Those from the Norte: pLoo at Café Casa da Música

Arian Bagheri Pour Fallah By

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[T]he very arrangement of the region, resulting in persisting tension and discontinuity [...] helps furnish and further characterize radical Norte jazz.
—Arian Bagheri Pour Fallah
Jazz and its many conformations rarely denote the multiplicity of sub-genres as such. Paulo Alexandre Pereira da Costa's pLoo attests this sharply enough to warrant its listeners a view entire and aggregate, and in the same extent, select and irregular, of jazz and its current praxis in Northern Portugal. The quintet, made up of wind and string players led by Costa on drums, is capable of derailing tableaus so obscurely, as in "Bêbado das onze" and "Pong," that tracing them can be queried time and again. It is not merely that pLoo does not sound like anything else. It is specifically that it shares pedestal with many, not readably belonging in any. Likewise, with heterogeneity comes tension. This is stylistically apparent when planes of reference are traversed ad lib, and in polystylist mode of composition in specific, Zorn being an attractive example. And experientially, when more openly constructed jazz collectives begin to incorporate at times discreetly, as is the case with pLoo, compositional effigies of assorted lineage. A battleground on the one hand, and a churchyard on the other, tension persists in both.

Ethnographically, one may too wonder if said spatial peripheries enclosing composition and arrangements of jazz, a highly reciprocal music, extend to land, its arrangements and the creative transactions of its inhabitants, namely the Norte and the way in which it interfaces Greater Portugal. Here what is imploringly described as "an eclectic place where jazz, world music, improvised music and contemporary music could coexist" at ploo.pt must be read freely of pLoo and formal idealism as frame of reference. The idealism is oxymoronic but only insofar as music journalism calls for oxymorons and rhetoric in the main. Indeed, what is world music but the free assimilation of whatever raw material at one's disposal in a given time, by the occupants of the coincident space. That which it is not is any given idiom and system of music, recycled teleologically, in popular or academic setting, and with mere reference to once-pertinent rituals and theses. If anything, the term alludes rather strongly to the negation of idioms often taken as ethnic and not its embrace, in that it posits one (world) in place of the many, whereas jazz is a testament to the free assimilation of all narratives that befit its experience.

World music and jazz are thus convertible modi. And pLoo, through their free use of both, practitioners of jazz, and in turn, world music. Theirs is not a Portuguese, or non-Portuguese music, for that matter—it is jazz. And a jazz brimming with tension, a sheer treat to witness and futile to share impressions of, only to debate its isness, in close relation to its most peculiar characteristic: tension. In tension there is surety, and in surety, distance, inevitability —friction. The task is to trace each of these layers to a very specific, individual outline of the region, and if necessary, human economy.

Having been notified of the event by pure accident, I share my astonishment with Costa, during our meeting after the performance. I inform him of my long-time acquaintance with Portuguese jazz and improvised music, of Ernesto Rodrigues, Clean Feed, among others, and of the strangeness of this complete lack of a prior encounter. It is worthwhile to mention neither of the five instrumentalists are newcomers to jazz and have been variously involved in a myriad of other projects. At this point, he unravels what may initially appear as simple music business politics, but what entails links to none other than the previously traced article of tension. His account is one of hindrance and paradox, the difficulties of establishing contact with Portuguese jazz labels, nearly all of which are located in the Lisboa region, a recurrent chapter. In fact, the Porta-Jazz Association, of which they currently are a member, began as a regional answer to the general need for institutional support. That it provides in name, and to an extent, practically, making releases and events happen, notwithstanding the passive function of an enabler marking simultaneously its limits, something that manifests itself in countless self-releases from members of the same association, with no visible difference in their reception.

This immanence is logistically debatable and open to criticism. It is my belief, however, that such criticism would neither effect meaningful change nor would shed the smallest light into the sequence of transactions at work in the same economy, whereby they present themselves as such impasse. Surely if one were to investigate this as a journalist would, one would arrive at no other answer, that is, from the core of the people involved, including the labels from the Lisboa region, than the following: that there is no animosity and so on and so forth. One might even go as far as imagining a collaboration, a release perhaps, happen, but that would be a purely symbolic act incapable of making any advancement to the case at hand, noticeably due to the lack of an animosity said symbolic move would seek to dispel, which is why parallels of this are found all over the West (where radical creative work still endures), that is, smaller regional institutions wielding little to no influence and colossi overrun with impetus of their own. What can then possibly explain this irregularity other than pure music business politics?

Of particular interest here is Paul Radin's seminal work on the Winnebago, later readdressed and reconsidered by Lévi-Strauss. The specific case addressed by Lévi-Strauss, and not the full work, is simple to reproduce: Arrangements of village organization, as described by members of each moiety, mismatch one an other. Whereas those from "above" assert a diametric arrangement of the village, those from "below" deem it as concentric. Lévi-Strauss's study, directed at large at dual organizations and the problems inherent in them, amends Radin's, in no longer recognizing "insufficient information" as the prime mover obfuscating "true village organization," not as an affirmation of a lack of an organization; something which Radin detested, most vehemently in the posterior, Primitive Man as Philosopher, or to maintain pure subjectivity; rather, to assert the organization as "too complex" for a single model. Likewise, in a technologically accelerating era where geographic data is to free mobility what architecture is to sculpture—a purposeful sovereign, one thinks in terms of maps, south, west and north, not only more firmly, but too in an ongoing manner unmapped a time as close as a decade ago.

