Jazz no Parque: July 15-17, 2011
Mário Laginha e Convidados
Jazz no Parque
July 16, 2011
An invite to Porto, Portugal in the middle of the summer, to catch a single performancea world premiere, at thatand spend some time soaking up the landscape and culture? Hard enough to resist under any circumstances, but when the local temperature in Ottawa, Canada, is 38 Celsius (a whopping 43 with the Humidex factored in), and sunny Porto hovering in the 20-25 range? A slam dunk.
Of course, great weather, and a tremendous change of scenery can't be the primary reasons to travel to Porto. For 20 years, Jazz no Parque (Jazz in the Park) has been bringing top-notch, international jazz to Portothe second-largest city in Portugal, situated along the Atlantic Ocean and divided into two halves by the Duoro River (Porto and Gaia, forming the Greater Porto Area). Curated for most of those years by Antońio Curvelo, a retired writer who spends most his time in Lisbon, Jazz no Parque isn't exactly a festival; instead, on four consecutive Saturday evenings, during the month of July, concerts are held on the tennis court at the Fundação Serralves (Serralves Foundation), an arts foundation with an emphasis on the contemporary side of things.
With only four shows to program each year, it might seem like a light job for Curvelo but, if anything, it's the opposite, as he has striven to create a balance between a broader collection of international artists, high profile American musicians, and players from Portugal deserving greater recognition. That it's possible for a foreign journalist to only attend one show is the real shame: how do you choose between four weekends that feature saxophonist Charles Lloyd's latest (and, some would say, greatest) quartet; bassist Chris Lightcap's acclaimed Bigmouth group; a stunning three-trumpet project from Dave Douglas that also features Italian horn legend Enrico Rava and Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen; and the return of a trio that last worked together a decade ago, but is back with a new repertoire, courtesy of Portuguese pianist/leader Mário Laginha?
Well, if one goal in traveling to foreign countries like Norway, Estonia, Germany, Finland and The Netherlands is to focus a spotlight on the music of those countries, then the choice becomes simple: Laginha, and his multinational trio, featuring British saxophonist Julian Argüelles and Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken. But before hitting the show on Saturday night, there were two days to spend exploring Porto, its stunning geography and culture, take a guided tour of Casa da Música, and check out the opening of an exhibit of art most modern at Fundação Serralves.
- July 15: A Walk Around Porto
- July 15: Fundação Serralves and Villa, How to Use
- July 16: Casa da Música
- July 16: Mário Laginha e Convidados
- July 17: Touring the Duoro Valley
- July 17: David Maranha & Stephan Mathieu
Arriving in Porto by plane, the first striking characteristic was the red roofs that define much of the city, and in particular, its older section. These red ceramic tiles that look, from a distance, like corrugated metal, are as much a part of the city's overall architecture as the stone structures that date back centuries. That some of these ancient buildings have fallen into disrepair is no matter; taking a cable car from the top of the cliff, on the Gaia side of the Duoro River, down to the port for a boat tour of the city's six remarkable bridges, it was possible to see workmen, inside these roofless old buildings, bringing the interiors up to 21st century stability and technology while retaining the antiquated beauty of their exteriors. There are new buildings to be found in Portoeven a few relatively low skyscrapers in the newer part of the citybut, like so many European locations, there's a fervent desire to retain the beauty of the city's historic architecture.
Walking through Old Porto, it was undeniably a hustling, bustling metropolis; and, yet, there's something relaxed about the overall vibe, even though it's clear that pedestrians can be considered an endangered species: be in the middle of the road when the light turns green for oncoming cars, and they start moving towards you...and fast. Still, the people were tremendously friendlyeven as unilingual Portuguese and Anglais tried to communicate with plenty of hand signalsand the cost of living seemed very reasonable, by European standards.
With six bridges spanning the Duoro River, there are a number of scenic ways to get a panoramic view of this unusual city and its relatively low skyline, where land is not at a premium and building designers have been able to spread out, instead of building up. Cross over the top level of a two-level bridgeone at the top of the two cliffs that, separating Gaia and Porto, leads down to the Duoro River; the other at water level, where the ruins of three bridges which, over the centuries, have fallen, including one that collapsed under the weight of natives fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte's army in 1809there it was almost possible to see where the Duoro River feeds into the Atlantic Ocean, but it was still a few kilometers away. On the hour-long boat trip the guide navigated us farther along the river, where it was easy to see how, during bad weather, the winds could be quite severe, but not quite far enough to actually see the Atlantic.
