Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Gil Gutiérrez, Doc Severinsen and the San Miguel 5 team up with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall
Snow was piled high on the New York sidewalks when Gil Gutiérrez, Doc Severinsen and the San Miguel 5 strode onto the stage of Carnegie Hall on Friday night to raise the temperature with their inimitable, high-powered music. The group plays an uncategorizable but bubbling mix of classical, Afro-Latin and Gypsy jazz so infectious that it’s almost impossible to hear it and sit still.
Backed by the New York Pops orchestra on Friday, under the baton of Steven Reineke, they lit into the introduction to “El Amor Brujo” by Manuel De Falla, then segued into their signature Latin-jazz-rockets-round-the-world sound with “El Farol.” By the time Doc’s soaringly beautiful, opening trumpet solo had given way to the Gypsy-style violin of Charlie Bisharat, and the lacy, Arabic-inflected guitar of Gil Gutiérrez, riding the propulsive rhythms of Cuban percussionist Jimmy Branly and bass player Kevin Thomas, these consummate musicians had the entire audience in the palm of their collective hand.
People bopped in their seats through the infectious Django Reinhardt/Stéphane Grappelli standard “Minor Swing,” and were entranced by the evocative Piazzolla/Laurenz tangos “Adiós Nonino / Milonga de Mis Amores.” By then there could be no doubt that some brilliant Mexican sunshine had arrived in grey and chilly New York.
“How many of you out there are from San Miguel?” Doc queried the audience between numbers.
Several groups in the audience cheered loudly in response. Besides a number of hardcore San Miguel residents who’d flown north for the event, numerous audience members were part-time residents, and many more were occasional visitors and devotees of the town.
But the bulk of the audience was made up of regular subscribers to the New York Pops series, which has been playing Carnegie Hall since 1983. Founded that year by former NBC music director Skitch Henderson, who was a close friend of Doc’s, the New York Pops is now led by Steven Reineke. A young conductor and arranger from Cincinnati who began as a trumpeter in the 1980s, Reineke told the audience that when he was a teenager he idolized Doc. In tribute to his early role model, Reineke appeared for the second half of the show decked out in an orange-and-black print jacket that seemed to take its design cues from the hide of a giraffe.
True to form, Doc was dressed to the nines himself. He strutted around the stage in a black shirt, emblazoned with silver sequins, and tight, intensely purple leather pants.
But if Doc is a peacock when it comes to fashion, he’s a more social animal when it comes to music. During the evening, he repeatedly paid tribute to his musical partner Gil, as the founder of the group, which had its early genesis in San Miguel, long before Doc arrived in town.
As many San Miguelenses know, in addition to being a virtuoso guitarist, Gil is a composer in his own right. But no matter who the composer and arranger of a particular piece may be, he puts his musical stamp on it with his fierce guitar work. In the evening’s rousing final number, “Camino del Pan Bendito,” written by Los Elementales and arranged by Eugenio Toussaint, Gil launched into a super-charged flamenco bulería that morphed into rumba as the other instruments joined in. The finale nearly brought down the house.
If it hadn’t been for a fateful encounter five years ago, Gil and Doc—these two extraordinary jazz virtuosos—would never have shared the stage together at Carnegie Hall on Friday night. 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. The 83-year-old Doc 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. Gil 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 Doc, 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, and heard Gil and his group playing Latin jazz.
Gil, who’d lived in San Miguel for 30 years, had a regular gig with violinist Pedro Cartas and their group at the local restaurant Bella Italia. Many people in town knew and loved the music. But until Doc walked in that night, Gil Gutiérrez was San Miguel’s best-kept secret. Doc was 79 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, Doc had introduced himself to Gil 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, Doc had realized he was too inspired to stay retired. As for Gil, he wasn’t San Miguel’s secret anymore.
“Now wherever we go,” Gil 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 another legendary trumpeter, Arturo Sandoval.
“I love playing with small groups, but I also enjoy performing with symphony orchestras,” says Gil, 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!”
Last August I was privileged to hear four members of the group perform at San Miguel’s Angela Peralta theater, along with pianist Eugenio Toussaint and violinist Pedro Cartas. Nobody who was there will ever forget their 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.”
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, Gil 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 Gil 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,” Gil reminisces. “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, Gil 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 local bar Mama Mía. Then came a stint in Mexico City, where Gil 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.
Although these days a move north might make some career sense for him, Gil is passionately devoted to this town in foothills of the Sierra Madre. “The quality of life in San Miguel is incredible,” he says. “I cannot imagine living any other place.”
Once Doc retired to San Miguel, it was only a matter of time before the paths of the two musicians crossed. When they did, Doc’s early career in New York during the fifties, playing in the Latin bands of Tito Puente and Noro Morales, insured he and Gil would connect on the same wavelength.
“Gil gave me new life with his music,” Doc is now famous for telling everyone. “I thank Doc for teaching me to appreciate music with my heart,” Gil answers back.
Last Friday evening at Carnegie Hall, New Yorkers had a chance to hear Gil, Doc and the San Miguel Five in action. It was a thrilling experience no one who was there is likely to forget. And the town of San Miguel de Allende couldn’t ask for better ambassadors. Gil and Doc gave the town a human and artistic face.
“San Miguel is one of the most beautiful, and safest towns in the world,” Doc told the audience. After Friday’s concert, more New Yorkers may be inspired to head south, where they can hear these consummate musicians on their home turf.
By Mona Molarksy