Monday, March 16, 2015

Carmelo Bustos at 90 and the sax in Chile

In Chilean jazz, there are two ruling instruments. As expected, the guitar is one, not only for its prevalence in 20th century popular music, but for it's standing in folk and other local musics (think Violeta Parra and Víctor Jara).

The other one is the saxophone. That happens everywhere in jazz, yes, but in Chile it goes way past the average. Besides shooting stars like the tragic Alfredo Espinoza (Valparaíso, 1942), the younger generations are astonishing. Melissa Aldana may have taken a lot of headline space lately, and deservedly so—not just for winning the Thelonious Monk competition—, but there is much more to Chilean saxophone. One of my first impressions in Chile was seeing Franz Mesko (Santiago, 1989), barely 20 at the time, tearing it up on tenor at a jam session in the old Club de Jazz de Santiago. Besides, or before, rather, a salient feature of these musicians is their attention to language. To wit, this recent video of Agustín Moya (Santiago, 1981).

Don't take it from me. None other than Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist and über-expert on Lester Young approves, and rather enthusiastically at that, of Moya's playing. And don't be mistaken, Moya is his own man, with three albums of original compositions under his belt.

More names to take into account: Claudio Rubio (Santiago, 1976), a keen student of Lennie Tristano, as he proves here (and a surprisingly funny guy to boot). And to keep things short, Andrés Pérez and Cristian Gallardo (both Santiago, 1983), either together as the front line of Contracuarteto, or in their separate projects, of which Gallardo's first album, Sin Permiso, less-than-perfect-sound and all, is a keeper.

Let this rather long introduction serve as a long drum roll to introduce a man without whom there wouldn't be such a rich tradition of the saxophone in Chile: Carmelo Bustos, who is 90 today.

Carmelo Bustos (left) and Marcos Aldana

A veteran member of several dance orchestras beginning in the mid-1940s, Bustos is a kind of musician that doesn't exist any more, someone who's played a lot of daily shows, and mostly for dancers—the equivalent to a swing era musician in the US. He was a founder member of the very popular, and now relaunched, after a 50-year lapse, Orquesta Huambaly.

Perhaps more importantly, Bustos is in charge of the reed section of Big Band Conchalí, a youth orchestra in one of the poorest districts of Santiago. The aforementioned Cristian Gallardo and Andrés Pérez come from that band; Agustín Moya, plus many others like Jonathan Gatica, have all studied with Bustos.

This is him giving a lesson and explaining his approach to swing (from 18:24 and again 26:25):

Worth noting are the following comments. On virtuosity (which he places after personality):
"With perseverance, you can achieve anything."
On personality: 
 "[The interpreter] with their own personality, they begin to bring life to this [the instrument]. This is made in a factory, but it is the individual who brings it to life."
 And, more interestingly, given his age (he uses a Spanish translation when he speaks of "In the Mood") and how he considers it a foreign musical device, on swing:
"[Starts singing 'Lullaby of Birdland'] I always say that swing is in the horse's gait [demonstrates with '... Birdland']. There it is, the little horse's gait!"
Later on, some members of Big Band Conchalí laugh about the "little horse" and explain how Bustos cares about them, and will phone home anyone showing interest to do some extra lessons.

To close the circle on tradition, in the video below, Bustos (then 89) guests with the new Huambaly, under the direction of a former student of his, Marcos Aldana (son of a former member of the orchestra, and father of world-famous Melissa) with Agustín Moya, a former student with both Bustos and Aldana, in the reed section. And watch out for the specialty altissimos at the very end...

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