In a world where pan-Latin fusion is shooting up the pop charts, the husband-and-wife team of Joel Guzman and Sarah Fox, under the moniker Aztex, is well on the way to creating a unique voice.
"Aztex draws on urban roots, blues roots, Sarah's background in R&B and salsa, bluegrass, my background in conjunto," Guzman said. "We didn't set out at first to do roots-based music, but really what we do is part of and parallels roots and folk music, which we love."
Their debut album, Short Stories (1999), received a heat-seeker nod from Billboard magazine in March.
Songs on Short Stories, which was produced by industry heavy Steve Berlin, include the powerful "Padre Prays for Rain" (RealAudio excerpt), a fusion of Mexican folk music and Southern blues; "Amorique" (RealAudio excerpt), a salsa-based dance tune featuring Fox's R&B style; and "Pajarillo Barranqueno" (RealAudio excerpt), a traditional Mexican song that becomes a showcase for Guzman's innovative accordion playing and Fox's deep understanding of traditional styles.
Fox and Guzman met Berlin last year when the Mexican American supergroup Los Super Seven featuring Joe Ely, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Rick Trevino and Flaco Jimenez won a Grammy for their self-titled reworking of border-flavored roots music.
Berlin called Guzman and Fox, who had worked on the album as backing musicians, to congratulate them.
"I just blurted out to him, what would it take for you to produce an album for us?" Guzman said in a recent conversation in Austin, Texas, near his hill country home. "That's how it started."
Well, really, of course, it started long before that. Fox, for instance, had learned woodwinds and then studied singing in high school in Texas.
But even before then, at her home, she heard the music that would become the basis of her style. "We grew up speaking Spanish first, and I heard Mexican music from my mother and Cuban music from my father. But I was really interested in R&B. Chaka Khan and Aretha Franklin were two of my favorites, and I remember loving Maria Muldaur's 'Midnight at the Oasis,' " she said.
Guzman, for his part, was a child prodigy on the accordion, performing onstage with his family's band from the age of 4. "Looking back, because of starting at such a young age, I had a chance to play with some of the greats, like Tony de la Rosa and Lydia Mendoza, when they were still active," he said.
Guzman, who grew up in Washington state, met Fox when he was working with the Tejano group Little Joe, Johnny y La Familia. Both became in demand as session players, and they worked with or formed their own bands, playing rhythm and blues, salsa and conjunto music. Gradually, they developed their own sound, a fusion of rock, Tejano, cajun, and conjunto, R&B and jazz.
"I had been invited to play a conjunto festival in San Antonio for several years," Guzman said, "and I'd just get my friends together and we'd pull out all the old conjunto tunes. Then when we began working on the sort of music we'd do as Aztex, I asked Sarah to come sing with us. When we got there I started saying we'll have to pull this one and that one ... but Sarah said, 'You ain't changin' nothin'!' ... So I went outside and prayed a little bit, and we went on with it," Guzman said.
"Then (veteran conjunto songwriter and accordionist) Mingo Saldivar came up to me after the show and said, 'You guys are the ones who are going to do it, carry the music on' he had tears in his eyes, and he was making me cry too. He kind of gave us a blessing."
The couple recently worked on scoring the film "Split Decision," which is now on the film festival circuit. "Right now, we're not doing a lot of gigs, but we're doing gigs that count," Fox said.
Aztex tour dates:
May 18; Houston, Texas; McGonigel's Mucky Duck
June 3; Alpine, Texas; Railroad Blues
July 12; Washington, D.C.; Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage
July 13; Richmond, Va.; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
July 15; New York, N.Y.; Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing
July 21; Madison, Wis., University of Wisconsin's The Terrace
Aug. 1012; Central City, Colo., Harvey's Wagon Wheel