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Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal has never sounded this good; well, at least he has never sounded this consistently accessible, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because it will hopefully introduce a broader audience to the music of this under-appreciated artist; bad, because it will give that audience a misguided idea about what he is all about. Serenata: The Music of Hermeto Pascoal , the first ever release dedicated solely to the music of “the crazy albino,” while thoroughly enjoyable, paints an inaccurate picture of an artist whose music actually ranges from naive beauty to anarchistic atonality. Still, if it brings a larger exposure to Pascoal that can’t be bad.
String-meister Mike Marshall is best known for his “newgrass” work with David Grisman, his chamber-folk work with the group Montreux, and his genre-bending group Psychograss. His playing on this date is unusually restrained but totally in keeping with the relaxed mood of the album; only on the up-tempo “Tertulia” does he demonstrate the virtuosity of which he is capable. Pianist Jovino Santos Neto is clearly the accompanist of choice for this project. Aside from being a Pascoal sideman for over fifteen years he is also the sole curator of Pascoal’s body of work, an unusual position to be in considering the composer is still living; but with over twenty-five hundred compositions and still growing, it is encouraging to know that someone is documenting this important work. Santos Neto brings a deep understanding of the material and the various folk traditions that inform it.
The problem with the recording is that it’s almost too pleasant. It does succeed in showing how Pascoal’s music has been influential; in “Quanto Mais Longe, Mais Perto” one can easily see some of the roots of the Pat Metheny Group’s Brazilian inflections. But like fellow countryman Egberto Gismonti, who also mines the roots of folk music from the Brazilian jungles, Pascoal can also be edgy, dark and intense. Choosing a programme that ignores this side of his work presents an incomplete view. While the album will clearly bring greater exposure, listeners who decide solely on the basis of this record to investigate Pascoal’s own recordings may find themselves challenged by the diversity of his material.
Still, there is much to recommend with this record. From the peaceful tranquility of “Floresta” to the classical counterpoint of “Santa Catarina”; from the Latin-meets-bop of “July 17” to the hidden complexity of “Roseando,” Serenata succeeds on its own terms. Well-conceived and well-played, it may lack bite, but that’s a small price to pay in paying tribute to one of the most essential composers of modern Brazilian music still alive today.