Jazz no Parque: July 15-17, 2011
With the crowd filtering into the park at Fundação Serralvesoriginally a tennis court and still sporting the dusty red foundation that keeps it fully functional, even though it's never used as suchit became clear why this is the perfect spot for a series of summer shows...well, almost. Capable of holding 600-700 people comfortably, with a good stage and great sound system, surrounded by trees and greenery; what could go wrong?
Mário Laginha e Convidados, from left: Mário Laginha, Julian Argüelles, Helge Norbakken
Sadly, as much as Fundação Serralves seems likeand isan oasis, in the middle of a large, modern city, and having restored the entire grounds to its 1930s glory, there's one thing it can't control: the skies. Under normal circumstances, the periodic sound of low-flying planes overhead would be nothing more than a minor distraction, but in this case, when pianist Mário Laginha and his guests were set up to record this concert of brand new music, written specifically for saxophonist Julian Argüelles and percussionist Helge Norbakken, the loud sound of jet engines, especially during the trio's quieter passages (and there were many) presented the possibility of there being some inerasable additions to what got committed to disc.
Still, with unidirectional microphones and, most certainly, sound engineers who knew what they were up against, it's equally likely that the recording will be salvageable. Recording challenges aside, Laginha's new set of music was almost ideal music for the surroundings: often pretty, with the nervous energy of a first performance that was, perhaps, a little stiff from still being read off the page, but still generating plenty of internal combustion, especially thanks to Norbakken's contributions throughout the 75-minute set. The percussionist was last encountered in May in Bergen, Norway, where he was part of an exhilarating first encounter between trumpeter Arve Henriksen and Wave drummer Audun Kleive. That context was entirely freeother than an afternoon sound check, the trio had no preparation and certainly no written material. Here, with Laginha, Norbakken was working within a more defined roadmap, and a more overtly jazz-centric one, at that, given that the 51 year-old Laginha is part of the tradition and counts pianists like Keith Jarrett as an early influence. It's rare to hear Norbakken, whose percussion kit is a strange mix of junkyard and djembe, actually swinging amidst his plethora of polyrhythms and propulsive grooves, but in this context, with Laginha and Argüelles both more closely aligned with a recognizable jazz aesthetic, he did just that.
Still, Norbakkenusing everything from thin sticks to large bamboo brushes, and attaching plates with bells to straps on his knees, allowing him to create an even more orchestral percussion section than his two hands and two feet could doclearly also pushed Laginha and Argüelles out of any possible comfort zone they might have had. It was easy to imagine the pianist's music with a conventional drummer, but the music took a sharp left turn, thanks to Norbakken's sharp ear and innate sense of groove, even turning darker passages that, without him, might easily have been interpreted as balladic, into a simmering mesh of cross-currents.
Argüelles, recently heard on fellow Brit John Taylor's Kurt Vonnegut-inspired Requiem for a Dream (Cam Jazz, 2011), has been a fixture on the UK scene since emerging as a member of Loose Tubes, along with other notables including Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Mark Lockheart, John Parricelli and Martin France. In the ensuing years, the saxophonist has demonstrated a broad purview, recording and/or touring with everyone from Kenny Wheeler and Carla Bley to Colin Towns, John Mayall and Charlie Watts. In the context of Laginha's music, which demonstrated no shortage of challenging melodic twists and turns, Argüelles split his time between tenor and soprano, and while there were truly more differences than there were similarities, there was some connection between this music and that of Oregon, especially in some of Laginha's voicings, which demonstrated an harmonic ambiguity not unlike that employed by the American group's primary composer, guitarist/keyboardist Ralph Towner. Argüelles' mid-set a capella feature was, like those of his band mates, evidence of bigger picture thinking, where extended soloing was open to anything, but always maintained an underlying sense of focus and construction.
Laginha is, perhaps, best-known internationally for his work with Maria João, acting as both pianist and musical director since 1992's Sol (Enja) and releasing a dozen albums with the Portuguese singer since that time. As a solo artist, Laginha waited until relatively late to release a solo album, 2006's Canções e Fugas, with his most recent release, the beautifully recorded Mongrel Chopin (ONC/Antenna, 2010) an impeccably performed piano trio set of re-imagined Chopin pieces that far transcend usual labels of "jazz meets classical" for a more seamless and thoroughly captivating result. And while this is the first time the three have worked together as a unit in many years, the pianist did appear on Argüelles' 2004 Provocateur Records set, Escapade. A pianist who favors substance over style, the most impressive aspect of Laginha's playing was his decided intent to play what the music, not the player, demanded. Not that his virtuosic talents weren't readily on display, but they were always the means, and never the end, as Laginha seemed content, at one point, to mine a near-minimalist repetitive pattern, patiently allowing it to build so slowly as to be almost imperceptibleuntil, of course, it became clear that where he began and where he concluded were two very different places.
Time and geography may keep these three players apart, but it's clear that when they do decide to reconvene, there's an effortless chemistry and shared sense of purpose that instantly returns. Whether or not the concert footage is usable has yet to be determined, but regardless of whether or not the trio will have to get back together to rerecord the material, one thing is certain: the trio of Laginha, Argüelles and Norbakken was long overdue for documentation, and this new set of musiccombining gently propulsive grooves, knotty but ever-lyrical melodies, and open-minded interactionprovided an ideal context, the perfect reason to make it happen.