The Art of Jazz Celebration 2008: The Refined Brilliance of Heart and Mind


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[Egberto Gismonti's] work, overall, possesses an enduring vitality, a quality called 'universality' that will be understood and appreciated for generations to come!
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4
Egberto Gismonti and Friends break the crystal silence of an unforgettable night.

An invitation was extended by the Art of Jazz: Come to the 2008 Celebration and be captivated, inspired, excited and entertained. In covering jazz festivals for over 25 years in four of five continents, it has always been possible to be excited and entertained at various points during the proceedings. But magical moments have been few and far between. Hearing Miles Davis, and revisiting the music he created with Gil Evans with Quincy Jones in Montreux, Switzerland, was certainly one of them. Being surprised by Don Cherry, who joined Alexander von Schlippenbach at an open-air concert in Bombay was another. There may be others, but if they are not recalled, then they have not stuck in the memory. Get my drift?

This hot night in June, at a 200-year-old venue infused with the pioneering spirit, it was possible to be captivated and inspired, excited and entertained in a magical way that brought back personal memories of hearing Miles Davis blow his heart out at the foot of the Swiss Alps... This is what Baraka heard when Monk and Trane played their hearts out at Carnegie Hall in '57. And this is what it was also like to be in a room full of music with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus (the musicians singularly responsible this life lived for jazz alone)... This is what possessed Sheila Jordan to pursue Charlie Parker... to write her Book of Life in the idiom of jazz! This is what it was like on this night when a few hundred of us came to the Fermenting Cellar to hear Egberto Gismonti, the third honoree of The Lifetime Achievement Award on the concluding night of the 2008 Art of Jazz Celebration.

There appear to be absolutely no horizons for Egberto Gismonti. He crosses extreme thresholds of musical convention every time he writes and plays his extraordinary music. He reveals at every turn, a refined brilliance that strikes at the very center of heart and mind. He is addressed, in our native tongue as "Mestre," and he is approached as such—with an almost pontifical respect, but also because his music is so magical he must be approached like one would an ancient druid or shaman making sonic potions for the mind! Few have given such potent food for the soul with their music.

It has been said that great works of music provide deep insights into their composers. We require, for instance, no accompanying commentary replete with biography, to tell us that Bach was different from— say—Debussy. Nor do we need a factotum to accompany music by Aaron Copland, quoting from chapter and verse regarding his habits, thoughts and desires and how they differed from Redames Gnattali... That opus has not yet been composed, nor music written that did not reveal about its composer the secrets of his personality, experiences or attitude to life. Musical compositions lay bare the soul of those who compose and who bring them to life! But not quite so easily the immense, the beyond-category, the indescribable Egberto Gismonti!

The proverbial "sage" figure of Brazilian music, Gismonti's music is alive with an intense concern for questions of sonority and coloration. His brilliant technique is totally informed by Nature. And his genius rests purely on his ability to use his extraordinary natural gifts. His staggering virtuosity as well as the remarkable innovations he has made to enhance the expressive capabilities of the guitar are legend. These very kinds of breakthroughs can only come about as a result of a musician's compulsion to express something that has never been considered part of the technical or emotional spectrum of the instrument. And there is this rarity about his genius: Gismonti is a multi-instrumentalist—piano, guitar, cello, vocals, percussion, flute and other instruments of the orchestra that cover the complete palette of known and unknown sound—and as master music-maker and conductor he can coax incomparable soulfulness from what would be, in the hands of lesser mortals, instruments bereft of personality!

And so when we listen to Egberto Gismonti, we collide with his experiences, and are seized by phrases or orchestral voicing that wholly express faith, exultation and "saudade." We are gripped by a turn of phrase or a rhythmic figure that may conjure up the festive mood of the "samba," the Carnival "frevo," or the melancholy of the "sertao" (backwoods). We are agape at the immensity of melodic lines and splashes of tonal color that capture the dignity, grandeur and mysterious energy of the Amazon. That Egberto Gismonti has the talent, technique and artistic maturity to do almost anything he wants is evident from the scope of his musical explorations, which range from solos and duets, to jazz ensembles, and from film and ballet scores to epic orchestral works.

