Andersen/Towner/Vasconcelos: If You Look Far Enough (ECM 1493)

 

If You Look Far Enough

Arild Andersen bass
Ralph Towner guitars
Nana Vasconcelos percussion
Audun Kleive snare drum
Recorded Spring 1988, July 1991, and February 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Arild Andersen

Manfred Eicher strikes gold with yet another inspired melding of musical minds. The microphones at ECM’s Rainbow Studio this time are privileged to witness an emotionally powerful session from bassist Arild Andersen, guitarist Ralph Towner, and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. The session begins with something of a title track in “If You Look.” From this swell of drones and metallic whispers comes “Svev,” a scintillating piece that finds Andersen in a buoyant mood. “For All We Know” is a stunningly gorgeous duet between him and Towner—a match made in heaven. Andersen’s tender spaces are the perfect sky for Towner to spread his careful, classical wings. “Backé” continues this intimate reflection, only now with Vasconcelos’s auguries providing a more focused berth for Towner’s spindly ruminations. Vasconcelos adds a vocal swoon for effect. These two tracks are the heart of the album and could continue for its full length if they wished. “The Voice” begins with Andersen’s sustained calls, drawn out like cloud wisps on the horizon and providing a long-forgotten plain for the rhythm and tackle of Vasconcelos’s well-traveled feet. Andersen dips into some electronic augmentations, sounding like an infant foghorn with melodic growing pains. “The Woman” is a beautiful little duet for percussion and bass that works its tender embrace one muscle of sentiment at a time. Andersen’s deft monologue of serpents and harmonics carries the conversation over into “The Place” at a more urgent pace, working sidelong into an inspiring spiral. “The Drink” is another transportive duet, swaying like a caravan transport in the unforgiving sun. Next is “Main Man,” which jumps back into the rhythmic deep end with some funkier vibes, while “A Song I Used To Play” is a slow and tender build to Towner’s 12-string ebullience. “Far Enough” is another haunting drone of spectral footsteps that brings us into “Jonah,” a bass solo that smiles with all the wonder of new life.

This album is something of a sleeper ECM hit and worth seeking out for fans of any and all of these musicians. Don’t pass it up.

Egberto Gismonti/Nana Vasconcelos: Duas Vozes (ECM 1279)

 

Duas Vozes

Egberto Gismonti guitars, piano, flutes, dilruba, voice
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, berimbau, voice
Recorded June 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder what forces were at work to have brought two brilliant music makers like Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos together on this earth. I wonder what energies nourish their spirits any time the two of them step into the studio, alone or otherwise. I also wonder how a surefire recipe for continued enchantment could come out of the oven as this misshapen improvisation session from 1984. Neither musician has ever needed a definitive structure around which to coil his respective song in order to be captivating (just listen to, for example, the breadth of freedom in Gismonti’s Solo or Vasconcelos’s Saudades), but during the first few steps of Duas Vozes I find myself craving it. It’s not that the images painted therein aren’t unique, only that the colors with which they are painted simply don’t blend. Thus is the album’s first half the backside of a one-way mirror: we can see through its devices, even if the microphones can’t. Thankfully, in the latter half we come face to face with a reflection that shows us only the depth of our awe.

Our first confusions arise in “Aquarela Do Brasil,” which begins playfully enough, but quickly degrades into six long minutes of Vasconcelos’s whooping (compare his sparing use thereof on “Carneval Of The Four”). “Rio De Janeiro” also breaks its promise when, after the lively pulse that opens it, Gismonti’s guitar wanders in circles without ever enlarging any of them. And while much of this sounds like outtakes between jam sessions, there are some flashes of brilliance in which these longtime friends explore insanely microscopic avenues of their craft, particularly during a passage for which Gismonti plays the little strings at top of his instrument. The cavernous flute of “Tomarapeba” opens the portal just a little more, as do Vasconcelos’s calls from the treetops in “Dancado.”

It isn’t until “Fogueira” that we get something undeniably special, something far beyond what I would already have expected. Its balance of restraint and full-out effusiveness blossoms with a Ralph Towner-like sensibility, Vasconcelos adding masterful color all the while. With this, the portal is thrown open, letting in the floodlights that are “Bianca” and “Don Quixote.” In the latter, Vasconcelos’s insectile tongue-fluttering adds the perfect environmental touch, even as Gismonti unveils his piano for a final stretch of droning brilliance.

For an album that is only half the masterpiece it could have been, how it ever came to be included in ECM’s Touchstones series would seem unwarranted were it not for its destination. But even if we aren’t quite sure about how it gets there, Duas Vozes is worth your attention for that destination alone.

Nana Vasconcelos: Saudades (ECM 1147)

Nana Vasconcelos
Saudades

Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion, voice, gongs
Egberto Gismonti guitar
Members of Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart
Mladen Gutesha conductor
Recorded March 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For his third solo album, first and only for ECM under his name, the extraordinary percussionist Nana Vasconcelos created an album that grows. It has taken me a few uninterrupted sessions to appreciate the depths of Saudades, which continue to reveal themselves with every listen. Vasconcelos fronts the best with “O Berimbau,” a 19-minute ode to the metallic scrapings of its eponymous instrument. Utilizing human breath and strings, he renders a beatific icon with bare means. Breaks yield mock birdcalls for a highly filmic and contextual sound that locates us in living spirit. “Vozes” is simply those, weaving fricatives through a loom of nostalgia-laden strings. A rather different congregation of voices awaits us in “Ondas,” speaking in konnakol. Tablas and melodic rows, ploughed by shakers and cowbell, channel irrigation into “Cego Aderaldo.” This, the only non-Vasconcelos piece on the album (by compatriot and musical partner Egberto Gismonti), opens with the liquid guitar of its composer in a precisely syncopated journey of intense focus. “Dado” reprises the berimbau, unaccompanied, fading into a climate of arid reflection.

