By Margaret Winter
Looking for Cuenca’s best nightlife? You’ll find it at the Jazz Society Cafe.
It’s a little miracle to find a jazz club of this caliber in the Andes, with world-class performers in a venue that’s got the warm, intimate vibe of an authentic New York jazz club. But, in fact, this club would be a standout in Greenwich Village, LA, Chicago, or any other major jazz venue in the States.
It’s not just for those who consider themselves jazz fanatics. You’ll find here every Wednesday through Saturday night a mix of musical genres, where the common musical threads knitting it all together are passion, sophistication, humanity, and soul. You come to the café to feel yourself at home with the strangers at the next table; you bond, through the music and the ambience, with music-lovers from Latin America, Europe, North America, and Asia.
Though you come to the Café mainly for the music, you also come to eat and drink while you listen, in a warm, charming environment, where the walls are covered with dream-like murals in the style of a Latin-American Henri Rousseau. The club is located on the second floor of La Viña, the Italian restaurant on the ground floor of a patrimonial building at the corner of Juan Jaramillo and Luis Cordero. La Viña provides the food and beverage service to the Jazz club’s patrons.
One of the Jazz Society Café’s biggest draws is the dazzling improvisation of Su Terry, internationally acclaimed saxophonist and vocalist. She’s been called a “Superwoman of Jazz” and compared to the legendary Charlie Parker; she’s played with many of the jazz greats of our time — including such luminaries as Art Blakey, Carmen McRae, Dr. Billy Taylor, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan. She’s also been a soloist with the National Symphony, the New York Pops Orchestra, international jazz festivals and clubs throughout the world, and everywhere from Carnegie Hall in Manhattan to the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
But if you came to the Jazz Society Café only to hear Su Terry, you’d be missing much of the real magic that the club has to offer: the dynamic mingling of North and South American musical cultures and genres, interpreted by world-class artists.
It’s a big part of the excitement and drama of an evening at the Jazz Society Café that the high-energy sets of jazz improvisation by Su Terry alternate with the radically different styles and genres of two other stellar musicians: pianist Jim Gala, and vocalist-guitarist Luis Ullauri.
Luis Ullauri, a native of Azuay Province, delivers a repertory of Latin American romantic ballads in the tradition of Nueva Trova — the New Ballad movement spearheaded in the 1960s by Cuban singer-composer Silvio Rodriguez (sometimes called Cuba’s John Lennon). Luis’ interpretations of these melodically gorgeous classics are spellbinding. When his first note rings out, a hush falls on the room: There’s a yearning quality, a passion and tenderness to his powerful tenor voice, and a depth, color and vibrancy to his sophisticated guitar accompaniment, which are nothing less than exhilarating.
In addition to these riches, there’s pianist Jim Gala — reason enough to become a regular at the Jazz Society Café. Jim is an artist like no other. He is a master interpreter of the Great American Songbook, that collection of the most melodically memorable and enduring American pop songs and jazz standards, composed for Broadway and Hollywood musicals during the 1920’s through the 1950s and beyond, by such titans as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Rogers and Hart. Jim transforms these American standards into jazz meditations that are endlessly witty, exuberant, poignant, tender, and wildly imaginative; they celebrate desire, joy, and bliss along with melancholy, loss, and regret.
In a recent review in Cuenca HighLife (click here), Broadway composer Bill Scott managed to capture something of the essence of Jim’s magic in his own words:
“I have played with some of the greats on both sides of the Atlantic, yet I have never heard such a transformative, unique jazz pianist as Jim Gala, a true musical genius. It’s about that deeply emotional, spiritual level of music. It is a rare thing to be so moved by a performer that you lose all sense of time and space. He has that thing that strips the listener of all your emotional defenses.”
Jim is the founder and guiding spirit of The Jazz Society Café and the Jazz Society of Ecuador. He was classically trained at the Eastman School of Music — perhaps the most distinguished music conservatory in the U.S — and he absorbed jazz at an early age. The legendary Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Branford Marsalis are honorary directors of Jim Gala’s Jazz Society, and it’s largely thanks to Jim and the Jazz Society that Cuenca is building and impressive reputation as an international venue for jazz.
One of the great gifts that Jim has given to Cuenca is the fostering of an international brotherhood and sisterhood of North and South American artists, including young Ecuadorian musicians who are learning the art of jazz improvisation from a master. As Jim explains it, “Jazz is a conversation, unscripted music like a conversation is unscripted words. It’s spontaneous, instantaneous composition, and there’s a kind of musical liberation to that, when it’s build on mastery of the musical vocabulary. It’s very personal and intimate. At the same time, jazz is a big world. Nina Simone said, ‘Jazz is not just music. It’s a way of life; it’s a way of being, a way of thinking.’”
When you spend an evening at the Jazz Club, you come to realize that part of its magic is that it invites you to witness and participate in the handing down of the great tradition of jazz improvisation. The Jim Gala Trio, which performs every Wednesday through Saturday at the club, regularly includes gifted young Cuencano musicians such as percussionists Pedro Ortiz and Reinaldo Arce, and double bassist Christian Torres (Christian, who is classically trained, is the principle double bass player for the Cuenca Symphony Orchestra).
Because Jim sees it as a core part of the club’s mission to help foster a new generation of jazz musicians in Ecuador, he makes it a point to invite promising young local musicians to sit in on jam sessions with him and visiting artists. By all means go the club on a Friday or Saturday night to hear Su Terry, Luis Ullauri, Jim Galen, and other luminaries; but there’s also a special delight in the more informal programs on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when you can not only get lost in Jim’s shimmering improvisations, but also listen to him give an impromptu master class.
The wonderful thing about music is that it is such a huge tent, and it fills such a variety of human needs. There are plenty of music venues in Cuenca these days. But there simply isn’t any other venue in town remotely like the Jazz Society Café. Go with a group of friends. Go with the one you love. Or go alone — it’s all good.
The Jazz Society Café is rightly called the crown jewel of Cuenca’s burgeoning music scene. The music is transformative. It will enlarge your life.
Margaret Winter is a constitutional lawyer. Among the many landmark cases she litigated during her career, she argued and won a prisoner’s constitutional case before the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing the opinion for a unanimous court. Until her retirement in 2016, she was the Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She lives in Cuenca.