REVIEW: Hermeto Pascoal at Barbican Hall

Hermeto Pascoal. Photo credit: Victor Hugo Guidini

Hermeto Pascoal
(Barbican Hall, 9th July 2016. Review by John L Walters)

This concert alternated performances by two very different bands. To our right was a British big band led by flugelhorn-player Noel Langley; on the left was Hermeto Pascoal’s own septet. Both played tunes from the great Brazilian composer’s vast and tuneful catalogue, and it made for an exhilarating and occasionally confusing experience.

I witnessed a version of Pascoal’s seven-piece in 2005, and the words of my (five-star) review (LINK) still hold true: his musicians ‘appear to be drilled down to the last semi-quaver, playing Pascoal's intricate and involved arrangements from memory, but with the relaxed nonchalance of a dance band, never stopping to draw breath between numbers.’  Drummer Ajurina Zwarg, flute / reeds player Jota P. Ramos and superb pianist André Marcos were new to me, but percussionist Fabio Pascoal (Hermeto’s son), singer Aline Morena (his wife) and bassist Itiberê Zwarg are longstanding interpreters of his work.

Many jazz musicians and listeners first encountered Pascoal’s melodies, along with his whistling and singing, on Miles Davis’s Live-Evil. The three short studio tracks he made with The trumpeter – Little Church, Nem Um Talvez and Selim – cast a dream-like spell over the double album, presenting a hallucinatory contrast to the funked-up Cellar Door live jams that comprise most of the remainder. (Needles and Opium, Robert Lepage’s dazzling theatre piece that incorporates Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau as archetypal cultural figures, with lashings of Davis’s cinematic music, was being performed in the Barbican Theatre next door.)

Pascoal’s music incorporates a host of otherworldly timbres, scurrying, forro-like rhythms, sounds of nature and speech-like melodies. He is a prolific composer for a multitude of ensemble sizes and his tunes and hooks quickly tunnel their way into your brain. He makes music from anything he can get his hands on, singing, grabbing wind and percussion instruments and squeaky toys, stabbing out chords on his electric keyboards (much as Miles did in the mid-70s) and keeping busy by gesticulating or plonking his hat on the heads of Langley or pianist Naadia Sheriff.

The UK band directed by Noel Langley.Photo credit: Victor Hugo Guidini

The London band sounded great, playing charts such as Apresentação, Viva Gil Evans and Pirâmide that had been prepared by guitarist Stuart Hall from Pascoal’s original handwritten scores. Though his tunes and hooks often burrow their way into your brain, his compositional signature doesn't spring from the page in the manner of the vertical timbres created by Gil Evans, or Pascoal’s near contemporaries Carla Bley and Mike Gibbs.

The full cast. Photo credit: Victor Hugo Guidini

So it may have been Pascoal’s desire for something more than exemplary musicianship that led him to pick his precarious way across the on-stage monitors to start gesticulating at trumpeter Chris Batchelor, who briefly swerved off mic (mid-solo) in response. For a dangerous moment, the band stopped playing: it seemed that Pascoal wanted something intangible, but had no way of telling Langley and crew what it was. The band quickly recovered their composure with a well executed passage that led to an explosive tenor solo by Julian Siegel. The concert featured great solos by Jason Yarde, Henry Lowther, Pete Beachill and others, and at one point Langley contributed a brief flugelhorn coda reminiscent of the late Harry Beckett.

Later in the long evening, Pascoal strapped on a sanfona (accordion), his first instrument, to play a solo that led into yet another ultrafast, forro-drenched, contrapuntal number by his septet. Another item had his musicians blowing across beer bottles to create a two-chord vamp (shades of both John White and Herbie Hancock). Pascoal then went into a call and response routine with the audience. This is a familiar feature of the great man’s concerts, but doing the ‘bebop football crowd’ thing three times in one evening felt as if he were over-anxious to secure the audience’s participation.

Aline Morena. Photo credit: Victor Hugo Guidini

The last few numbers with the big band were enhanced by Morena’s vocals on the top line. Pascoal invited Langley to duet ‘on an instrument of his choice’, so the trumpeter picked up a tea kettle from the cluttered toy table and played Autumn Leaves backed by Pascoal’s surprisingly conventional jazz piano accompaniment. He soon switched to flugel. The concert ended with an interlude by Morena, dancing percussively on a stomp board, and then more of Pascoal’s joyous anthems from just about everyone on stage.

Hermeto Pascoal, with Noel Langley on kettle
Photo credit: Victor Hugo Guidini

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