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Buenos Aires Jazz Hits a High Note

Buenos Aires has a new swing in its step as next-gen musicians pack the city's clubs.

The Mariano Loiacono Trio

Three’s a crowd: the Mariano Loiacono Trio on the streets of San Telmo at sunrise.

The songs are mysterious to me — a sextet of men dressed all in black sound like they’re playing obscure Gershwin tunes or maybe lesser known Cole Porter? But there’s no brass section; I’m thrown by its absence. Surrounded by portraits of jazz greats on high brick walls, an intense dude on a bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument that drives tango, nearly bleeds his squeezebox dry, and an elegant violinist plucks and bows his instrument like a broken heart. The insistent melodies escalate in tempo and passion. The band is called Vibraphonissimo and it’s playing a moody, modern take on songs that tango legend Astor Piazzolla performed with American jazz great Gary Burton 30 years ago. The two genres flirt as entertainingly as the young couples around me, canoodling at tiny tables, drinking craft beer and hooting and clapping when the players trade scorching solos.

Café Vinilo

Café Vinilo’s Belle Epoque exterior in Palermo.

At midnight, I spill out of Cafe Vinilo, onto the streets of Palermo, a park- and boutique-dotted northeast neighbourhood that’s home to a handful of jazz clubs and speakeasies. Metal garage-style doors are rolled up, revealing Porteñas and Porteños, as residents here are called, who are just sitting down to dinner – late, even by Argentina’s standards – or sipping fernet and cola in shoebox bars. I head to nearby Virasoro, another venue where the trasnoche (late-night) shows are just warming up.

A member of Orquesta Victoria

A member of Orquesta Victoria, a 12-piece tango band, plays the bandeón at Café Vinilo.

Jazz hasn’t topped charts in its American homeland for over 50 years, but in Buenos Aires audiences are young and cover charges modest; there are so many bands playing in a typical week that I see nine shows during my six-day visit. But this accessible jazz scene is no retro La La Land-style tribute. The city has become an incubator for innovative musicians giving the art form new relevance thanks, in part, to the Argentinian capital’s thriving jazz festival, which runs every November, and to a respected career-track jazz program at the Manuel de Falla Conservatory that’s produced some of the country’s brightest stars. There’s an old Miles Davis line, “Don’t call it jazz: that’s a made-up word. It’s social music.” Those words ring true in Buenos Aires today.

Ciro Ca Sarin

Ciro Ca Sarin, the Mariano Loiacono Trio’s bass player.

“No other popular music is as close to jazz as tango, and that’s one reason why Argentinian musicians play so well,” says Adrián Iaies, the artistic director of the Festival Internacional Buenos Aires Jazz who has earned three Latin Grammy nominations for his soul- and tango-inflected sound, which he’s toured across the globe. We’re at the Usina del Arte, a refurbished power plant turned cultural hub in the port-side barrio of La Boca, where tourists flock to see colourfully painted wooden houses and street-busking tango dancers. As we walk through the Usina’s 280-seat theatre, Iaies, his resonant voice silky in its acoustic cocoon, tells me that Buenos Aires has been a great place for jazz for the last 80 years, with more clubs than European heavy hitters like Paris, Madrid or Barcelona. Back in jazz’s heyday, visiting American artists and big-band leaders, including Josephine Baker and Dizzy Gillespie, were so impressed by Argentina’s ensembles they recruited talent for their own bands. But the festival, which began in 2008, has attracted new audiences and players.

Street art in San Telmo

Street art in San Telmo.

“There are musicians of 19 or 20 years old playing very well, and when you have young players, you have a young audience” who, Iaies adds, have grown up listening to tango and jazz, so “they experience the romance and melancholy in both.” I think back to Vibraphonissimo’s wailing; it’s darker, and more sultry than the brassy swagger of American jazz. But Iaies is quick to point out that the Buenos Aires sound is too varied, and its artists too multicultural, to be reduced to a simple tango-jazz mashup. They’re developing their own voices.

Patricia Grinfeld; Virasoro Bar

Left to right: Patricia Grinfeld plays with the Yamile Burich & Jazz Ladies Quintet; Virasoro Bar’s art deco façade.

