Hermeto Pascoal at SFJAZZ

Harry S. Pariser By

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Hermeto Pascoal
Spring Season
San Francisco, CA
April 7, 2017

A YouTube video (see below) commences with a shot of a karst escarpment protruding amidst verdant rainforest. It then zooms down to focus on six men in a green pond below a waterfall. All are playing bottles. A portly figure with long white hair and beard plays two thick, rattan-covered wine bottles. Then, switching to flute, he rises from the water like a tropical Poseidon. Then he submerges and re-emerges as he plays as green butterflies flit about. The video, posted a decade ago, has been watched well over a million times. The performer is Hermeto Pascoal, a singular figure both in jazz and in Latin music.

Now 80, Pascoal has been exploring the genres of jazz and forro since he was a youth. Gifted with an accordion, he spent long hours practicing indoors; being an albino meant that he could not join his family in the fields but did give him a craft. He first appeared on recordings in 1964, and in 1966, he played as part of the Sambrasa Trio (whose other members were percussionist Airto Moreira and harmonica genius Humberto Clayber), a collaboration which generated the samba-jazz fusion date "Em Som Maior." Then he joined Trio Novo (Airto Moreira, Heraldo do Monte, Theo de Barros) in 1977 which was then renamed Quarteto Novo. The group popularized the baião rhythms formerly shunned by Brazil's elites. Pascoal subsequently joined the jazz group Brazilian Octopus. He came to international recognition after he composed three tunes for an appearance on the Miles Davis's 1971 release Live Evil. Davis reportedly called him "the most impressive musician in the world."

Many would agree. An appearance by Pascoal is a special occasion, and SFJAZZ in San Francisco had no problem selling out this Friday evening show to an audience clearly enthused and excited about seeing him perform. The evening began with SFJAZZ director Randall Kline introducing Pascoal. He cited Pascoal's long history with the festival and organization and the fact that Pascoal is often called "o bruxo" (the sorcerer) owing to his legendary ability to extract sounds from any object (or even cheekbone).

The band launched into an initial groove featuring superb woodwind player João Paulo Ramos Barbosa "Jota P" on piccolo and silver-haired bass guitarist Itiberê Zwarg (a longtime Pascoal collaborator). Waving his wide-brimmed hat, Pascoal joined in with one of the two bull's horns he uses in performance. While percussionist Fabio Pascoal, one of Hermeto's eight progeny, played a triangle, Pascoal cupped his hand to mute his horn and blew. He then paraded around as the band hit full throttle. Then Pascoal played vocal riffs with Jota P's soprano, eliciting both laughter and applause from the audience.

Next, accomplished guest flautist Rebecca Kleinman, a Bay Area resident, took the stage to join in. After an interval, Pascoal briefly replaced André Marques on the Steinway piano and soloed. Then, he returned to his keyboard and, after blowing his horn, threw it down to the floor and once again played synthesized riffs.

Former band member Jovinho Santos Neto, who now teaches and resides in Seattle, arrived on stage, unzipped his case and removed his melodica. An instrument whose foremost player might be the late reggae dub artist Augustus Pablo, the melodica has been little used in a jazz context. A strange offspring of the woodwind family, the polyphonic instrument has a keyboard as well as a mouthpiece which can have a tube attached one can blow through.

Neto, like Pascoal (who is known for singing through the mouthpiece of his melodica), has clearly spent considerable time mastering the instrument. Flautist Kleinmann soloed while Pascoal faced off with drummer Ajurinã Zwarg; Pascoal shimmied as Zwarg played. Everyone then filed off as percussionist Pascoal soloed—employing a variety of instruments, even rubber squeegee dolls, a move which elicited laughs from the audience. After some more melodica melodies from Neto, Pascoal brought his most famous "instrument," an ageing, topless kettle half-filled with water (but equipped with a trumpet mouthpiece), to the stage and intoned, verbalizing as he blew. After initiating a call and response, he retreated and fetched his horn again and blew on that. As he would do throughout the evening, Neto translated Pascoal's rambling commentaries. Kleinman returned onstage to add her flute to the mix, as the set ended.

After intermission, Pascoal again picked up his kettle and was joined by six musicians, standing in tandem and playing pandeiro, a hand frame drum with a tuneable drumhead, which has been called the unofficial national instrument, and the tamborim, another, smaller frame drum with origins in Africa and Portugal. A jam ended with all the musicians filing to one side to watch as Zwarg held forth on his drum kit.

Following a bass solo by the other Zwarg, Neto then helped him introduce a tune he had written expressly "to give the saxophonist a lot of notes." "Viva São Paulo," is a lively new tune to be released on the forthcoming CD Tudo e som.

In another of the evening's numerous highlights, five-octave guest vocalist Claudia Villela, currently a resident of Santa Cruz, dueted with Pascoal. At one point, during the totally improvised exchange, he took her in his arms and danced. Later on, following some stellar soprano work by Jota P, Pascoal again took stage center and indulged in some call-and-response with the audience, employing nonsense syllables coupled with phrases such as "I love you" and "I English crazy." The band kicked back in, and Pascoal took up his melodica.

After still more back and forth between musicians, Pascoal called the band. Despite persistent hand clapping and a standing ovation, there was no encore.

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