Still, the Duoro River itself was quite spectacular, with a wealth of port manufacturers occupying the Gaia side, and a long walkway along the Porto side that was filled with outdoor cafés, restaurants and shops. With steps winding their way up the cliff back to the town center of Old Porto, it was a relaxing way to spend the afternoon, soaking in the warm sun (but dry heat) and checking out both the more populated tourist areas and places where residents live. Porto clearly has no laws about hanging laundry outside your building.
Entering Fundação Serralves through a large iron gate, its pink, art deco Serralves Villa was immediately striking, but the foundation's property became even more imposing when exiting the back of the Villa, and learning that it occupies a full 18 hectares (nearly 45 acres) in the new part of Porto. If the Serralves Villa and its accompanying back space, with its cultivated landscape of descending pools, wasn't enough, the acreage included a relatively new (ten years old) museum, a large tennis court that is the performance space for Jazz no Parque...and even a fully functioning farm, where pigs, ducks and other animals are still raised to this day. And throughout it all, cultivated parkland that was clearly an ideal place to wander as the sun began to set on the city.
Serralves Villa, Fundação Serralves
The first full evening in Porto culminated in a visit to a new art exhibition, Villa, How to Use, at the Serralves Villa, a commissioned work by Leonor Antunes. Living in Berlin since 2004, Antunes is well-exhibited in the art world, but not nearly enough in her native Portugal, where she was born in Lisbon in 1972. In keeping with the foundation's contemporary focus, this is not a typical/conventional art exhibitno paintings, overt sculptures or other clear and unequivocal pieces of art. Instead, Antunes was commissioned to create works that convert spaces into "homes" or "dwelling places," in this case, the many rooms of the Serralves Villa built in the early 1930s and restored in the 1980s, after the State acquired the property which was, at the time, up for sale and facing possible destruction.
What Antunes has done is to create installations, ranging from thin gold wires creating patterns layered over the walls of one room and odd leather structures hanging from the ceiling in another, to spaces divided by curtains built from small stainless steel and brass tags. It was the kind of work that, rather than being imposing, was sometimes nearly invisible, subtly transforming bathrooms filled with pink marble, or living rooms defined by hardwood floors.
Villa, How to Use Exhibition, Fundação Serralves
With approximately 200 guests invited to the opening of the exhibit, it was also a chance to meet some of the people behind the foundation, including press officer Marta Morais and her assistant, Sandra Olim, who provided some background on the foundation, and whose tremendous hospitality made the entire three-day stay a memorable one. The Villa and Museum are both hosts to regular visitors despite having no permanent exhibitions, with some of their temporary runs drawing in a quarter of a million people. But the foundation is more than just a vehicle for exhibitions, performances and farming; an oasis of green in the middle of a relatively stone- and cement-filled residential area. Fundação Serralves is also about education on issues of art, environment and the need to preserve heritage areas like its ownthe foundation has, in fact, won two awards for its park: the innovation award within the field of environmental education from the Portuguese Museology Association in 1996, and the Henry Ford Prize for the Preservation of the Environment, a year later.
Just a short walk from the Tiara hotel, where guests of Jazz no Parque were put up in great style, sits Casa da Música (House of Music). Funded when Porto was European Capital of Culture, in 2001, the modern and remarkably high tech arts center took five years to build, but was worth the wait. A curious structure that is meant to represent a meteorite hitting the earth, with the landscape around it curved and sloped as a resultand used by local skateboarders the same way Oslo youth use the intentionally sloped exterior of that city's Opera Houseits concept of making the arts open to everyone absolutely reflected in its architecture. Although maintenance work taking place this summer means that some areas are off-limits outside of guided tours, under normal circumstances it's possible to wander freely throughout the building, more like a continuation of the streets outside than an actual building with hallways and rooms.
