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Leo Blanco: Haiku for Bells

Bruce Lindsay By

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Leo Blanco is a musician who's immersed in the music of his South American homeland of Venezuela. The pianist may live in the USA—he teaches piano at Berklee—but his Venezuelan upbringing remains central to his work. It's a little surprising, then, to discover that Blanco isn't solely a product of Latin American culture. In conversation backstage at the Apex in Bury St Edmunds, just before the final concert of his first UK solo tour, he recalled that some of his formative years were spent only 100 miles away.

"From three to six and a half years old I lived in the UK. My parents were doing some university courses: my father in architecture, my mother in education. So I started kindergarten near Birmingham. I do have memories of the time. In Latin America we have the piñata: we hit it with a stick to break it open. Mine, at my fourth birthday party I think, was a big ship. All my English friends were astonished, they thought it was crazy to destroy this beautiful thing. It's full of candies, of course. In Latin America we would rush at the thing and jump on the sweets but my English friends were so proper, just taking one or two sweets at a time. I was born in '71 so that was in the early '70s. I think we returned to Venezuela in '77."

A fascinating time for a music fan: the golden years of progressive rock? "Yes. I had an uncle who was really into rock, bands like King Crimson. He got me into it. I kept listening to it after that."

Blanco's albums reveal little of King Crimson's influence. Latin, classical and jazz are much more to the forefront on his previous albums, Africa Latina (Ayva Musica, 2008) and Roots & Effect (Self Produced, 2004), which feature top flight collaborators such as Lionel Loueke, Dave Liebman and Donny McCaslin. Blanco's UK tour comes on the release of Pianoforte (Self Produced, 2013), his first solo album, a gentle and reflective collection that mixes old and new compositions with improvisations and one rather special interaction.

Some of the tunes on Pianoforte were first recorded on the previous albums: for example, "Peru Lando" is on Africa Latina, "Light Over Dark" is on Roots & Effect. "Yes, that's true. But "Vals #5" is different. I wrote it about five years ago but I hadn't recorded it. However, many Venezuelan musicians have fallen in love with the piece and they have recorded it."

Blanco may have taken time to record "Vals #5" but in many ways this is typical of his approach. "I take my time to record every CD. As you know, my discography is not that big. I have four or five CDs in total, three that I produced myself since I moved to the USA. I want to be very thorough from conception to composition to production and performance. For me it's very important that the CD has longevity, that someone can listen to it now or in 20 years and still find some character in it."

The appearance of a solo album at this point is an indication of Blanco's increasing confidence as a musician. "Maybe before this I didn't have the same maturity that I feel I have now. For me it's kind of like a voyage, the creation of an album. All my background of classical music, world music and jazz improvisation comes into my mind now with much more sense than it has done before. I don't mean that I'm not still growing: I want to keep going musically until I die. But now I feel there is a much better connection between the pianist, the composer and the person. So playing solo gives me the liberty to really experiment."

This feeling of liberty extends to the concert platform. "Every time I walk onto the stage I pick the tunes I will play at that moment, seconds before I begin. I think it's important that I play with the mood of the moment. The weather, the theatre, the audience, and the piano all influence me. I kind of know some of the repertoire I will play but the order can be changed and I do a lot of improvisation from the beginning. I don't feel obligated to do it for myself but 90% of the time I will improvise."


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