Saudades is a self-portrait in sound. Vasconcelos plays as one communicates, with the immediacy of speech and the lingering effects of bodily gestures. This minimal approach yields a broadening territory of fallow lands. His is not simply a musical language but language, period.


From the back cover of the original vinyl (photo by Roberto Masotti)

Egberto Gismonti: Sol Do Meio Dia (ECM 1116)

 

Egberto Gismonti
Sol Do Meio Dia

Egberto Gismonti guitars, piano, kalimba, percussion, flute, voice
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion
Ralph Towner guitar
Collin Walcott tabla
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Recorded November 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Inspired by his time spent with the Xingu Indians of the Amazon, to whom the album is also dedicated, Sol Do Meio Dia (Midday Sun) is a consistently intriguing transitional album from multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti. With him are percussionists Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott and guitarist Ralph Towner, as well as Jan Garbarek on soprano saxophone for a brief spell. At this point in his career, Gismonti was beginning to fill in the porous sound of his 8-string guitar. To this end, Vasconcelos and Walcott flesh out much of the dizzying rhythmic space that defines his sound, while Towner’s 12-string laces the background with more explicit chording. Walcott traces magical circles in “Raga,” for which Gismonti engages us with nimble fingerwork on the guitar’s highest harmonics. Thus begins a chain of sporadic bursts acting in dialogue. With modest virtuosity, the musicians run hand-in-hand down this ecstatic path of music-making to an even more specific sound, this time marked by kalimba and thumb piano. Gismonti’s shrill flute and wordless chanting here recall the work of CODONA. “Coração” is a rich solo and, along with the album’s closer, is a perfect exposition of Gismonti’s notecraft. The disc finishes with a 25-minute suite. Garbarek makes his only appearance in the opening section, which glows with his mournful ululations. An inviting solo from Towner opens the ears to another fluted passage anchored by percussion and handclaps. One can feel the forest at such moments as if it were living and breathing all around us.

The combination of musicians is pure ECM and reflects the brilliant casting of producer Manfred Eicher. As airy as Sol Do Meio Dia sounds, it is also weighted with a certain nostalgia that is difficult to quantify. Like a memory, its actors are always out of focus even when their intentions ring clear. And in the end the intentions are what it’s all about.

Egberto Gismonti: Dança Das Cabeças (ECM 1089)

 

Egberto Gismonti
Dança Das Cabeças

Egberto Gismonti 8-string guitar, piano, wood flutes, voice
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, berimbau, corpo, voice
Recorded November 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Egberto Gismonti’s first ECM appearance is also his most understated. Dança das Cabeças (Dance of the Heads) was to be a solo album, due to the fact that the Brazilian government had inflated travel expenses for he and his band to the questionable figure of 7000 dollars a head. Gismonti was the only among them able to make the journey, but as fate would have it, he met Nana Vasconcelos quite by accident while in Norway to prepare for this recording. According to Alvaro Neder, when Vasconcelos asked him to describe the concept behind this project, Gismonti told him it was “the history of two boys wandering through a dense, humid forest, full of insects and animals, keeping a 180-feet distance from each other.” It was a history the two musicians shared without articulation, and Vasconcelos immediately agreed to join, thereby bringing another visionary into the label’s fold.

“It sounds just like a rain forest!” Perhaps you have heard this assessment being made in reference to many a New-Age album, sporting lush trees on its cover and layered within with preprogrammed synthesizers and wooden flutes. Dança, by contrast, is as far as one can get from the contrived exotica that haunt our commercial soundscapes. We are fully situated in the acoustic benefits of live musicianship, captured in all their immediacy in ECM’s standard-setting clarity. And so, while the birdlike sounds of Part I do indeed evoke a forest practically dripping with fecundity, it is populated with more than a few brightly colored animals. Like Marion Brown’s Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun, its sound is as deliberate as it is organic. From these canopied beginnings, we get some jangly strums from Gismonti’s guitar, slaloming between frenzied hand drums. Rhythms and melodies build to infectious heights, diving into our blood with every fluted moment. The musicians raise their cries, from which Gismonti spins a free-flowing grace, as if to trace lines of varying distance in a vast topographic map. Vasconcelos returns in all his fullness with drums, maracas, and shakers, while Gismonti’s fingers move on in their quiet persistence. Changes in syncopation and a few helpings of dissonant harmonies enact a skeleton dance of sorts, soaring resolutely into the music’s ritual heart. Gismonti’s classical training shines through in Part II, for which he puts his fingers to keys in a spacious and revelatory stroll through Keith Jarrett territory. From this heartwarming nostalgia, built in arcs with only the occasional angles, Gismonti morphs into a bellowed vocalise and storm of handclaps. He returns to the guitar before closing with another pianistic statement in improvised space.

This remains the Brazilian multi-instrumentalist’s most direct effort. In it, we find him without masks. It is the kind of music that makes one glad to be alive, a breath of clarity in polluted air. Essential for anyone who appreciates what music can bring to the heart, mind, and body.