Twelve years after the fact, this live duet performance from the 1989 Montreal Jazz Festival has finally been brought to light. It's a wonderful combination: Charlie Haden is comfortable in just about any setting (consider his tenures with Ornette Coleman, the Liberation Music Orchestra, and Keith Jarrett's American Quartet). Egberto Gismonti has been continuously honing and refining his idiosyncratic folk/jazz/Brazillian guitar (and piano) work on a couple dozen recordings in different settings since the '70s.
The '89 Montreal Jazz Festival was indeed momentous. Haden appeared on four Verve discs memorializing his live performances that summer, including three different piano trios with Paul Motian. This one stands out from the rest: it's so strikingly intimate that it strongly accents the personalities involved.
That said, it must be made clear that Gismonti really takes the helm on this recording. Not only are seven of the nine tracks his compositions, but his fingerprints are everywhere. Gismonti's stylized approach to piano and guitar often demand that Haden approach his instrument from different angles: melodic counterpoint, pulse, and lead. Haden adapts deftly. Shifting from guitar to piano and back, Gismonti generally adopts a shared approach, relying an ostinato pulse and pattering rhythmic chords as the foundation for stepwise transitions in harmony; or he simply pulses away in a gentle, understated way. The second track, Gismonti's "Maracatú," builds in both density and intensity, then relaxes into gentle undulating tones from both players that slowly fade away. You breathe. Then Haden's "First Song" begins almost inaudibly with quiet commentary, leading dramatically into a stark, folkish melody bearing obvious similarity to his Americana duets with Pat Metheny in '96. It demands faster changes from the guitarist, and a jazzier role than Gismonti usually delivers. Haden steps up into the lead, offering a warm, gentle, and uplifting melodythen Gismonti follows suit with a harmonized stroll of his own.
The remarkable "Em Familia" takes Gismonti into unexpectedly explosive territory, where the simple force of his guitar attack lifts the whole piece into the stratosphere; Haden hammers away behind him as they navigate several mountain passes. Six minutes into this piece, Gismonti pulls some tricks from his back pocket, using harmonics, muting, and various alternative techniques to achieve thread-like timbres. This tune stands as the true high-water mark on an otherwise fine record.
It's rare to hear such a dramatically successful live performance, and these two musicians clearly have a natural affinity for each other. Given the personalities involved, that makes sense. In Montreal stands right up there alongside Haden's other recorded masterpieces from that 1989 festival. (Only one complaint here: too much applause in the edits. But I suppose it's only fair to give the producer some slack for lingering on the cheers, since that energy seems to feed forward with these two players.) Ah, the inexorable problem with great live records... you just wish you had only been there.