I usually get squeezed into the very back of the Village Vanguard, but not for a Thursday night 10:00 p.m. set in the week after Hurricane Sandy. The crowd wasn’t too sparse overall, possibly 20 people by the time the set ended. But when I arrived at about 9:45, the only others there were a clutch of Japanese tourists and one or two solo showgoers who clung to the sides. I got a pretty good seat in the center.
The Vanguard is not the first spot I check when I’m planning a New York evening. I’m usually poking around the artsy DIY sites. But I had some last-minute free time later in the evening, at a point when most of the avant-garde stuff had played out. And I was curious to see Guillermo Klein.
I knew the name from his 11-piece band, but this was going to be more intimate, a quintet with fellow Argentinian Liliana Herrero [web page launches an audio stream] on vocals and with a second keyboardist: Aaron Goldberg, on electric piano, alongside Klein’s acoustic piano.
It was jazz-plus-vocals, sure, but it certainly wasn’t a typical set of standards.
The set was mostly tunes, as Klein worded it — melodic stuff, sometimes sounding like torch songs or showtunes, but spiced with Klein’s thick, throttled harmonies on piano, for a haunting edge. His compositions mix straightahead jazz with Argentine folk music, and the band added some of that earthiness in the form of hand percussion alongside the drum kit.
Herrero had the sound of a wise, world-weary soul. Her dusky alto could really belt out the notes for added drama, but some of the most emotional moments were in her quieter singing. Her voice would sound like it was collapsing into an aged croak, but she’d sustain a brilliant tone, something stronger than a whisper but still tiny and secretive. It’s a kind of range — high volume to low volume — that I don’t think about much but that probably isn’t easy.
Many songs were emotional, sometimes sad, sometimes defiantly powerful — as on one song Klein wrote while snowed in, inspired by an animated sci-fi movie about a post-apocalyptic world. It had a slow feel but climaxed in dramatic sunburst chords reflecting power, terror, and hope. Interestingly, the song’s never been released and was born as an instrumental; Klein got someone to write lyrics at Herrera’s insistence.
A couple of instrumentals provided the more modern-sounding touches I’m used to. A particularly strong one had a two-chord galloping theme and made for a high point in terms of speed and intensity.
Goldberg actually took most of the solos, playing Rhodes. I was impressed with Matias Mendez on electric bass, who never got flashy; even his solo, during one of the slow songs, kept to a sound of velvet padding.
The two percussionists got a workout during “Dientes de Leche,” (Baby Teeth), a song Klein wrote for his daughter. The theme kept coming back to a complicated cross-rhythm between them that kept me off-balance; I never did track the slow rhythm that Sergio Verdinelli snapped out on the drum kit. Richard Nant was supplying hand drums on that song but added trumpet on other songs, adding a crisp brilliance.
Goldberg and Klein made a good team. They’ve recorded together on a recent album, Bienestan (Sunnyside, 2011), that carries the easy, casual air of an after-hours jam, according to critic Eric Benson. “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,” he writes on his Inverted Garden blog.
It was a good start to my long weekend in New York. If this bored you, you’ll want to skip ahead to the Central Park installment (probably part 3). It’ll have lots of pictures.