London Jazz Festival: Hermeto Pascoal

Garry Booth reviews Hermeto Pascoal at the Barbican, 20 November 2011

Hermeto PascoalThis Brazil-England fixture on the last night of the London Jazz Festival was always going to be a game of, well, two halves. The eccentric, mercurial multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal last brought his sextet to play against a UK brass section in 1994. And this re-match, to celebrate the great man's 75th birthday, was an uneven playing field in a sense.

The Brazil team, although playing away, exhibited that easy "loose-tight" cohesion that comes with years of touring together. The British brass squad, despite being coached for this one-off show by a Brazilian – the maestro Jovine Santos Neto – were inevitably a little mechanical by comparison, rigidly glued to the charts or to Neto's animated directions. Never mind, this was an exhibition game, a friendly: so what if the game Brits end up framing the flair and brilliance of the boys from Brazil.

Pascoal, showman and shaman, revels in this this kind of set-up. He wanders around the stage, examining his players, or polishing the drummer's bald head. He picks up a teapot fitted with a mouthpiece and half-filled with water; he gurgles a few notes and then pours the contents onto his own head. He blows a kazoo and then takes a solo on an actual cow horn, before stabbing out a few flinty chords on the keyboard.

Talent is in motion all around him, most strikingly in the voluptuous form of the second Mrs Pascoal, Aline, whose sensational operatic, supersonic scatting all but the stole the show. It is an all-star cast, from the astonishing and incandescent multi-sax improviser Dorin to the fleet fingers of Hamilton de Holanda – "the Hendrix of the bandolin" – brought on late to add yet another dimension to the already bewildering north-eastern Brazilian tableau of sound.

And what of our lads, the doughty brass choir? They held their own, barrelling through Pascoal's charts, steered by the drum and bass of the Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike respectively) plus Chris Biscoe's fruity baritone sax.
But Hermeto's the main man and age has not withered his infinite variety, in writing nor performance. (Though with that white mop of hair, flowing beard and panama hat combo it is rather hard to tell what he actually looks like).

After nearly three hours of music theatre and both sides now playing fluidly he warned us that he had another four hours of music in reserve. Instead he settled for an extended encore that included an appropriately timed take on Round Midnight, picked out on one of the stage's two Steinways. A memorable finale to a bounteous London Jazz Festival.

Your Comments:

Posted by Chris Batchelor, 26 November 2011, 17:44 (1 of 3)

Oh, of course, Brazilians = football. The reviewer resorts to a tired cliché in the first sentence and then proceeds to dismiss the British musicians out of hand throughout. Having compared the gig to an adversarial sport, Garry Booth then makes the casual assertion that the British band were "inevitably a little mechanical". Why inevitably? He might have considered the actual material being played by each group, i.e. music scored for large ensemble as against music intended for a small group of soloists. Was it that the British players interpretation of the written music was mechanical, or that the he considered the big band material, in comparison with the small group repertoire, to be mechanical? A basic working knowledge of any renowned jazz composer's output would confirm a significant difference between small group and big band repertoire; Sam Rivers, John Taylor and Django Bates come immediately to mind. Hermeto's big band music is highly organized, (even the sections for squeaky toys and coconuts were written out) and generally scored for choirs of brass and reeds in the conventional way of block voicing, although with very unconventional harmonic language. This organization of the instruments is conveyed to the band through the printed parts. Mr Booth reports that the British band were "glued to the charts"; this is known in music as "reading". Is he suggesting that the band should abandon the parts in order to take part in a less mechanical, presumably more authentic fashion? It is possible that the 19 British musicians might have been used differently, and that is a matter for the promoter, composer and arranger - however Mr Booth chooses to belittle the "doughty" musicians themselves, who did the difficult but rewarding job asked of them to a very high standard. Hermeto and his fantastic band were extremely warm and complimentary about the British band, both in private and on stage throughout the entire gig. One can only conclude that the referee has had a shocker - 2000 people could see what happened and he seems to have totally missed it. Clearly there is a need for better understanding and higher professional standards or the game will be ruined in this country.
Posted by Anthony Foley, 27 November 2011, 12:23 (2 of 3)

I didn't recognize this concert based on Garry Booth's review. It is irksome when a reviewer builds a review around a not particularly imaginative conceit like concert as football match. But it's worse when he doesn't seem to know much about either football ("loose-tight cohesion?) or music ( yes, sight reading means you need to look at the music). I've had the privilege of playing with Chris Batchelor myself in the past and a player of his skill and emotional depth doesn't become labored because he is reading from a sheet, any more than a well-trained classical musician (yes, Garry they are not reading the papers, they have scores to read too). I won't get into a blow-by-blow account of my differences with this review as I honestly don't mean to dispute Garry's right to his opinion, but I don't think anyone who has ever picked up an instrument or knows Chris's work and the caliber of people he works with will agree with it.
Posted by anonymous, 27 November 2011, 19:15 (3 of 3)

The musicians here seem to be a little over-sensitive towards the writer's comments. I think we all know what the writer means by loose-tight cohesion. It is nice he puts it in terms non-musicians as well can understand and the analogy to football might be clichéd, but isn't so out of order as their comments suggest. I think there is also an overreaction to the point that they were 'mechanical' as he does temper it with 'inevitably compared' to the Brazilian musicians who have been at it a long time. What's wrong with that? The writer puts it into context at least. And 'doughty' doesn't have to be read as belittling here, does it? - this and the band 'held their own' could be read as you done a good job. Take it on the chin boys, Hermeto was the star of this one.
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