Take the 16 fresh-faced, skinny-suited members of the big band Jazz Believers Orchestra. At Bebop, a crimson-walled basement club, I watch them reinvent the smoky old ballad Li’l Darlin’. I know the tender lyrics lurking behind this instrumental version — “My sweet li’l darlin’ gives me her love” — but re-think the song as they play: the plaintive brass section sounds more like unrequited love than romance.

La Boca

La Boca’s colourful buildings.

By day, that melancholy trumpet gives way to the roar of traffic on 9 de Julio Avenue. At 16 lanes, including a bus corridor, it’s the widest avenue in the world, cutting a chaotic north-south route through the sprawling downtown. I stroll along one of its shaded pedestrian paths passed the ornate, Parisian-style facades of Retiro toward the beautifully restored Teatro Colón, a century-old marbled opera house that brings to mind Buenos Aires’ belle époque nickname, “Paris of the South.” I’m hoping to attend an opening night of Giulio Cesare but all 2,487 tickets are sold out — even for the affordable standing-room balconies that would be a feat of endurance given the four-hour-plus running time. Clearly, this is a culture that reveres live music.

Avenida Corrientes

The city’s famous obelisk looms over Avenida Corrientes.

To make up for it, I pop over to the kitschy old Galería Apolo shopping arcade, which houses Minton’s, a vinyl shop devoted to jazz (it’s named after a famous Harlem venue). Inside, I find a charming hoarders’ lair with barely enough room to navigate around bins of records, shelves teeming with Japanese CD box sets and what appears to be a makeshift bar, complete with red-wine-stained glasses, perched precariously on one corner. I find an obscure edition of Coltrane’s last live performance, while proprietor Guillermo Hernández spins vintage records. For the last 25 years, the miniscule space has been an unofficial clubhouse where collectors and musicians talk shop, promote their shows and sip Malbec (Hernández even launched his own line of the robust red).

Usina del Art; Adrian Iaies

Left to right: The refurbished power plant that houses the Usina del Art, a cultural hub and host to innovative jazz concerts; Piano man: Adrian Iaies, artistic director of the Festival Internacional Buenos Aires Jazz, inside the Salon Mayor at the Usina.

On one afternoon, I head to Colegiales, a low-key, leafy working-class area sandwiched between comparatively buzzy Palermo and Belgrano. I’m there to meet Yamile Burich, one of Buenos Aires’ busiest sax players and the leader of an all-female quintet. The bohemian brunette welcomes me with double-cheek kisses to her quaint vintage PH, a local apartment style with a courtyard and rooftop patio. In the ’90s, she explains, there wasn’t much opportunity for young musicians here, so she left Salta, her hometown in northwest Argentina, to study and play in London, New York and New Orleans. She moved back a decade ago, sensing growing potential: “There was some new energy, creative energy,” she says. The local appetite for jazz is now so great it’s possible for Burich to live in Buenos Aires on “music money”— she does two or three gigs a week for crowds that sometimes queue down the block.

Guillermo Hernández; vintage cars

Left to right: Guillermo Hernández holds court at Minton’s, his pocket-sized vinyl shop and gathering place for the city’s musicians and record collectors; vintage cars dot Palermo’s streets.

Her band plays original music — a muscular, swing- and blues-tinged sound that defies the stereotype of women as genteel singers or side players. When we meet, they’re fresh off playing a Women in Jazz series. “For a long time, jazz was a man’s game and the audience here was mostly male,” she says. And as audiences have grown and become more diverse, the quality of the music has done the same: “There are lots of musicians around now, which makes things more competitive. The level has gone up, which is fantastic.”

Yamile Burich; Eva Peron’s face

Left to right: Sax player Yamile Burich takes a beat in Palermo; Eva Peron’s face graces the side of a building along 9 de Julio Avenue.

That’s certainly true at Thelonious, Buenos Aires’ most renowned club, tucked behind a barely marked door in Palermo. I follow the faint tinkle of piano up a dark staircase that opens into a narrow room packed with elegantly rumpled Porteños. Lit by a chandelier, a singer in a flowered dress sighs in a rich, low voice: “Blow ill wind, blow away... you’re blowing me no good.” Hair in a low bun, secured by a bloom, her profile ­matches the famous nine-story portrait of Eva Peron gracing an office building on 9 de Julio. The drummer works the brushes like whispers. The trumpet player peals a clarion lick. The set is over in a heartbeat, and I step back out onto the street in search of my next show in the city’s never-ending jam.

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ARGENTINA     BUENOS AIRES    

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