This article appears in the current print issue of All About Jazz-New York. This is the uncut version.
This past June, Hermeto Pascoal celebrated his seventy-fourth year of music making. The date fell on his birthday, but that was no coincidence. “The first sound I made was when I was born, crying,” the musical sage remarked in an interview last month, through a translator, referring to his sound and technique. “I was born with this natural gift.” While most artists can point to events and experiences in childhood that played a part in shaping their subsequent art, Pascoal points to the moment of his birth in the rural state of Alagoas in northern Brazil as the beginning of his life as a musician. “I’m self-taught. I have always been a curious person and life has been my teacher. “
Inherent in Pascoal’s response is a duality that emerges in interviews with fans, academics, musical collaborators, and the man himself. Does artistic genius spring from the mind of the individual, or is some larger force operating through an open conduit? The question is moot, of course, but it looms over any investigation of Pascoal’s music, as it does for any artist whose deeply personal music resonates universally. Ultimately, Pascoal seems content to obliterate any artificial barrier between the individual and nature: “I discovered the sensibility of the animals, my relationship with nature, making natural instruments, playing with water…” he explained, countering the insinuation that his was an isolated childhood. “There was no electricity, nor radio where I lived until I was fourteen years old, (but) I felt completely integrated, not isolated, with people, with nature. “
The pianist, archivist and long-time collaborator Jovino Santos Neto brought this point into even sharper focus in an interview last month. “His talent is really an amazing ear, (and an ability) to connect with sound.” Santos Neto, a native Brazilian and member of the first generation in his country to grow up idolizing Pascoal and the music he and artists like Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and Humberto Clayber were introducing to an increasingly global audience, was an integral member of Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo from 1977 to 1992. For the past twenty years, he has undertaken the monumental task of transcribing and cataloguing Hermeto’s prolific output as a composer, in addition to leading his own bands, working as a session player, orchestrator and conductor, and teaching at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
“It’s kind of like how they used to build cathedrals in the middle ages,” Santos Neto remarked, referring to his work as Hermeto’s archivist, “You take like four generations of people – it’s that kind of work and just as important.” Santos Neto’s work as a scholar and, what he calls, “an apprentice” of Pascoal’s music gives him a privileged insight into the workings of an artist he is quick to add to the pantheon of groundbreaking musicians of the last two centuries. “The connection with the folkloric music of Brazil, how he was able to elevate that to a really high, universal standard, without corrupting it” is quite rare, Santos Neto explained. “It’s been done in other places, of course, like with Béla Bartók, and Aaron Copeland with the music of the Appalachians, but what Hermeto has done has expanded that on a much more worldwide scale.”
Santos Neto’s musical insights are matched by his knowledge of his native Brazil, and in our interview he added a new perspective to the story of Hermeto’s early years.
In the northeastern part of Brazil – maybe because the terrain is so rugged; not lush and tropical, but very dry – it was a hard life, you know; people living from the land. It really – by natural selection – created highly individualistic people. The ability to create something with little is inherent to the people of that region. So if you put that together with Hermeto’s talent and genius, I think you really have the genius of his personality, his musical contributions.
From this arguably auspicious beginning, Hermeto moved with his family at the age of fourteen to Recife, a city with an incredibly rich musical tradition, where he absorbed the rhythms of Maracatú and frevo from the likes of Clovis Pereira, Guerra-Peixe, Duda, and Sivuca, and then on to Rio in the late 1950’s. Asked about his experience in Rio, Hermeto sited the dizzying array of musical talent living in the city at the time. “I moved to Rio because it was well known. There I played accordion at first with Pernambuco do Pandeiro in Mauá Radio and, at night, piano with Fafá Lemos in his night club. After that, I played piano with the great Maestro Copinha in the Exelsior Hotel.”
Additionally, Hermeto was beginning to make connections with musicians who would figure prominently in his ascent to worldwide recognition. “I met Airto and Humberto Clayber playing at night in jam sessions,” Pascoal remarked. Airto and Clayber – along with Theo de Barros — were already members of the group Trio Novo, but were quick to change the name to Quarteto Novo in order to include the fantastically talented newcomer, Pascoal. The group was instrumental in introducing Hermeto and Airto to audiences in Brazil and beyond, though they only recorded one album, 1966’s Em Som Maior.
