Everybody knows how to make your first gypsy CD, right? You play the repertoire to show off your chops ‘cause that’s what sells: chops. Maybe you put on one original with Minor Swing changes. But your first gypsy CD, you use that one to establish your street cred. It’s bright and fast (except for Manoir de Mes Reves and Nuages). And since it’s a home-made job, maybe just a tad sloppy, but hey, we’re having fun here, right? So make a check list: Chops. Repertoire: Minor Swing, Blues Mineur, Swing 42, Nuages plus one original. Chops. Cheery. Fast. Did I mention chops? I know this is how it’s done because I have dropped enough change at Djangobooks and Amazon and Buffalo Brothers and Elderly to put two kids through private school if I hadn’t dropped said change. (Sorry, kids.)
Now I know you’re thinking I’ve forgotten one thing, music. But, no, I haven’t forgotten it. The players have.
Until now. Gonzalo Bergara’s first CD is music, all music, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. Music. Chops? Sure. Mad, wicked, hella chops. Enough to make you wonder if this is humanly possible if you’re not Jimmy Rosenberg. But mostly just music.
Repertoire? Originals. All but one, originals. The one? Some of These Days. (And when was the last time you heard that one?) This is a composer’s CD every bit as much as a player’s.
And the whole thing is about as upbeat as a late Beethoven Quartet, which is to say, not very. This is not triumphal Louis Armstrong filtered through Django Reinhardt with minor 6ths thrown in. This is a brooding, dark, melancholy collection. There are three up-tempo originals, but even two of those have a tinge of sorrow. Five are downright gravid with tears.
Seldom do we go to popular music for serious concerns, but that’s almost the only place Bergara does go. He has what Miguel de Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life.” If, there is a theme here it is something like, “the human condition is hard, but not without beauty.” Begara does what great artists do: he offers a unique perceptive locus from which to view the world, so you can see life a little more clearly. But he never patronizes you by suggesting it’s all beer and skittles.
The CD opens with a track entitled B-612. Now this is either a vitamin supplement or the name of the asteroid Le Petit Prince comes from. Like the book, the track is charming almost childlike. It is only at the bridge that the first touch of sweet sadness intrudes. And all on clarinet. Rob Hardt plays the opening theme. That’s a kind of musical generosity that doesn’t occur on very many first time recordings.
And when was the last gypsy swing C D that demanded a political response? The second track, Insulto, begins with Lou Dobbs railing against the U.S.’s porous southern border, a border that Bergara crossed on his way up from Buenos Aires. Then a tinny piano that might have been recorded in a crummy bar in Nogales plays quiet block chords that grow more insistent until Dobbs’ voice is drowned. That distraction cleared, the guitars begin. The theme could easily have been the soundtrack for Babel, haunting and ineluctable. And I wonder with someone as careful as Bergara, if it can be an accident that the first three letters of the title are I.N.S.
By the third track, Elena’s Bossa, another quality of Bergara’s compositional strategy comes clear. Keep the main motif simple, really simple. There is a starkness, an unadorned clarity to every melody. He leaves himself no place to hide. You can learn Elena’s Bossa in an afternoon. (And you’ll want to. It’s an obvious standard in exactly the same way that John Jorgenson’s F.A. Swing is an obvious standard.) Everybody throws a homemade bossa onto his CD these days. It’s just that this one is better.
Como Una Flor is so delicate, so sweet, I feared I might sink into a diabetic coma. But then comes the solo, theme and variation, with such astringency, the balance was impeccable. He could have crossed Niagara Falls on a high-wire in a tornado and never missed a step.
You have to get all the way to track five for unalloyed joy. Meatwad’s Revenge is the bastard off-spring of Fats Waller and Charlie Parker. It opens with an Omnibook style riff that would be right at home sandwiched between Donna Lee and Ornithology. Then a “rhythm” bridge brings it slap into Fats’ barrelhouse. Again, the major player on this track isn’t Bergara, it’s John Jorgenson on clarinet. And it is a spectacular solo, as if both Sidney Bechet and Benny Goodman were sitting on Jorgenson’s shoulders whispering ideas into his ear which he transmutes as seamlessly as a simultaneous translator at the U.N.
Then Some of These Days. You want chops? Here’s chops. But what’s really fun is the variety of sounds he coaxes from his guitar. And the counter-melodies he wrestles from the original. Shelton Brooks is one of the great under-appreciated American originals and Bergara nails his masterpiece.
To be quite frank, Blues for Charlie is kind of a cheat in the originality department. Mostly it’s a straight riff blues that doesn’t break any ground that Blues for Ike and Blues Clair haven’t raked over just as well. Then he throws in a bridge. Not a completely different song –like, say Viper’s Dream—but a bridge that fits perfectly and breaks open the form in a nifty way. Once again he completely trusts his sidemen. It’s Rob Hardt again, a regular member of Bergara’s four man “Trio” Gonzalo, this time on sax. It’s a lovely change of texture and they blend and play follow the leader with each other, in a way that gives life to this fundamental form. Bergara happens to be a scratch blues guitarist. But here he takes only two choruses and leaves the rest of the piece to Hardt. Of course, the choruses are as jewel-like as a Jan van Eyck. But still, he arranged it for the music not as a showcase for his technical skill.
Charcos (which I believe refers to pools of the kind that form on the street during the rain) begins with twist around a virtual radio dial (tinny again) that settles on a bass obbligato and simple guitar strum. Then a rush of static is followed by a crystalline statement of the theme on guitar and Jimi Hawes’ rich, fat, subtle bass lines come into focus. It’s as if Bergara wants us to learn to listen more carefully, to be able to tune out the static to hear the beauty underneath, the way you learn to see rainbows in the oily film that floats on those puddles.
Agridulce (Bittersweet) is another gypsy bossa, and if it isn’t as perfect as Elena’s Bossa, it is an implicit restatement of the essential purity of his whole concept: a steady pulse overlaid with a simple but compelling melody. Melody is central to Bergara’s music. He is a bewitching improviser, but the melody is never far from his heart.
The CD ends with the eponymous Porteña Soledad, (A Buenos Aires Solitude). Needless to say, this isn’t a last track romp to leave everyone smiling. But in the way of all great art, despite the fact that the pathos of the melody borders on the suicidal, you do end up smiling. Because it’s so damn good. The pulse is methodical, almost plodding, but finally relentless. The theme moves forward, hesitates, stops, moves on. It is almost the polar opposite of the end of Waiting for Godot, where Gogo and Didi say they have to go, but they don’t move. This music suggests one can’t go on. And then goes on.
Gonzalo Bergara’s music exists in a way that very little music does. He has lavished such care on ever phrase, built each arrangement with such lapidary precision and pared away anything extraneous, the music becomes sculpture. It has weight, density, gravity. This is serious. And deeply moving.
I have studied gypsy guitar with Gonzalo. I have no stake in the CD of any kind whatever.