like feeling like I had a gift."
Klein's parents paid for guitar lessons, then bought him a piano. As a teenager, Guillermo played rock guitar and studied classical music at a conservatory. But he says he was kicked out because he couldn't read music well.
Then Klein's parents sent him to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
"It was great, man, to go to Berklee," he says. "I realized I was with my peers. For the first time, I was hanging out with people that was feeling life like I was. You know? And I didn't have to feel guilty about being a musician. ... I thank to my parents for having the vision to say, 'OK, go.'"
A Strong Supporting Cast
At Berklee, Klein studied composition and says he discovered the jazz of Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter. When he finished school, he came to New York and formed Los Guachos with half a dozen of his colleagues from Berklee.
Klein established his reputation in the mid-1990s, through weekly gigs with Los Guachos in Manhattan. His peers say they love working with him, because he's what they call a "pure" musician — someone who plays for the joy of it, not for money.
"This band is like a community, you know?" Klein says. "There is no leader's fee. You know, that's the thing about this band. We started playing for five bucks. For three bucks sometimes. Even 50 cents, once. And we all get the same. Because I write the music and stuff, but they really work hard for it. Even [guitarist] Ben Monder took one part yesterday, and wrote his own part."
Monder has played with dozens of bands on more than 100 records since he began playing with Los Guachos in 1996. But he says that nothing he plays is quite like the music of Guillermo Klein.
"He has one of the most personal compositional voices that I've encountered," Monder says. "He has a unique take on rhythm. The rhythms sort of come out of Argentinian rhythms, but he puts his own spin on things and kind of makes them his own. For me, sometimes the biggest challenge is just to figure out where beat one is."
An Urban Cowboy
The band's name, Los Guachos, is Argentine slang that Klein's record label translates as "homeboys." But the composer says it's really an expletive that can mean either a really good musician or a really bad person.
Klein says Americans more often than not mistake "Guachos" for the more common "Gauchos" — Argentine cowboys. Klein gets a kick out of that.
"I'm not a cowboy at all," he says. "I'm a very urban type of guy. 'Guachos' — you know it has a really strong connotation.
"I like things that you say that makes you, like, 'Hey, what's going on?' Since I'm a kid, I'm very triggered by stuff that makes me snap. Lose my place for a second."
But Klein says he still wants people to hear what he's hearing.
"I think that's the way to communicate," he says. "So I'm walking around in the world. Like, I go to this conservatory when I'm a kid. And I hear information about Bartok, Ginastera, Mozart, Bach. And then I go to Berklee, and I hear information, and I absorb, you know, really absorb the music of Wayne [Shorter], and the music of Duke [Ellington].
"And I keep walking, and I absorb whatever I hear, so it's on me. And in order to give it back — it's like food that came to me. And I want to make food for the soul of somebody else."
To keep cooking, Klein moved out of the country eight years ago. He ended up in Barcelona, where he gets paid to teach composition.
Now Klein only gets to perform with Los Guachos once or twice a year. But he says that doesn't bother him, because he's able to play his own music with his favorite musicians, and that's all he's ever wanted.