Review: Leo Blanco at The Sage Gateshead

“Something special”: Fred Grand is enraptured by the unexpected delights of a solo concert by the Venezuelan pianist and Berklee professor

It’s probably fair to say that even the organisers of this event knew little of Venezuelan pianist, improviser and ethnomusicologist before his 5 July show. Yet reputations can quickly be forged in the heat of performance. Coming towards the end of his first full UK tour, Blanco’s performances at the Glasgow Jazz Festival and London’s Forge have garnered rave reviews in the national press.

A Berklee professor, Blanco was able to call on the services of Lionel Loueke, Donny McCaslin and Antonio Sánchez on his 2009 album Africa Latina. Scottish audiences have been ahead of the curve with Blanco for several years, due in no small part to Rob Adams’ tireless embrace of his talents. This tour was timed to coincide with the release of the pianist’s new solo album Pianoforte, and catching a word with the relaxed and unassuming Blanco before the show, it was clear that he was relishing the prospect of performing on the magnificent Steinway which was to belong to him for the evening.

A very exposed mode of performance, the solo recital has proven to be the beating of many an accomplished musician. Playing without any form of amplification in Sage Gateshead’s intimate and acoustically true Foundation Hall, Blanco’s music was served raw and unfiltered. The performance began with rhythm. Tapped out on the piano frame, the floor, and his knees, it was not quite an incantation but it nevertheless set up the groove as Blanco launched into Roots & Effect. A strong left-hand figure carried its dancing rhythmic patterns forward, and as the piece unfolded it quickly became clear that Blanco is a highly dextrous player. In contrast, however, to other notable South American artists such as Omar Sosa, Roberto Fonseca and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Blanco showed a far more developed sense of chiaroscuro. Particularly interested in the folkloric aspects of the music of his homeland and its deep connections to Europe and Africa, his improvised pieces shine a strong light on some fascinating historical interiors.

The first untitled improvisation of the evening was typical of the way that Blanco moves. With an opening attack that brought to mind the unbridled passion of Egberto Gismonti, his seemingly boundless energies were quickly reined as he skillfully developed a darker and more introspective passage. After a seamless dissolve into a jabbing staccato passage which flirted with atonality, the momentary turbulence soon gave way to a plaintive folk melody, Blanco toying with its simple and ancient form to set up a tumultuous climax.

Tonada Del Cabrestero has its roots in the a cappella songs of the Venezuelan ranchers, its wistful and romantic streak carrying echoes of mid-70s Jarrett. Removing his jacket on this unusually balmy Gateshead evening, Blanco then proceeded to remove part of the Steinway’s casing in preparation for some evocative oud-like string damping and strumming. Charting the passage of Moorish culture through Spain, the piece quickly took on the rhapsodic energies of Chick Corea’s Spain. Closing his warmly received set with Africa Latina, Blanco had perhaps saved his most intense workout of the evening to last. Its driving bass figure was positively Tyneresque, and flurries of left-hand invention simply cascaded into the room.

This had been one of those nights where the process of improvisation itself was laid bare, and every swirling eddy and shifting current held me enrapt. With more than a passing resemblance to one José Mourinho, the heartfelt applause as Leo Blanco took his final bows was positive proof of something special.

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