Casa da Música
The open concept also makes it possible to see inside every space from the outside, or from the halls that interconnect them. Rather than drywall, wood or plaster, most rooms have large glass walls at multiple spotsit's even possible to see from one of the smaller rooms into Casa da Música's main concert hall, the impressive Sala Suggia. The intention, then, is to allow people walking through Casa da Música access to everythingeven rehearsals. While the rooms are perfectly soundproofed, artists rehearsing at Casa da Música have to get used to the idea of people passing by, stopping, and checking out what they're up to. It's all part of making the arts open and accessible.
That Sala Suggia, with its aluminum floor (like most of Casa da Música), and wood and glass walls, can actually sound as good as it does is a marvel of modern technology. With a capacity of nearly 1240 people (including the choir box behind the stage, which is opened up to audiences when not in its intended use), its huge glass walls on the front and back are made of a rippled, corrugate glass that disperse rather directly reflect sound back (the usual bane of any room with hard, reflective surfaces). A large plastic canopy even hangs above the stage, making it possible to alter the onstage sound by adjusting its size and shape. Most large concert halls are best suited to specific kinds of music, but the Sala Suggia can actually be adjusted to suit everything from full-scale symphonies to intimate jazz ensembles and full-throttled rock shows.
There are other, smaller performance spaces throughout the building, as well as a top-level restaurant and a bar that, lit up at night, looks like an ice structure. Designed by The Netherlands' prize-winning Rem Koolhas (Casa da Música as, itself, won the Royal Institute of British Architects Award for its "intriguing, disquieting and dynamic" design), there are two rooms for children: The Purple Room a dark, relaxing room; and the sloped Orange Room, encouraging more frenetic activity, where a sound installation allows them to experiment with sound through the use of photocells and synthesized music.
Inside Casa da Música
Elsewhere there are spaces for meetings, intimate performances and meals. Every room is wired for sound and internet with a fibre optic link, more carefully concealed, but always readily accessible. And with an active program that largely focuses on Portuguese artistsbut includes a visit by American composer/arranger/bandleader Maria Schneider, conducting the same Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos that collaborated with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel on Our Secret World (Wommusic, 2010) Casa da Música is a true wonder of the musical world; a space whose stunning artistic design is only trumped by its actual broad and incredibly adaptable functionality.
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.
There are lots of reasons to visit Porto, but for those who like a good port wine, there's no better place to find itand at an incredibly reasonable price. And so, a Sunday trip into the Duoro Valley, where vineyards can be found along the mountains on both sides of the river, seemed like the perfect way to wrap up this short first encounter with Portugal. Leaving Porto by car, courtesy of tour guide Fernando Magalhães, the culture of rural Portugal began to assert itself almost immediately. Sunday is, for farmers, a day of rest, and in a culture that is, perhaps, a little antiquated but in the best possible way, wives don't cook; instead, familiesoften large, with five or six children by no means the exceptionhead out for the day, many going to church before having an easygoing lunch at a local restaurant. That the sizes of the portions in those restaurants are, in a word, immense, reflects that they are catering to people who are putting in hard, physical labor. It's also simple food, but good food. After a leisurely meal that does more to cement families, in the space of an hour or two, than happens across the oceanwhere stores are open seven days/week, and double income families rarely find the time to bring everyone together at the same timeeveryone hits the road for a Sunday afternoon drive; it may be the day of rest, but it's not necessarily a day of quiet.
The Duoro River Valley
Stopping in Amarante, the sense of history became, if not overwhelming, then certainly profound. Centuries-old structures, including a church where families were gathering for 11 a.m. mass, define this lovely small town of less than 10,000 which, like Porto, is divided by a river but, in this case, a much smaller one, with an old, one-lane bridge providing egress from town center. Outdoor squares with open-air cafés, cobblestone roads on a steep incline from the town center in the valley to the upper level with a panoramic view, and homes and shops built in and around stone structures that, for a North American, are powerful simply because they exist, collectively encourage a slower pace to life that is a very compelling alternative to the more frantic approach back home.