Each work of music reveals something we have never heard before, something unforeseen, a little beyond the edge of our hearing. And as we make the sound our own, we widen the scope of our own experiences. The breadth of Egberto Gismonti's music widens as it is played, so that we too understand its world as well as our own a little better. His work, overall, possesses an enduring vitality, a quality called universality that will be understood and appreciated for generations to come! It follows, then, that anyone who can touch so many with so large a range of emotional experiences must instinctively know the secrets of touching both heart and mind, even with a single note!

This was the man and musician that the Art of Jazz chose to honor with its third Lifetime Achievement Award of 2008.

The evening with Egberto Gismonti saw the Mestre performing in three scenarios—beginning with solo piano, then on piano with the Penderecki String Quartet+Jim Vivian on bass, then short sets with Jane Bunnett featured on soprano saxophone and flute, and with Grupo Desandann and the a capella choir plus Jane Bunnett. The audience had to enjoy a short break from surplus of intensity before Gismonti returned for a set featuring solo guitar, and this was followed by yet another sensational duet—this time with bassist- extraordinaire Don Thompson.

Although he studies various aspects of the Western concepts in music (principally 12-tone theory and the horizontal and vertical dimensions of serial music with Jean Barraque), the innermost essence of his inspiration comes from the beating heart of Brazil and its vital traditional musical form: the choro, literally a "lament." But having eyes and ears and a heart that beats to the rhythm of the Universe, Egberto Gismonti's musical expedition is rooted in the heat and excitement of Brazil.

He opened his performance with a piano set of five magnificent compositions culled from his music of the past two decades—beginning with the epic "Infancia." Gismonti followed this up with "Baiao," which is based on the folk rhythms of the northeast of Brazil, and, in a quite literary, fantastic sort of way, depicted its more primal mix of African and European (such as polka) music. Egberto Gismonti is blessed with sublime technique—like (and this is "historic hearsay") Franz Liszt. He reaches a meditative state when he plays... his deep, almost timeless connection with the planet evident in his work and his compositions as well—musical meditations such as "Realejo," for instance, and the inimitable "Danca." The set concluded with "7 Aneis," from the 1990s, a piece that describes the epic nature of his compositions perfectly!

It became clear that the concert was intended to provide neophytes—and there were many in the audience—with a historic review of Gismonti. The world-renowned Toronto-based Penderecki Quartet, with the addition of bassist Jim Vivian, then joined Gismonti on stage and played his orchestrated versions of five of Gismonti's most famous compositions, with the Mestre himself conducting and providing the inspiration from behind the gleaming Yamaha Grand. The Penderecki Quartet—Jeremy Bell (violin), Simon Fryer (cello), Jerzy Kaplanek (violin) and Christine Vlajk (viola), together with the outstanding bassist Jim Vivian— acquitted themselves with perfection—and joined Gismonti in his readings of tantalizingly complex dance- form-based music: "Forrobodo," followed rapidly by the instantly-recognizable "Forro." "Frevo" and "Karate" provided a fitting finale to the orchestral set.

Then, while Egberto Gismonti took a short break, the stately Don Thompson, who spoke of his undying fascination for Gismonti's music and how he came to write the tribute to this great musician, treated the audience to a rare performance. Thompson, moving to the piano, then performed his own "Egberto," backed by Desandann and Jane Bunnett on soprano saxophone. A sprawling, epic composition itself, Thompson made superb use of an array of tonal voicing, sung in almost reverent sotto voce by the great Cuban a capella choir, and fashioned harmonic development using the sensitive soprano saxophone of Jane Bunnett to paint his musical canvas.

Gismonti would return the favor towards the end of his performance when he asked Thompson to stay and join him on one of the most moving pieces of the night, Gismonti's "Salvador," which was masterfully performed by Thompson—no mean task considering Gismonti's penchant for exchanging ideas with his regular bass-violin cohort, Zeca Assumpsao!

Toronto had never experienced music of this epic proportion—not since Glenn Gould read Bach and Beethoven—with Gismonti returning with his legendary 10-stringed guitar for another set of five compositions, including music from his historic Infancia and Musica de Sobrevivencia records. Finally, as a treat for jazz fans Jane Bunnett performed in a duo setting with Gismonti, playing a charged version of "Bodas de Prata" on soprano saxophone and the sublime, up-tempo piece, "Loro"—on which Bunnett submitted a magnificent flute solo. The song has been made famous because it has been performed in many settings. including one featuring John McLaughlin and Katia Labeque!

