This year’s Ravenna Festival offered the rare treat of witnessing some of Brazil’s finest jazz musicians in a relatively intimate setting.
On two successive nights Egberto Gismonti was joined by Trio Madeira, Naná Vasconcelos and Hamilton de Holanda.
Both were meant to be outdoor shows at the Rocca Brancaleone but a freak storm on the first evening meant that the organisers had to hastily relocate this concert to a more formal indoor venue (Pala De Andre).
As Gismonti and Vasconcelos had no time for a sound check they abandoned the original plan of performing together. Each therefore did brief 15 minute solo slots – the former on piano and the latter on the berimbau,a curious one string bow, and various other exotic percussive objects including his own body.
While playing Vasconcelos also sings, talks, coos, whistles and hoots. These vocal and percussive sounds are constantly looped so they are continually overlapping. In one piece he is able to create a one man aural exploration of the rain forest.
It’s pretty mesmerizing as well as being slightly comical and Vasconcelos seems well aware of how contrived and humorous it looks and sounds. He’s a man who chuckles a lot and is someone who you imagine could keep himself amused for hours in a room so long as there were enough objects to transform into improvised drum kits.
Gismonti is no slouch when it comes to inventing and adapting instruments. Added to his mastery of the piano, he taught himself to play a specially adapted guitar which has up to ten strings. As a coda to the first show he also explained how to make a flute from a short length of plastic tubing and a small piece of wood. This he plays by tapping the wood and blowing into a single hole.
By the side of Gismonti and Vasconcelos, the Trio Madeira Brasil are a relatively conventional group. For around an hour, the two guitarists and mandolinist played a nicely varied and enjoyable repertoire of traditional Brazilian samba, bossa nova rhythms alongside classical and contemporary pieces.
The weather having settled for the second night, a specially extended show allowed Gismonti and Vasconcelos to play both full solo sets and to link up as a duo.
In place of the Trio MadeIra was Hamilton de Holanda, a young artist who has learnt a trick or two from these old hands. He was born in 1974 so is over 25 years their junior yet, although he belongs to a different generation, he follows the same path of respecting traditional forms while seeking to innovate and explore new musical avenues.
He plays an adapted mandolin with an extra fifth double chord so that its has 10 strings rather than the usual 8. Mandolinists usually accompany others by adding sweet melodies but Holanda’s modifications and amazing technique transform it into a versatile solo instrument.
What was evident from these shows that these are musicians who don’t just experiment for the sake of it. Their boundless curiosity and prodigious level of musicianship means that they simply feel too constrained by the limitations of conventional instruments. For this reason, they are continually trying out fresh things as a way of setting themselves challenges.
In short, Gismonti and his fellow Brazilians illustrate the true meaning to the word ‘virtuoso’.