There’s Nothing Jorge Glem Can’t Play on the Cuatro

by delarue

Last night before the show at Joe’s Pub, the trippy sounds of cumbia icons Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo album wafted through the PA, a very good omen. Like Chicha Libre’s Olivier Conan, Venezuelan wizard Jorge Glem plays the cuatro, the shortscale Pan-American four-stringed instrument. The C4 Trio co-founder explained that he wants to bring that spiky little axe into every style of music around the world…and if there’s anybody who has the chops to do that, it’s Glem. You can watch the whole show at youtube.

He drew plenty of laughs for his account of how he came to play it. As a small child, he wanted to be a percussionist, but his mom wouldn’t let him use the family pots and pans. But there was a cuatro hanging on the wall of his home in Cumaná, a common sight in a neighborhood where it was more kitschy decor than anything else. With a big grin, he vigorously delivered the very first sounds he was able to get out of it: mimicking the beats of a conga by banging on the instrument’s body while muting the strings, first at the sound hole and then right at the headstock for highs and lows. Throughout the show, he also made it sound like a banjo, a mandolin, a flamenco guitar, a pandeiro, many different drums, a mosquito and a jet engine among other things.

Guest clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera also related a funny anecdote about Blues for Sonny, a Sonny Rollins tribute by Toots Thielemans that D’Rivera had recorded with the late jazz harmonica player. Michel Camilo heard it and said to D’Rivera, “That’s a Venezuelan tune! What does Sonny Rollins have to do with Venezuela?” So it would make sense for D’Rivera to play that warmly bouncing number with Glem. The two followed with A Night in Tunisia, which D’Rivera had first thrown at Glem at an impromptu performance at the National Arts Club…and was amazed to find that Glem knew it. That was a showcase for Glem’s postbop phrasing, but then again, so was Glem’s opening solo improvisation.

Joined by accordionist Sam Reider, Glem mashed up what sounded like an Irish reel, a high lonesome Applachian dance, vallenato and champeta, maybe, throwing in a boisterous improvisation midway through. Likewise, guitarist Yotam Silberstein playfully jousted with Glem throughout a shapeshifting blend of Caribbean coastal folk, postbop and some of the most fluidly legato Django Reinhardt ever played.

The final guest was singer Claudia Acuña, who held the crowd in the palm of her hand with her bittersweetly nuanced low register throughout a couple of ballads in both English and Spanish. Glem encored with a final, chord-chopping solo piece that quoted liberally from Bach and Beethoven, and maybe Yomo Toro and Dick Dale too. How Glem managed to get through that one without breaking either strings or his fingers is a mystery that has yet to be solved. No wonder there’s a documentary film being made about his crazy cuatro cross-pollinations here in New York. 

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