Sitting around the wooden kitchen table with Gil Gutiérrez in the bohemian artist colony of San Miguel de Allende you get a sense of where his magnetic and profoundly beautiful music comes from. For more than thirty years Gil has made his home on the Mexican altiplano in a surreal town of winding cobblestone streets lined with colonial buildings whose warm tones resonate the earth's core. It is a vibrant place that artfully mixes the old and new. If you listen carefully the textured walls and massive doors seem to have a pulse that whispers ancient secrets. Magically that rhythm is best expressed in the evocative compositions of Gil's music. Simply walking around town with him you recognize the passion people feel for this world class guitarist whose authentic style gives voice to the well worn streets. There is the gypsy jazz, influenced from Spain and South America coupled with a uniquely compelling sound that gets inside you just like the town.
Gil Gutierrez began his artistic journey in Oaxaca, the spiritual and cultural epicenter of Mexico. At age eleven, his single mother enrolled him in fine arts classes at the Bellas Artes. As he worked with clay in the sculpture taller he could hear the captivating call of classical music filtering through the archways resonating off the vaulted ceilings. Eventually unable to focus on anything but the irresistible sound he was led to the music studio and a cello waiting patiently for his hands. He began to study in earnest but with only six cellos for all the students he learned how to switch to the piano and take turns. Luckily a neighbor across the street heard of his plight and had an extra guitar to lend to the young musician who could not afford an instrument. Impressed by his fervor for music Gil’s older brother ultimately gave him the gift of his first steel stringed guitar. He practiced until his fingers bled and from the moment he picked up the guitar he never put it down.
As his passion for guitar progressed there was never enough time to rehearse and so he began to sneak out of public school to practice. At fourteen he was playing classical music in a local restaurant and was paid with horchata and pizza. He continually pleaded with his mother to understand how serious he was about music. She insisted he return to public school and focus on developing a real career. It was then he met German born guitarist Wolfgang “Lobo” Fink who immediately recognized his talent and they played together at a bar called Sol y Luna in Oaxaca. Gil was now seventeen and Lobo suggested a weekend trip up North to picturesque San Miguel de Allende. There they were offered the chance to perform at Mama Mia, a popular night spot near the zocalo and Gil never looked back. When he turned nineteen, Lobo returned to Germany so Gil traveled to Mexico City to study jazz guitar. To earn a living during this period he played his guitar on city buses.
When he returned to San Miguel Gutiérrez began performing regularly and in 1990 formed the duet Gil y Oriente with Cuban musician Oriente López, director of Afrocuba. Oriente introduced him to classically trained, Cuban born violin master Pedro Cartas and one year later they became Gil & Cartas. Their notoriety grew with the town of San Miguel de Allende as they played to packed houses of loyal locals, expatriates and tourists. For years fans and followers insisted their unique sound needed to find its way to an American audience.
It was destiny that in 2006 Gil’s path crossed trumpet legend Doc Severinsen. On an extended visit to San Miguel, Severinsen bought Oaxacan rugs from La Zandunga owned by Gil’s wife Rebecca Kamelhar who recognized Doc's name. She delivered the hand crafted carpets with her husband’s compact discs cleverly rolled inside but Severinsen who was now in his eighties and building a house in San Miguel never saw them. Call it fate, but Doc kept hearing about Gil from neighbors and complete strangers so one night he finally came to hear the duo play at Bella Italia.
After the performance the personable musician approached Gil and told him how much he enjoyed the music and that he would be back. Not knowing at first who he was, Gil’s friends directed him to the Internet and he was speechless watching videos of the trumpet genius’s incredible performances. True to his word, Doc came every Friday and Saturday listening quietly with his eyes closed and after two months inquired what they musicians were up to. Gil invited him to contribute his incomparable sound to several songs on a compact disc they were recording called En Mi Corazon. Severinsen put on the headphones to record his track and after a few seconds took them off again and said “this song is by Noro Morales.”Amazed Gil asked how he knew this composer’s music as it was so uniquely Latin American. Doc replied “I played with him in the fifties in New York.”Adding his mesmerizing trumpet to a Cuban song Almendra and a Django Reinhardt gypsy jazz tune Nuages, Doc proposed they also add an classic and beautiful song called Estrellita by Manuel M. Ponce. Although he had come to San Miguel de Allende to retire Doc told Gil “ you give me life with this music,” and he began playing the trumpet more than ever. In the past he had spent many hours conducting and once he picked up the trumpet he simply couldn’t put his horn down.
It was the summer of 2007 and Severinsen told Gil they had better start practicing tirelessly to be ready to play with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra that following November.
Sold out performances and rave revues followed them all around the country as they played with symphony orchestras in Cincinnati, Naples, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Toledo, Seattle, San Antonio, Knoxville, Jacksonville and Nashville.
In Chicago’s Millenium Park they played to an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 people. Gil learned many things from the trumpet master, like how to give 100%, to fully enjoy the music and savor life. On January 28, 2011 Gil and Doc will be playing Carnegie Hall in New York.
San Miguel de Allende is a powerful influence on Gil's music. Despite its location in the corazon of Mexico, he was exposed to world music from countries like Turkey or Syria before the Internet. These songs were given to him by expatriates who had come to live in the UNESCO world heritage city. Walking through the markets or sitting in a cafe Gil listens and synthesizes the sounds and emotions of the town. Sometimes it is subconscious or accidental but the energy of the city finds its way into his compositions.
The town is also home to exceptional artisans and craftspeople. A humble art from practiced in Mexico are small retablos or laminas painted on tin. Deeply rooted in Spanish history they tell stories of miracles and represent the heart, soul and religious traditions of Mexicans from the 17th-19th centuries. Gutierrez is building a second home out in the countryside where he is planting fields of lavender. In the fall of 2010 he was unexpectedly attacked by a rottweiler abandoned near his land. His arm was injured but healed quickly and a friend, artist Rafael López painted a contemporary lamina on tin to give thanks that Gil was again playing his guitar.
Living in San Miguel can be like a perpetual vacation and the native color of street life teaches you to see things from a different perspective. Gutiérrez also savors the joy of travel, of going places and getting to know the people there. The opportunity to work closely with great musicians and orchestras. Flying into a city Gil starts by taking a walk, a look around to get the vibe and then channels a bit of that local energy into each performance. He has found that by sampling the rhythm and spirit of each venue he can strongly connect the audience to his music. Gil has also composed movie scores for three documentary films and really enjoys the challenge of reading scripts or watching a film then letting the music take over. In the future he looks forward to composing movie soundtracks as he has always imagined pictures when making music. His finely tuned senses lead him in the direction of each composition to communicate the emotions of a scene.
There is a visual landscape in San Miguel that makes the senses more acute, and the sounds, images and colors get inside Gil Gutiérrez and his vibrant music.