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Bernardo Sassetti: The Pianist Who Danced With Silence


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Sassetti knew how to dress silence just enough to seduce the listener and to leave them craving more.
If a musician's degree of brilliance is measured by the emotions they awakens in his listeners, then Bernardo Sassetti was a genius. And that he certainly was.

With a prolific career (which resulted in a discography and filmography of close to 30 CDs), Sassetti spent the first few years playing alongside illustrious figures of the jazz world, such as Freddie Hubbard, Paquito D'Rivera and Guy Barker, the latter with with whom he collaborated intensively (on albums such as What Love Is (EmArcy, 1998) Cuba, Cuba (Music House, 2000) and Into the Blue (Verve, 1995). As a soloist, in duets with contemporary jazz pianist Mário Laginha or with Fado singer Carlos do Carmo, or as part of his impeccable trio with bassist Carlos Barretto and drummerAlexandre Frazão, Sassetti delighted passionate listeners who reveled in the introspective playing of this Portuguese jazz pianist and film composer.

Born in Lisbon in 1970, Sassetti died much too early in a tragic accident in 2012, leaving behind a considerable work of deeply emotional compositions and evocative film scores (Marco Martins' celebrated first feature film, Alice, as well as Second Lifeby Alexandre Valente, 98 Octanas by Fernando Lopes or even his participation in Anthony Minghella's iconic The Talented Mr. Ripley to name just a few). With an equal love for photography and cinema, he left a considerable contribution to Portuguese culture but also to the world of jazz and to humanity in general.

Mystery and minimalism are two words which evoke Sassetti's work. Yet, let us not mistake minimalism for simplicity—his work displays incredible emotional depth and vulnerability; a vulnerability that the musician cannot disguise.

Sassetti understood the beauty and strength that lie within sparsity. His compositions, at first, do not sound particularly complex in nature; even his more vibrant tunes such as "Dinâmico" (the second movement of his Concerto dinâmico para dois pianos e orquestra with Mário Laginha, which was first performed at the Auditório Municipal de Lagoa in 2006). In fact, in his more poignant pieces, such as "Inocencia movs I and II" or "Inquietude," he did not use the entire keyboard but concentrated on very few notes—modulating ostinati—which, in turn, created the atmosphere; often a compelling one. But in spite of this apparent simplistic approach, whatever mood Sassetti chose to play deeply touches our sensibility.

There is an immense level of introspection in Sassetti's music. Beside his sense of melody and lyricism, it is his use of space which is exquisite. Like Bill Evans, every note is carefully considered and it is their delicate accuracy that gives such strength to the melodies. One just needs to listen to compositions like "Do Silêncio Revelação," "Da Noite—Ao Silêncio" or "Tristeza Dos Dois" to understand—Sassetti knew how to dress silence just enough to seduce the listener and to leave them craving more. It is as if he was performing a dance between silence and the resonance of the piano whilst he explored the dynamics between sound, movement and emotion. In Sassetti's world, all three elements were intrinsically connected.

His most intimate compositions are overflowing with beauty. His soundscape is colorful, airy, very romantic at times, and then suddenly interrupted by somber and short-lived tempests. With the occasional, but definite, hint to Bill Evans or even Erik Satie elegantly scattered throughout his work, his compositions vary from playful ("Reflexos"), meditative ("Cancon No.7"), heart-wrenching ("Realidad movs 1 and 2") or romantic ("Quando Volta O Encanto"). Involved as he was in cinema, where sound compliments narratives, it is no wonder that some of his compositions are cinematic ("Historia de Un Amor"), entrancing ("A Primeira Viagem," for instance) or hypnotic ("Costa Dos Murmurios") but they can equally be serene ("Nocturno"), deeply melancholic ("Outro Lugar," "Sonho dos Outros" or his interpretation of the standard "Blame It On My Youth") and haunting (his entire album Ascent (Clean Feed Records, 2005), has an unmistakable ethereal element to it).

Whatever mood or tempo Sassetti played, his approach was intense and yet, always remarkably poetic. He was not muscular in his playing; his creative force arose from subtlety and elegance, often leaving strong echoes of his classical training (as can clearly be heard in his pieces "Simplesmente Maria" or "Promessas"). Listening to Sassetti becomes an experience that is almost spiritual in nature; and as he bares his fragile soul and vulnerability, he awakens something deep within the core of our humanity and maybe even triggers emotions that we probably would prefer to keep buried. Sassetti does indeed reveal such inner vulnerability that in turn, he invites us to face our own. His music becomes an essential truth—all unnecessary layers have been peeled off to reveal our own fragility as humans.

Of course, like any well-rounded musician, Sassetti did experiment with other musical genres (releasing albums such as Mundos(EmArcy, 1996), or collaborating on albums such as Carlos Barretto's Olhar (UpBeat Records, 1999) or Paquito D'Rivera's Sons do Brazil (West Wind Latina, 2008). He also accompanied singers (like Rui Veloso on "Benvinda sejas Maria") and composed music for plays such as Blue Remembered Hills by Dennis Potter, which was directed by his wife, the actress Beatriz Batarda. It is for jazz, however, that he will be best remembered for.

Bernardo Sassetti's stunningly refined melodies, gracefully executed, remain a testimony to his musicality. He played both the torment and beauty that color the human condition, as its movements of despair and hope sifted through his fingers like liquid gold, leaving us with a sense of timelessness

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