Gomez’s original Latin sound crosses musical borders

Boston Globe, November 3, 2006

For Marta Gomez, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When she left Colombia to study at the Berklee School of Music, the distance gave her the perspective to value her home country’s traditional musical styles. And though she moved to New York, as many Berklee graduates do, in 2003, Boston remains her favorite market and one she visits frequently, as she does for two sets at the Regattabar tonight.

In the course of four albums with her longtime band – two independently produced, followed by two on the New York label Chesky – Gomez has developed a poised, sensitive musical personality with an easy, earnest charm that spills into conversation. She has also managed to confuse the mysterious gremlins who label music by category, as iTunes, for instance, lists her work variously as jazz, world, Latin, and folk.

Does that bother her? “It’s actually the opposite,” Gomez says. “It means I can work more. I can go to jazz festivals, Latin festivals. … It’s a good thing.” What she does, after all, is consistent: mainly original compositions that draw on traditional rhythms from across Latin America, performed in a warm, unornamented style with a jazzy feel.

The title of her new album, “Entre Cada Palabra” (literally, “between each word”), is as good a key as any to Gomez’s approach. In the tradition of Miles Davis, she appreciates the expressive power of the silences as much as that of the notes.

“It’s fine to be quiet,” she says. She applies that value not just in her compositions but also, she says, in performance with her band. “I don’t want them just to play all the notes they can. When it’s your turn, I listen quietly.”

The results are spare but groovy. Gomez and bandmates Julio Santillan, Franco Pinna, and Fernando Huerga, all from Argentina, have steeped themselves in folk music from all of Latin America. (The band’s newest member, Yulia Musayelyan, who plays flute, is Russian but has perfectly picked up the Latin American idioms, Gomez says.) On “Entre Cada Palabra,” more familiar rhythms – Colombian cumbia, Cuban son, Mexican ranchera – cohabit and cross-fertilize with less-known styles such as Argentina’s chamame or Venezuela’s tonada llanera.

“When I came here I fell in love with my roots,” says Gomez, an experience shared by her bandmates, whom she met at Berklee. Gomez speaks lovingly of them and the connection they’ve forged. “We’ve known each other so long. All the energy you share with a person you’ve played with for years, you can’t compare it.”

Lisa Hershfield, who heads artist development at Chesky Records, discovered Gomez through Berklee prof Livingston Taylor and was quickly smitten.

“She’s like a ray of sunshine,” Hershfield says. “Her talent comes from her heart, and her music reflects her life. She brings her roots with her.”

The natural, direct quality of Gomez’s music made her a natural fit for Chesky, an audiophile label that records minimally, rejecting multitracking in favor of single-point recordings in performance-like settings.

“She has the perfect, intimate value for that,” Hershfield says. “It’s as if Marta were sitting on your stoop, playing.”

Gomez spends much of her time on the road, using New York as her base. She plays in Latin America at least once a year, especially Colombia and Argentina, where the band has family and friends. Her reputation there is growing.

“I’m more known in the United States than in Colombia,” Gomez says. “But this year I performed at a festival in Bogota before 6,000 people.” The group also played a folklore festival in Argentina last January, somewhat to their own surprise, since they are, after all, urban types only recently invested in folk traditions.

Playing in Latin America, Gomez says, is a way of giving back to the cultures that have inspired her. She has also set up a foundation called Agua Dulce to help children in Colombia.

“I was tired of complaining about everything: Colombia, the violence, the government,” she says. “I may never have the money to build a hospital, but I can sponsor poor kids to make their life better.”

Her next goal, she says, is to develop programs in Colombian indigenous music and dance so that local kids won’t have to go away, as she did, to realize the richness of their roots.

“They have it right there in front of them, when their grandmother sings to them,” she says. “I had to come to Boston to find Colombian music.”