With a career stretching back more than 30 years, and 25 albums as a band leader, and more than 300 concerts all over the world, Argentinian jazz pianist Adrian Iaies is just plain hard to describe. His exhausting list of awards and accomplishments would woo any jazz lover to his musical haven. But it’s listening to his sometimes quirky technique, sometimes mournful and romantic moods, his slow fox trots and ballads, and then bursts of emotional tango beats and all-that-swing, all with an improvisational twist of notes, chords, and harmonics, that intrigues. Born in Buenos Aires in 1960, Iaies landed (July 2018) in South Africa’s National Arts Festival heartland of Grahamstown, now renamed Makhanda, his first SA visit, to bless patrons with his brand of jazz.
His Colegiales Quartet was made up of the illustrious percussionist, Facundo Guevara, bandoneon player Federico Siksnys, and young double-bassist Diana Arias who is originally from Colombia. It was bassist Arias whose performance outranked many seasoned professionals with her very pronounced and fast paced runs and solos with a variety of classical American, South American, and African beats.
Diana Maria Arias atNAF 2018-Standard Bank
Can the Tango have a jazz ‘swing’? You bet. This NAF performance proved that the classic tango rhythms can and do manoeuvre into other sound spaces.
Iaies, who is also the Artistic Director for the annual Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival as well as the Director of one of the city’s finest cultural centers, La Usina del Arte, considers himself first and foremost an improvisational jazz pianist. His many albums cut across various genres of ‘world’, including Argentinian folkloric, European classical, and Latin music. From traditional bluesy swing of early American jazz to Strayhorn moods to tango-esque styles to funky rhythms which remind one of Oscar Petersen’s occasional break with tradition to John Coltrane’s broken off-beats, there’s something to please most listening ears.
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I caught up with Iaies during one of his breaks from workshops and rehearsals which occupied his, and all other illustrious teaching musicians’, time at this bustling Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival, a welcomed part of the NAF that brings some 350 music students from all over South Africa to study, jam, and perform with another 150 professional local and international jazz musicians.
CM: Let’s talk about how you relate with the South African jazz sound. What has been your impression about what you’ve heard so far?
AI: I come from a classical music heritage through my mother but I also listened to jazz artists, like John Lewis and Duke Ellington growing up. I love the small groups, not the big bands. I discovered African music later because the first artists I brought to the Buenos Aires international jazz festival was Randy Weston. I had attended his gig in New York to check out if he was in good health to travel 14 hours to Argentina. He was in his mid 80s then. My first pick, however, for that festival, was Dollar Brand. I have no special approach in African music. My main teacher has been my drummer, Fecundo, because he has a special interest in the global music. I’m also now looking at including South African jazz at the BA international jazz festival this year! I would also love to return back here to record with local artists.
CM: Piazzolla Escalandrum band performed in Cape Town a while back. Its leader, Daniel Piazzolla, said he was tired of the tango in its traditional form and wanted to move it forward.
AI: Yes, people talked about Aster Piazzolla’s music like it was a step toward jazz. His traditional music had nothing to do with jazz. Juan Carlos Cobian* music is the closest to my favourite composer, Billy Strayhorn. There’s the same sophistication, harmony, and chromatic sounds, …. The traditional music has common points with this because the repertoire includes great sounds, great harmony, …. You can play the traditional Tango in the same way you play songs by Irving Berlin …. Because it’s rhythmic music.
CM: In South Africa, there is a continual debate about what is “South African jazz”. It boils down to cultural roots.
AI: We were just talking about this with Thandi Ntuli. I told her she has one tight band. They are patient. They take their time to reach the climax. They [South African musicians] are very kind people so their culture speaks through the music.
CM: When I listen to Brazilian music, with its mixtures, like in Argentina with Spanish and indigenous sounds, etc, I get a sense of the frantic, the dance type of music, that’s very lively.
AI: In the workshops, the student asked some very smart questions about these mixtures, like how do you learn music. The important thing is the musical form and rhythms, and where the composers come from, like from sub-tropical climates or freezing south pole areas. In our workshop, we spoke about the three main groups of people in Argentina: one which stems from the indigenous Inca people, then the people in the eastern part of the country stemming from the Europeans, and then the group mixed with Africans.
CM: That’s quite a variety of influences, then, in your own jazz……
IA: We as musicians need to understand these different regions. That’s why I experiment a lot with my drummer, Facundo, who comes from Mendoza, because he has a wide exposure to different world regions. Also, how do you learn music? Through oral traditions. There’s no self-taught musician. We learn from others and traditions, what’s around us. This is very important.
CM: Explain further.
AI: Fecundo is a very good teacher. When we leave Argentina to perform elsewhere, we notice how people behave in their countries. This is very educational. But when I return to Buenos Aires, I need some days to get used to BA again. Elsewhere, I see everyone is smiling, but back in BA, it’s not like that- it’s more black and white, more dark than light.
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At this point, the piano was being tuned in the hall where we were chatting. Iaies volunteered to test it out, thus leaving our cozy chat, while Facundo and I continued. Facundo added, “I grew up looking to Africa as I understood this was the source, so this is my first trip to Africa. With my background in Argentinian folkloric percussion, I understand African rhythms.” We spoke about how Africans and other South Africans had latched onto American jazz, pop and the Blues during the Apartheid era, and how this has influenced South African jazz compositions.
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The Buenos Aires International Jazz Festival, which Iaies has run as Director since 2007, is scheduled from 14 – 19 November 2018.
* Juan Carlos Cobián (1888–1942), an Argentine bandleader and tango composer, led the “evolutionary” tendency in tango which was perceived as tending to concert music than to traditional dance music. As a composer, he and Enrique Delfino paved the road for the road for avant-garde tango. To this extent, Cobián was such an evolutionist that the publishers did not accept his early tangos because they regarded them as ‘wrongly composed’. The truth is that they were far beyond the popular music of the time. (from https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Carlos_Cobi%C3%A1n)