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Jazz from the Fringes: Week 2 at the Guatemala International Jazz Festival

J.D. Swerzenski
Contributing Writer

I am back at the International Jazz Festival in Guatemala City, a week to the day since I ventured out for my first taste of Guatemalan jazz, and about two weeks since I learned there was such a thing as Guatemalan Jazz. On that first trip, in which I had caught saxophonist Marco Castelli and his merry band of fellow Italians, I had entered with plenty of preconceived notions regarding what jazz in a non-first world country would sound like. Castelli’s style, which toed the line between the Django-inflected gypsy style and Looney Tunes circus sounds, both dispelled and confirmed many of these suspicions. But then one show can’t be fully representative. So back I am.

This week's program featured Spanish guitarist Marcelino Galan, presenting his show The Gift (this actually may be the name of his band. Lo siento, my Spanish is still terrible.) The teatro was packed, as was the stage: the six-piece band jostling around for space among a platform packed with gear. It was immediately clear that this would be a different animal entirely from last week's performance. From their age, dress and onstage demeanor, Galan's band looked as though they'd been dropped directly from the East Village or Williamsburg. Luckily they sounded like a transported NYC band as well.

The six-man unit specialized in the sort of churning, slow-build dynamics that have defined Christian Scott, Gilad Hekselman and Kendrick Scott Oracle's work over the past several years. For those who have heard this post-bop (dare I say, Nextbop) style performed live, either by a killer band or especially from a not so great act, it's clear that it isn’t an easy sound to pull off. And dammit if these guys weren't impressive. Galan and his pianist melded together the sort of weaving, difficult to untangle guitar/piano interplay that Ben Allison and Rudresh Mahanthappa's bands have used to such fine effect. Both horn players had clearly listened to enough Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard to have soaked in the art of building a solo, patiently leading the band ever higher with the each bar. And holy shit the drummer, confidently anchoring the sound with a firm hip-hop backbeat and coloring with carefully timed flourishes on the ride and hi-hat.

Had Galan and The Gift been just a talented facsimile of a New York post-bop band, I'd have been pleased enough. But their most interesting trait was in how they took that core sound and adapted it around influences more native to them. There were elements of cumbia, of ranchera, and of Latin pop carefully stirred in to the band’s churning sound, all of which mixed naturally with post-bop’s more traditional hip-hop and modal jazz base. The usual contemporary source material--Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, Drake, etc.--was replaced with the likes of Gustavo Cerati and Cafe Tacuba. It was all subtle, but the customization was crucial. As a jazz fan so often wrapped up in conversations regarding jazz’s current direction, it was just sort of enthralling to hear the post-bop sound embraced, adapted and retooled in such an effective way, especially in a place as far from the typical jazz purview as Guatemala. The packed house at the Teatro certainly exhibited healthy enthusiasm for such new and often difficult sounds, which may have been my biggest surprise of the night.

Next week brings an end to the festival, and the crowing set of the bill: a performance by Los Estados Unitos’ own Native Jazz Quartet, most notably featuring the ubiquitous Jason Marsalis. Here’s to hoping the Americans take things out on a high note.

J.D. Swerzenski is a staff writer for Nextbop at Art of Cool and a contributor to the San Antonio Current and Red Bull Music Academy Magazine.