Friday, July 2, 2010

The Gig: Aztex (1999)

(As published in the Times of Acadiana ... )

The Gig
Grant Street Dancehall
111 W. Grant St.
Friday, July 7

When Joel Guzman and his wife Sarah Fox--two thirds of the “Latinoamericano” band Aztex--play Lafayette this Friday in support of their album Short Stories (Hightone), they’ll be returning to the scene of one of their most satisfying but emotionally trying gigs.

It occurred last October at Grant Street when they opened for, and later jammed with, Los Lobos. “It was hard, man,” says Guzman. “I would look at David, and he would look at me, and I knew he was hurting inside, and I’d look at the other guys, and they were just hanging on. They were worried for their brother. They were worried for him and his wife.”

“David” is Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, and the “brother” for whom he and the rest of the group were worried was their fellow band member Cesar Rosas, who the night before had received word of his wife’s disappearance, a disappearance that at the time was being reported as a kidnapping but that would eventually be classified as a murder.

“Kevy Rojas, our guitar player, is a pastor at his father’s church,” says Guzman, “and, before the show, I said, ‘Kevy, I think we should ask them if we can pray.’ So we prayed for Cesar, his family, and all the musicians, because, man, they couldn’t believe it. Yet they had to go out there and put on a show. We didn’t really know the depth of the tragedy, but we had some idea.”

The show did go on. It was, incidentally, a show that Aztex were not originally supposed to open. Ads had led ticket-holders to expect Joe Henry as the warm-up act, but Henry had recently cancelled his remaining dates on the tour, a cancellation of which Guzman was ignorant when he asked Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin about opening an upcoming Los Lobos show in Texas. “Steve said, ‘How about doing ten shows for us?’” Guzman recalls. “We hit the ceiling.”

Guzman and Fox became friendly with Berlin and several other members of Los Lobos in 1998 during the recording and performing of songs on the Los Super Seven album. The album, which consisted primarily of spirited renditions of traditional folk songs, brought together such Latin-American, Tex-Mex superstars as Hidalgo, Rosas, Freddy Fender, Flaco Jimenez, Ruben Ramos, Joe Ely, and Rick Treviño. Guzman, although not officially one of the Seven, sang and played percussion, accordion, piano, and organ on twelve of the album’s thirteen tracks, and Fox sang background on three.

The night that the album won a Grammy for “Best Mexican-American Music Performance,” Berlin--the album’s producer--called Guzman and Fox to congratulate them. “We said, ‘What is it going to take for you to do a record for us?’” Guzman remembers. “He goes, ‘Well, let’s call it a labor of love because you probably couldn’t afford me.’”

In some ways there was more labor than love involved in the recording of the album. With only ten days to complete it, Berlin worked Aztex rigorously, bringing in a cast of supporting musicians, including the Los Super Seven alumni Max Baca and Joe Ely, for good measure. (Guzman, perhaps by way of reciprocation, plays accordion all over Ely’s new album, Live @ Antone’s.) The hard work, however, paid off: Eight months after its release, Short Stories remains an unclassifiable yet immensely enjoyable synthesis of Guzman’s and Fox’s Tejano, conjunto, salsa, and R&B roots.

“Steve Berlin is amazing,” says Fox, who admits that she found the prospect of working with someone of Berlin’s stature intimidating. “He dissected just about every song that we brought. He made a lot of changes and made us do a lot of writing on the spot.” “I wanted to do some of the stuff in, like, a bolero style, and he was all over me,” Guzman concurs. “He was, like, ‘No, man. That’s not it. That don’t get it. It doesn’t do anything. You’ve got to do something else with it. I don’t know what it is, but hurry up!’

“He was able,” Guzman continues, “to cut through the maze of styles that we like and help us find a common thread. ‘You’re going to be Latin based,’ he said. ‘You’re going to have traditional in there, but we’ll deviate once in a while to your salsa groove, we’ll deviate to a little of your Tex-Mex, and we’ll deviate a little to your Americano roots and guitar stuff too.’” Adds Fox, “I had no idea where it was going during the time that we were in the studio, but after the project was finished and I listened back to it, I went, ‘Oh! I get it!’”

Now, with the group hitting the road again--it plays Baton Rouge’s Empire Grill on Saturday night--others will keep “getting” Aztex too. Guzman’s and Fox’s short stories, it seems, are about to get longer.

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