It was a challenging and emotional time for the musicians, who were not only honored to hear Gismonti but more so to play his challenging music. And everything indicated that Egberto Gismonti was pleased by the correctness of the reading and the emotional expressiveness with which his music was interpreted.

The concert was not without its twists. For while Egberto was relaxing his arms, the audience was surprised by a drone complemented by the soft voice of an Indian master percussionist: Trichy Sankaran, a musician in the Carnatic tradition of sub-Continental music. Sankaran, accompanied by his daughter Subba Sankaran, famous for her work with the group "Auto Rickshaw." The relatively short, 20-minute set featured a masterful display of Indian rhythmic traditional invention. Instructing the audience in the wondrous rhythmic base of all Indian music—the 8-beat, "adhi tala" or half-note rhythm—Sankaran told the audience that he would "sing the rhythmic changes" and proceeded to dazzle with rhythmic improvisation that few would have expected. But Indian music is the subject of a book, much less an article of this nature that attempts to provide no more than a detailed snapshot of traditional Indian music.

If the evening belonged to the universal elements of jazz music as performed by Egberto Gismonti and Friends, the day—from noon until it became time to hear the Mestre—belonged to the musicians that the world is in the process of discovering. Young talents such as bassist Brandi Disterheft, who brought in a sextet to play her extraordinarily mature compositions... and Tara Davidson, a Toronto-based saxophonist, who is also gaining ground as a fine voice in her own right!

There were also command performances by Maracatu Nunca Antes, a Brazilian percussion ensemble led by the beautiful, energetic Aline Morales. Maracatu gave a magnificent account of themselves, navigating some challenging rhythms as they undertook a rhythmic journey of the great country of Brazil. On the same stage, earlier in the day, was a one-of-a-kind performance by Desandann, the Cuban vocal group. Discovered by the world only after Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer brought them out of relative obscurity when they recorded Cuban Odyssey with Bunnett, Desandann showed why they are unique: they incorporate Gospel music elements in their unusual blend of African and Spanish and Cuban folkloric tradition.

And then there was also the spectacular, if sonically challenging, performance by the Cindy Blackman Quartet. (Sonically challenging since, despite the best efforts of the audio engineers and the band itself, it seemed impossible to balance the sound of the various instruments). But Blackman's performance itself was an awesome display of strength, invention and a study in modern drumming—one that recalled the great Rashied Ali and Andrew Cyrille, Ed Blackwell and Ginger Baker. Blackman, who acquitted herself with aplomb, gained a global reputation when she started touring with Lennie Kravitz... but there she was virtually buried. Although she derived big press when she backed Kravitz, it was her work in jazz, holding her own with the likes of Bill Laswell, Pharoah Sanders and many more, that earned her the respect and admiration of her peers.

Carlton Holmes—joined Cindy Blackman—on piano and Rhodes, along with J.D. Allen, a superbly evocative horn-player whose dry almost vibrato-less tone gives him an outrageously BIG sound! The final member of the band was George Mitchell, who was a perfect foil for Blackman's non-reliance on conventional meter! Mitchell brought a deep growl to Blackman's wonderful music, tempering the tenderness with muscular pedal point and rapid ostinato passages through songs such as "Call to the Ancestors" and "The Three Van Goghs!"

Day Four of the Art of Jazz Celebration was probably the most challenging to negotiate—for musicians but especially festival-goers. There was so much good music taking place from noon onwards, that it was difficult to keep the energy going until the night. But what a night... for the crystal silence to be broken by the sounds of Egberto Gismonti and the rousing welcome he so richly deserved! The world was once again made a better place by the music of Gismonti... of the music of Cindy Blackman, Hermeto Pascoal, Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn, Randy Weston and Billy Harper much the same could be said... Four days that you did not want to end... But time was short, and Toronto must now live in the memory of all who were there, certain to remain vital for many years to come.

Photo Credits
R. Alan Dunlop, except Cindy Blackman Andre Leduc

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