It would be Airto Moreira who would indirectly launch Hermeto onto the world stage by bringing his friend backstage at a concert to meet his new boss, Miles Davis. “Airto played in Miles’ band,” Pascoal recalled, “and I was there to make the arrangements of my compositions and to record them with Airto and Flora. Before the concert, Miles saw me and came to me because he felt it should happen, and since then, we became musical and spiritual friends.” Hearing Pascoal’s mastery of piano and a wide-range of both conventional and handmade instruments, Davis didn’t hesitate to offer him a place in his band. Pascoal’s subsequent work with Davis, in concert and on the influential album Live/Evil catapulted him to international acclaim.
In the nearly forty years since debuting with Davis, Hermeto has toured the world with his own groups, released a truly diverse array of albums – including classics like Slaves Mass in 1977 and Brasil Universo in 1986 – and maintained a prolific output as a composer. “Hmm,” murmured Jovino Santos Neto, trying to assign a number to his mentor’s output, “when I left (the band) in 1992, our estimate was that he had around 3000 pieces, but he never stopped. Now, when I meet him, the last couple times, he just kind of hands me a notebook, and says ‘this is some stuff I’ve been doing.’ This is a notebook filled from top to bottom with music.”
Hermeto’s prodigious output has done more than fill Santos Neto’s free time in the last forty years. Generations of musicians across the world have come up listening to and incorporating Pascoal’s unpredictable melodic lines and sumptuous ballads into their own repertoire. For the New York based guitarist and vocalist Richard Boukas, hearing Hermeto’ music for the first time was a game changer. “It was in the mid-70’s,” Boukas recalled in an interview last month, “when I was developing my bebop playing, yet at the same time investigating the rich traditions of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music.” A fan of the vocal sambas and bossa novas of João Bosco, Emilio Santiago, Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque, and Johnny Alf, Boukas was nonetheless floored he when borrowed an LP of Hermeto’s music from a friend. “Once I got a taste of Hermeto’s material, I knew immediately he was a unique genius and creative force, someone destined to inspire me in my own composing, playing and theoretical understanding.”
In the ensuing decades, Boukas’ instrumental and vocal work, along with his output as a composer and arranger have been influenced by Hermeto’s music; this in turn has led to a particularly fruitful and ongoing musical relationship with Jovino Santos Neto. Boukas has also passed his love of Hermeto’s music, and Brazilian music as a whole, to musicians at The New School in Manhattan since 1995. “I established the Brazilian Jazz Ensemble at the New School Jazz Program to expose young jazz musicians to Brazil’s wealth of regional grooves and composers,” he explained, “Hermeto being at the top of that list initially.” Over the years, the group’s repertoire has evolved to cover the different aspects of Brazil’s uniquely rich musical heritage – most recently, the ensemble has been dedicated solely to Choro, an instrumental style that traces its roots back to mid-19th Cenury Brazil – but has never strayed from Hermeto’s open-eared example.
“Hermeto has a natural gift for discovering the potential talent in a young musician,” remarked Santos Neto in an interview with journalist Bruce Gilman. “He knows how to make that talent grow and mature.” Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his otherworldly talent, Pascoal’s mentoring skills have never escaped his dedicated pupils. “It’s not about him, it’s about the music – and there’s a big lesson there for all bandleaders,” Boukas remarked while recalling the afternoon he and Santos Neto spent playing new tunes with Hermeto at his home in Brazil. The egoless aspect of Hermeto’s music was a recurring theme throughout the interviews for this article, and seems to lie at the heart of this deeply resonant music. Hermeto has another phrase for it: música universal or Universal Music. “I live in the present,” he wrote in an email last month while on tour, “and keep composing, playing with four different groups. I (just) recorded my second cd in duo with (his wife) Aline Morena. This Universal Music is played in all (the) world!”
© Matt Miller 2010