The Peruvian guitarist Yuri Juárez sets scenes and drafts landscapes, with sounds put down, like paint, by his expert fingers. He is the guitarist for the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, for whom he calls up images and implies great distances, providing song after song, whether studio or live, with a visual field uncannily provoked by sound. So it is unsurprising that GUITAR SAPIENS, which he released last month at Subrosa in New York, is so spatially layered, with the guitar now close, now far, now approaching, or now retreating, boldly in the foreground here, in the far distance there. It moves, on the first disc, inside the borders of an orchestra, and on the second, explores the bounds of an ensemble.
It is an audacious journey, five years in the making, with studio sessions in three countries. About half the pieces are by Juárez, the rest his arrangements. There are five orchestral pieces, including a four-part suite, and eight for ensemble, traversing flamenco, tango, Brazilian, classical, and Peruvian, with a stop in France and a side trip to Italy, the itinerary mapped, at every point, by a jazz sensibility. GUITAR SAPIENS takes its time, lingers in culs-de-sac, speeds and slows, enjoys the sights, relaxes at rest stops, its destinations uncalculated, seeming less to be reached than arriving on their own. Vistas open up, the widest and lushest in “Scena,” a tribute to Ennio Morricone that in name and spirit exemplifies the musical scene-setting of which Juárez is a master.
Juárez’s guitar is free range, knowing and walking upright, careful in its choices, eager to explore, willing to give way, bold when the direction is set, dominant but never dominating. It draws an aching beauty from James Ogle’s violin on the instrumental duet “Tangosofía,” then nudges him toward briskness. “Ocaso y amanecer” starts with a sort of drumroll, as though announcing the main event, but delays the anticipated entry of the saxophone, played by hot-as-lava sax star Melissa Aldana, with a full minute of percussion from Shirazette Tinnin. The guitar is in there too, after the sax takes over, but so deep in the soundscape that it’s hard to single out. “Gitanos y criollos” might have been an agon between flamenco and criollo guitars (Juárez on both), with orchestral partisans and competing voices and palmas. It captures more the rhythm of a conversation, intense, to be sure, overlapping and with a dramatic break in the middle, about what they have in common. Criollo has the last word, not because flamenco has been defeated, but because accord as been reached.
Juárez is not one to dwell on physical pain or emotional angst. GUITAR SAPIENS comes up on iTunes as “easy listening,” a misleading label for music so sophisticated, but not completely wrong. “El escape del cimarrón,” on the theme of an escaping slave, is joyous and spry. “Carmen lives in Paris” calls up carefree streets and bohemian cafés. There’s a pulling back from conflict throughout, a willingness to be unashamedly pleasant. This is reflected too in the album’s inclination toward homage. It starts and ends with one of Juárez’s musical touchstones, the late composer and guitarist Carlos Hayre (1932-2012). “Suite Hayre,” the first track on the orchestral disc, is bookended by the last one on the ensemble disc, an intricate arrangement, for a single guitar, of Hayre’s “Despertar.”
The North American release at Subrosa on Nov. 21, in ensemble form, was one of the most life-giving concerts I’ve attended all year. Listening to the CD has revived the experience anew. In addition to Juárez, three of the studio musicians (too many to list in full) were present: Tinnin on drums, Renato Diz on piano, and Moto Fukushima on bass. Héctor Morales filled in on cajón and percussion. Saxophonist Laura Andrea Leguía took on the sax and horn parts with zeal and brilliance, and Sofía Tosello, who sings two songs on the CD, sang one of them live, Chico Buarque-Tom Jobim’s “Retrato em branco e preto” (the other on the album is “Hojarasca,” by Daniel “Kiri” Escobar). For two full, vivifying sets, one sensed the ambition of the project, the intelligence that animated it, and the passion that sustains it.