If it hadn’t been for a fateful encounter five years ago, two extraordinary jazz virtuosos, guitarist Gil Gutiérrez and trumpeter Doc Severinsen, wouldn’t be performing together at Carnegie Hall on January 28. In fact, they wouldn’t be making music together at all. As anyone knows who has heard these artists riff off each other, that would be a loss to the world.
Gutiérrez, Severinsen and the three other fine musicians who make up the San Miguel Five play a bubbling mix of Afro-Latin, classical and Gypsy Jazz so infectious that it’s almost impossible to hear it and sit still. At Carnegie Hall they will join the New York Pops for a program that ranges from Manuel de Falla and Ennio Morricone to Django Reinhardt.
The prospect of this much crossover going on in a single program may raise the eyebrows of some purists. Quite often, I’m a purist myself. But I’ve heard Gutiérrez and Severinsen play together in both small and large venues, and I can say that, when artists as brilliant as these are so moved, they transcend categories. When they do, who cares about naming the genre? It’s music, pure and simple.
The 83-year-old Severinsen has long been one of great trumpeters of our time. His lines are supple and melodic, his tone is silky. In mood, he can swivel from southern sunshine to deepest blues. Gutiérrez is far less well known but equally brilliant. Seeped in classical, Latin American and jazz traditions from an early age, he plays guitar as if he were born to it.
The roots of the Gutiérrez-Severinson collaboration go back to 2006. It began one night when Severinsen, who is best known for leading the NBC Orchestra on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for more than 20 years, walked into a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, the beautiful colonial town in central Mexico, and heard Gutiérrez and his group playing Latin jazz.
Gutiérrez, who’d lived in San Miguel for 30 years, had a regular gig with his group at the local restaurant. Almost everyone in town knew and loved his music. But until Severinsen walked in that night, Gil Gutiérrez was San Miguel’s best-kept secret. Severinsen was 78 years old at the time. He’d just moved to San Miguel and he considered himself retired.
He didn’t have to listen long before he knew he was in the presence of something extraordinary. “My God,” he said to his companions. “These musicians aren’t just good. They’re world class!”
Before the night was over, Severinsen had introduced himself to Gutiérrez and was talking about jamming. Not long after that, he began performing with the group, and even recorded a few numbers for their album En Mi Corazon. Group gigs with various symphony orchestras soon followed. By then, Severinsen had realized he was too inspired to stay retired. As for Gutiérrez, he wasn’t San Miguel’s secret anymore.
“Now wherever we go,” Gutiérrez says, “the theaters are packed.” Recent gigs have included performances with symphony orchestras in Nashville, Minneapolis and Seattle, and an appearance at the International Trumpet Festival in Mexico City, where they played with the legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.
“I love playing with small groups, but I also enjoy performing with symphony orchestras,” says Gutiérrez, who currently divides his time between small venues in San Miguel and orchestra dates in the United States. “A quintet is more intimate. But being part of a symphonic orchestration is beautiful!”
For the Carnegie Hall date, Gutiérrez, Severinsen and the San Miguel Five will collaborate with the New York Pops, under the baton of Steven Reineke, performing arrangements that embrace Argentine tango, swing, flamenco fusion, Gypsy jazz, and classical. The other members of the San Miguel Five are Grammy award-winning violinist Charlie Bisharat, Cuban percussionist Jimmy Branly and bass player Kevin Thomas.
Last August I was privileged to hear four members of the group perform at the Angela Peralta theater in San Miguel, along with pianist Eugenio Toussaint and violinist Pedro Cartas. They brought down the house with a fierce and poetic performance.
“Although we were in an old opera house in the middle of Mexico,” says David Melville, an American expatriate who was there that night, “the music transported me around the world, to smoky Parisian cafes, Italian piazzas, Cuban beaches and the peaks of the Andes.”
Amidst the mad, high energy of the show, filled with Severinsen’s sparkling trumpet solos, demon guitar work by Gutiérrez, propulsive Cuban beats, and a moment when percussionist Branly rushed center stage to drum on Gutiérrez’s guitar, there were also meditative pieces that linger in the memory still.
One was the melancholy “Lagrima del Toro,” an elegy composed by Gutiérrez for the hundreds of Mexican women who’ve been murdered over the last two decades in Ciudad Juarez. Gutiérrez began a haunting melody on his guitar, then passed it to the violin of Cartas, where it sang lyrically, before being interrupted by the muted cry of Severinsen’s trumpet, then scattering into Tousaint’s jazzy piano riffs.
Another was a rendition of the old Mexican chestnut “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” which Gutiérrez and Cartas interpreted as a simple, unadorned duet, and filled with soulful resonance.
How is it that some musicians are able to locate the spirit of a tune and soar with it, while others idly embroider it with their trills? I suspect it’s a special musical sensitivity that appears in childhood, long before an artist begins the arduous practice and the scales.
Born in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, Gutiérrez first fell in love with classical music as a 9-year-old boy, when his single mother enrolled him in sculpture classes at the local arts academy. As he worked with clay, he could hear the seductive sounds of cellos and pianos coming from nearby rooms.
But when he was finally allowed to study cello, the young Gutiérrez encountered a major obstacle. There weren’t enough cellos to go around at the school, and his family didn’t have the money to buy him one. He quickly shifted over to the guitar, a much more affordable instrument.
“In the beginning, I liked the Beatles,” reminisces Gutiérrez. “My favorite song was ‘Something.’ But, after I heard Bach and the great composers, I forgot about the Beatles.”
By the time he was 14, Gutiérrez was playing classical guitar in the restaurants of Oaxaca. At 17, he teamed up with jazz guitarist Wolfgang “Lobo” Fink, and they traveled north to San Miguel where they landed a gig at a local bar. Then came a stint in Mexico City, where Gutiérrez studied jazz and paid his dues playing on the city buses.
Eventually, he returned to San Miguel to marry, raise a family and become the darling of town’s large community of American and Canadian expatriates who support a thriving music and art scene in town.
Although these days a move north might make some career sense for him, Gutiérrez is passionately devoted to this town in foothills of the Sierra Madre. “The quality of life in San Miguel is very high,” he says. “I cannot imagine living any other place.”
Once Severinsen retired to the famously bohemian San Miguel, it was only a matter of time before the paths of the two musicians crossed. When they did, Severinsen’s early career in New York during the fifties, playing in the Latin bands of Tito Puente and Noro Morales, insured he and Gutiérrez would connect on the same wavelength.
“Gil gave me new life with his music,” Severinsen is now famous for telling everyone. “I thank Doc for teaching me to appreciate music with my heart,” Gutiérrez answers back.
This Friday evening at Carnegie Hall, New Yorkers will have a chance to hear Gutiérrez, Severinsen and the San Miguel Five in action. It promises to be a memorable night. Of course, if you can’t make it Friday, you can still check them out on CD, or visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to hear them on home turf.
By Mona Molarsky © 2011
NY City Life Examiner