Driving further east along the Duoro River towards Regua, two other important facts became clear. First, along the tops of the mountains were a number of wind power mills. As it turns out, approximately 37% of a Porto resident's power bill comes from this renewable resource, and nearly another 13% comes from electricity generated by the eight dams spread along the riverin one case, dividing the river with a steep drop of 28 meters on the west side of the dam. Portugal may be a small country, but its commitment to renewable energy sources is an inspiration, and for large countries with plenty of open spaces and rivers, where similar things are possible, there seems little reason not to invest in the creation of such renewable power sources.
The landscape is marked by vineyard terraces climbing the steep mountains leading up from the valley, but also farmland growing oranges, lemons and cherries. There are eucalyptus trees alongside pine trees, all in a country whose average temperature, in this neck of the woods, ranges from 10 Celsius in the winter to a relatively dry 25 in the summerthough a marked change is felt on one side of the mountains that separate Porto from the Duoro valley, it sometimes being possible to experience a 10 degree change when driving from one side to the other.
Reaching the Quinta do Panascel Vineyard, in the heart of the Duoro Valley, it's easy to see why Portugal's port wine is so renowned. With miles upon miles of vineyard terraces leading down to the valley, it's simply impossible to automate the harvesting process; every grape is handpicked in a three-week period starting in mid-September each year, and though the sun isn't quite as warm as it was this day in July, it's still clear that this is hard work. Grapes pass a complex inspection process, and those that are rejected for use in port wine are used to make a table wine, whose reputation may not equal that of Italian or French wines, but is reputedly just as good. If it's true that he best grapes come from "stressed" vinesvines that have to grow long and deep to find nutrients in the soilthe sometimes 3 meter roots of the vines here in the Duoro Valley must surely produce some fine grapes and, consequently, wine.
Quinta do Panascel Vineyard
At Quinta do Panascel, there are no machines to crush the grapes either. Visit the vineyard in early October, and it's possible to find employees in a large room, filled with huge rectangular vats, stomping on grapes and singing traditional Portuguese songs. If the whole thing appears to be a scene out of a film, well, that's in many ways exactly what a trip to the Duoro Valley is: a visit to a place where centuries-old traditions may be updated (the walking tour of the vineyard was accompanied by an audio guide on a small MP3 player), but the important aspects remain untouched. This particular vineyard produces five different kinds of port winethree, the more typical red, and two of an atypical white port that can actually be refrigerated indefinitely once opened, unlike the red variety, which ultimately oxidizes.
A leisurely drive home left little time before pickup to another show at Fundação Serralves that was, however, not part of the Jazz no Parque series. Instead, just a regular part of the foundation's year-round programming in the same tennis court venue, two performances from electronic artists were as different from Laginha's show, the night before, as the architecture of the Serralves Villa is from its neighborhood surroundings.
From left: David Maranha, Stephan Mathieu
The opener, David Maranha and Stephan Matthieu, created an appealing drone that was strangely hypnotic, as the sun began setting over the tennis court. Maranha may have been playing an archaic instrumentthe harpsichordbut by strategically placing a series of EBows inside the box on the strings, some so close together harmonically as to create a series of shifting pulses, he created an ebb and flow over which Mathieu's bowed viola drones layered, building a lengthy experiment that was, for the most part, successful.
Sylvain Chauveau's set, which followed, was somewhat less engaging. Mining drones, once againand also utilizing EBowsChauveau's work with a laptop and an acoustic guitar, laid flat on a table in front of him, had possibility, but perhaps because of the greater diversity of the previous set, didn't quite seem to work. Perhaps it would have worked better indoors also, as the wind began kicking up in the park, and it became uncharacteristically chilly for a night in July.
An outstanding meal at one of Porto's finer restaurants, DOP, finished off a final night that put a relaxing period on three days well-spent in Porto, marred only by the prospect of a 4:00am pickup for a 6:00am flight home the following morning.
Walking down to the Duoro River, Porto
Sleep may have been a precious commodity during that final night in Porto, but after three days of gorgeous weather, stunning scenery and architecture, captivating music, and almost unparalleled hospitality, one thing is certain: if Porto wants All About Jazz back for Jazz no Parque in 2012, it'll be there in a heartbeat.
All Photos: John Kelman