By Margaret Winter
Wednesday through Saturday evenings, just walk up a flight of stairs to the second floor of La Viña restaurant, at the corner of Luis Cordero and Juan Jaramillo in the heart of the historic district, and you’ll find yourself in the Jazz Society Café.
There’s nothing else like it in Cuenca. Come to this cozy and welcoming restaurant-bar on a rainy evening to listen to glorious music from North and South America, over a glass of wine and Italian fare. Come with a group of friends or with your partner, or come by yourself, and enjoy being in the company of music-lovers from all over Europe, North America, Latin America, and the world.
It’s a magical and romantic setting. The walls are covered with finely rendered murals of Ecuadorean dreamscapes. The intimate space is candle-lit. The attentive waiter who serves you is likely to be a gifted musician, who, after the first set of the evening, sheds his or her apron and emerges on stage to perform.
The Jazz Society Café holds its own in comparison with famous jazz venues in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and other strongholds of jazz in the United States, thanks to the genius and artistry of founder and director James Gala, who is not only a jazz pianist of extraordinary emotional range, subtlety and radiant technique, but who has also had the vision and the will to carry out an impossible dream: creating a world-class jazz club in remote city in the Andes which, less than a decade ago, had barely heard of jazz.
“When I first moved to Cuenca six years ago, I was enchanted by the colonial architecture, the mountain skyline, the culture, the laid-back mood of the City,” says Gala. “There was something about the historic center that reminded me of Greenwich Village in Manhattan — a place where the arts could flourish. What was missing, for mewas live jazz — there was none at all. It became my dream to bring jazz to Cuenca.”
For the past five years he has nurtured that dream by mentoring promising young Ecuadorean musicians in jazz improvisation, among them Christian Torres, a contrabassist with the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra.
The Jim Gala Trio often plays songs from The Great American Songbook — beloved twentieth-century standards by Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern, and other master song-writers from Broadway’s golden era — transforming these well-known standards, through the alchemy of jazz improvisation, into new and thrilling musical adventures.
Virtually every week, Gala brings in guest artists to perform with the Jim Gala Trio, among them SuTerry, a brilliant saxophonist and clarinetist, who has been acclaimed a “Superwoman of Jazz,” and has performed at many of the most important jazz venues and festivals in the United States. Terry, who has an international following, is artist-in-residence at the club, and performs there with the Jim Gala Trio most Thursday nights.
There are often surprise guests, as well: Jazz musicians who travel to Cuenca as tourists naturally gravitate to the club, and sometimes end up being invited to perform — as was the case with a young trumpet-player from Brussels, Thomas Steyaert, who, during a back-packing trip throughout South America, made what he thought would be a only a brief stop in Cuenca but who has become a regular addition to the Jim Gala Trio.
The genre of “jazz” is a broad one, and Gala isn’t a rigid purist who wants to banish music that doesn’t neatly fit into the genre: What most interests him is bringing in performers of the highest caliber, whatever their musical style. Because he is especially interested in the synergy of a North American-Latin American musical collaboration, Gala always alternates sets of Jazz with sets of classic Latin American ballads performed by Ecuadorean musicians.
Luis Ullauri, a native Cuenca singer-guitarist, is the only musician, besides Gala himself, who performs every night at the club. Ullauri mesmerizes audiences with hauntingly beautiful and sophisticated versions of Latin American romantic ballads. He has an unusually expressive and flexible tenor voice, and a dazzling classical guitar technique. “When I first started playing at the club I had serious doubts that jazz lovers would be interested in the Latin America Nueva Trova that I perform. It’s been a wonderful surprise and a great happiness for me that the audiences at the jazz club respond with so much appreciation to these ballads,” says Ullauri. “Even though it’s not jazz, there’s definitely improvisation in the delivery of these ballads. I play mostly the notes that I arrange beforehand with a lot of care, but I perform the piece in the moment, and the emotion I’m feeling at that moment makes the delivery different every time.”
Prepare to be amused, moved, and exhilarated by unforgettable music in a relaxing and romantic setting. The Jazz Society of Ecuador creates an authentic Greenwich Village vibe in the Andes.
Margaret Winter is a retired civil rights lawyer, lives in Cuenca. An abbreviated version of this article appeared recently in a review she published in TripAdvisor.