Live, online maps, in their prevalence notably, and in emulating the ever-changing urban space like no other, have secured an immortal seat in the commonwealth of everyday life. The most obvious suggestion of this is that civilized man has done away with the spiritless, reposing map, that which archives little of the present outside purely statistical, geographic changes, and that today man stands by virtue of this, nothing short of liberated, that is from the same set of mechanics yesterday's spiritless map would impose on him, that today, man cares only about his individual passions and interests, sharing them with his fellow men, family and friends, contributing to a map that is more human, a map with a spirit of its own: a human spirit.

Nothing can be farther from what has transpired and continues to function per se and in reality. Not only the assorted ways in which different regional members of the same whole correspond—or fail to do so as in the case of pLoo and the labels—to one an other, is illustrative in this regard, it is the shifting degree of relating to this new objective totality among them that distinctly everts existence of any such cartographic renaissance. Ever since my arrival in the Norte, I have encountered many natives—among them musicians, journalists, and academics—who would refer to the Lisboa region, the individuals associated with it, as those in the south. Conversely, few of my native colleagues from Lisbon would refer to the latter as those in the north. In other words, "the influence of moiety division in village structure" is no less apparent in civilized society and in an age when geographical data is more personalized (in its subjective experience) and more widely available (as objective tool) than ever, when true regional arrangements are a priori scriptures and individual assimilation of them encouraged by applications that host them.

One can infer, from pLoo's curious case, that the tendency to regard recurrently geographical, factual data rises as one's relation to the transcendent, the influential (labels in the Lisboa region, in this case) is either halted or is fully impaired. Consider a successful entrepreneur, politician, or a movie star, who flies the globe multiple times a week, no longer concerned or even aware of the otherwise distinct geo-politic realities. Often thought of to be a direct result of repetition or simple illiteracy of the well-off, said distance is more uniquely rooted in the ebb and flow of man's relation to the meta-urban space he occupies or traverses. So is that Clean Feed Records, as central and major a label as it is, operates allegedly blind to the whereabouts of its recording artists, its transatlantic links abound, unlike Porta-Jazz, and its relation to space and land as removed as that of the frequent flyer, which is never deliberately deafened and instead operating in a juxtaposing range of hearing.

This aligns the two hands, of the clock that is Greater Portugal, in what will be an atypical homogeneity, christening each a view unique and at the same time, respectively, exempt from and grounded on, the geographic reality that brings them together. Perhaps this is what draws Costa to the Seikilos epitaph, in "Epitáfio de Seikilos," and further from urban, contemporary frames of reference to which many of their peers from the south pay homage, allowing for a stroke of idiomatic transgression, as pLoo pushes spatial boundaries of the idioms it initiates. To them these boundaries are as irrelevant and inexistent as cartographic data to their geo-liberated peers, whose relation to idiomatic consensus, one could argue, remains largely bridled and within Euro-American bounds.

The fire-God, Ṣàngó, for whom pLoo plays blues in "Blues for Changó," stands for tantrum and dominion. Yorubaland, Western Africa, and Porto, Western Europe. How do they correlate? The answer is they don't, except for the spirit of tension, of dominion, haunting both. During the performance, the quintet plays with certain surety, and violence. They yell, they shriek, and they do all of this with more gusto than most punk and metal bands I have seen play here in the Norte. João Mortágua on the saxophone and Daniel Dias; trombone, specifically. The wind is violent, and they do little to mask it, wind-instrumentalists that they are. Boldly absent from pLoo's own studio efforts and found alone in their live simulacra, this is rarely found among the admittedly diverse Clean Feed catalog, wherein freeform players and extended techniques abound but rarely extend to convulsions and the like. One need not recall Manoel de Oliveira and his subdued cinematic language to know this is not a Norte trait either. Indeed this is, as the present ethnography, in its omission of an inductive incentive suggests, a very specific case, and an anomaly at that, yet, it is no more an anomaly as gravity itself, that is, in its objective presence.

To paraphrase, the very arrangement of the region, resulting in persisting tension and discontinuity (inability to connect, despite techno-spatial prevalence and proximity) helps furnish and further characterize radical Norte jazz. Think of Keshavan Maslak and how he related to Detroit, viewing it in stark opposition to Downtown New York, the clean and the current. pLoo's deceptively psychological case is far removed from internal dialectics much the same way. Toward the end of the set, the band empties the stage for Costa and his solo drum improvisation, which is marked with singular primordial composure. It is as if the fire-God is only invoked when congregated and in collective. And indeed, Ṣàngó is invoked when the view is fractured, where it demands blues. To those from the Norte this view stands fractured.

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