Kukuly Uriarte, guitarist and leader of Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego, says the first rehearsal with a new band is a little like a first date:
“It’s a little awkward, but at the end of the day you have fun and your instruments make out!”
“And they call each other back later,” adds Andy Bryenton, cellist in the group.
“The whole thing is like a blank page in front of you,” says Uriarte.
Uriarte and Bryenton sit in Uriarte’s East Knoxville home. Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego have been gaining a solid audience in Knoxville for the group’s combination of gypsy jazz and Latin music. Both Uriarte and Bryenton are former members of the Johnson Swingtet and Swingbooty, which are both rooted in acoustic swing.
“I wanted to do something a little different,” says Uriarte. “I wanted to still do the Django stuff, but also some Latin, maybe a bossa nova ...”
“And a tango or two ...” adds Bryenton.
“And throw in some bebop,” says Uriarte.
Born in Peru, Uriarte and her mother moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she was 9 years old. The two later moved to Florida and then to Knoxville. Then 17, Uriarte enrolled in West High School.
“We went through the same things that any immigrants go through. I didn’t speak the language. It was hard to understand. It was kind of like being mute and trying to make friends.
She says it was the organization Child & Family Tennessee that helped her integrate into the city.
“They offered counseling because of the things we were going through. They helped my mom get a job. They even gave her rides to her job before we had a car. They went way out of their way to help. That was when I started coming out of my shell ... I am forever grateful.”
The band will perform at “Sanctuary In Sound” a benefit for the organization’s runaway shelter and youth programs.
“It’s very personal for me,” says Uriarte. “I’m honored to be able to offer something I’ve built. It’s thanks to them.”
Uriate says that shortly after she and her mother arrived in Knoxville they were befriended by local photographer/musician Christian Lange, who was had the gypsy swing group Swingbooty.
“That was my first exposure to jazz at all,” says Uriarte. “I fell in love with it, obsessively.”
She laughs over how a friend who knew her at the time now remembers her doing nothing but playing the song “Blue Drag” on guitar endlessly during a visit.
“Apparently I wasn’t a very good host,” she says.
She eventually joined Swingbooty on guitar where she met Bryenton, who was moonlighting after his gigs with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m a night person and I was looking for something constructive to do after symphony gigs other than hanging out at a bar,” says Bryenton. “I answered an ad for a guitarist, because I play guitar, too. I brought with my guitar and my cello. Afterwards they said, ‘Just leave your guitar at home next time.’”
A little later, percussionist Eugene Johnson began playing gypsy jazz guitar and Uriarte and Bryenton joined him in his new group the Johnson Swingtet.
“My school was the Johnson Swingtet,” says Uriarte.
When Uriarte decided she wanted to branch out, the Gypsy Fuego was born.
“I wasn’t in this band at first,” says Bryenton.
“I couldn’t get rid of you!” jokes Uriarte. “I was taking a break from the Swingtet and I thought I wanted every member to be new. Then I thought ‘Why am I not working with Andy?’”
The group also includes violinist Seth Hopper, drummer Alonzo Lewis and guitarist Kenton Martin. However, there’s no telling what the band’s instrumentation might be on any given night.
Uriarte says she’d like to start a more rock-oriented band as well, but right now she’d simply like to get the Gypsy Fuego’s reach a little further out.
“We call it gypsy jazz, but the name for it is really ‘manouche,’ which means ‘traveler.’ That should really be our natural state!”
Sanctuary In Sound
With: Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego, Nick Lutsko and the Samuel L. Jackson 5, Yung Life, DJ Wigs and Knoxville Poetry Slam
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 21
Where: Relix Variety Theatre, 1208 N. Central St.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!