Back in the mid-90s, the Brazilian-born singer Luciana Souza, who was living in Boston at the time, would sometimes drive down to New York to sit in on a Monday night session at the legendary Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. The gig lasted into the wee hours, and Souza usually only sang on a few numbers. Afterwards she’d use her negligible earnings to buy some breakfast before driving the four-and-a-half hours home–to teach, or to rehearse, or to do whatever it was she had to do that day. But it was always worth it, she says, to become part of bandleader Guillermo Klein’s “tribe,” if only temporarily.
“[The other musicians] were just the most adventurous, coolest, greatest musicians, and playing in a way that was not preconceived or pre-thought. It was just being there, breathing that same air, in that little dump that was Smalls,” Souza laughs. “Everybody wanted to be there. And they wanted to be there not because they were going to be paid loads of money, but because being in that community, making that kind of music, meant something so deep to all of us.”
So when Klein asked Souza (who now resides in California) to participate in a concert as part of MIT’s Sounding Series, she didn’t have to think twice. The centerpiece of the concert is a new composition by Klein, called “Works on Hope,” which will be performed by Souza and the MIT Wind Ensemble on April 28 at Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge. Under the direction of Fred Harris, the concert also features the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble and the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble performing, among other things, some of Souza’s own compositions.
The Argentine-born Klein is a composer of great renown–if not necessarily outsized fame–within jazz circles, best known for his work with his limber and inventive band Los Guachos. His relationship with MIT dates back to a 2001 residency with the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble; five years later, he was commissioned to write a piece for the MIT Wind Ensemble. The result, “Solar Return Suite,” earned a five-star review in Downbeat Magazine when it was released in recorded form by the ensemble in 2015.
Klein says the experience working with MIT back in ‘06 was “amazing.” “They understood right away what our purpose was,” he says of the students. “Which is something I really enjoy because sometimes when I work with professional bands, very renowned musicians, they are more about themselves: ‘Where can I shine? Where can I show my chops?’ And that was what was really amazing–it was like, ‘OK, let’s make this reality alive. It’s not about us, it’s about the music.’”
When Harris invited Klein return to MIT in 2017, he suggested involving a vocalist. Klein immediately thought of Souza. “I admire the way she sings, the tone of her voice, the honesty that she has as an artist,” he says. “She gets very deep to the last drop, and I like that. There’s no place to hide.”
As it so happened, Vocal Jazz Ensemble coach Liz Tobias had struck up a friendship with Souza in 2014, when Tobias was a student at New England Conservatory of Music and Souza was teaching at the school as part of a week-long residency. “My first impression of her was that she is a woman who knows exactly what she wants from the music,” Tobias says of her mentor. She decided to dedicate the entire semester to Souza’s work, steeping the students in the singer’s imaginative and exacting artistry.
“Works on Hope” will likely challenge the Wind Ensemble’s players as well; Klein admits that the piece is “dense.” But it was no easy feat for him to write, either. He says he was stuck on it in a way he hadn’t been stuck on anything in a long time. The thing that unblocked him, finally, was the discovery of the poetry of the Argentinian writer Juan Sasturain. Klein decided to set a couple of the poems to music. Suddenly, the project was animated by a sense of purpose.
Sasturain’s poem “La Esperanza es lo Ultimo,” which translates to “Hope Is the Last Thing” provided particular inspiration. “In Spanish, ‘hope’ is ‘esperanza.’ ‘Esperanza’ is very related to ‘esperar.’ ‘Esperar’ means ‘wait.’ So in Spanish, the relationship between hope and expectancy is a very close one,” Klein explains. “So I tried to write music that it always waiting. The music is always going somewhere without arriving anywhere, and always kind of giving you sensations that you are in the place of hope.”
The composition’s trickiness is due in part to a system of tonal “symmetry” that Klein devised. Each note in the melody is paired with a particular note below–D with C-sharp, E-flat with C, for example–in an eccentric mirroring of mismatched intervals. “My goal, my deep goal, was in the oddness of it,” Klein says. “It’s harmonious and it’s beautiful. … That doesn’t mean sweetness. It means completeness, or it means some sort of arrival. Something that makes you feel like things make sense, somehow.”
Klein’s work is often vaunted for its seamless integration of his Latin roots with jazz’s witty intricacies. But his admirers and collaborators say that his greatest gift is his singularity of vision.
“When he walks in a room, people become his tribe. They have to because if you resist it, you just don’t belong,” Souza says. “You gotta go in or go out. So I go in because you learn so much. Because you are changed.”
Klein, for his own part, hopes that his students are “transported” by the new work. “I hope they all feel, communally, that the whole band is creating a scene or a place,” he says. “And I hope they enjoy every note they play, because every note I wrote for them, I’m sure, that if it’s played right, is enjoyable.”
Works on Hope
Luciana Souza & Guillermo Klein with the MIT Wind Ensemble, MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, and MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble
April 28, 2017 / 7:30 pm pre-concert ArtWeek talk / 8:00 pm concert
Kresge Auditorium, W16
48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
Reserve a seat
Tickets will also be available at the door
Guillermo Klein with Luciana Souza
April 26, 2017 / 5:00pm
Lewis Music Library