From the mid-‘70s to the mid-‘80s, the intersection of jazz and classical with synthesizers and acoustic instruments yielded a new genre and some intriguing recordings. Creating a sound appositely called “adult contemporary”, highlighted by releases on ECM Records and Windham Hill Records, and artists such as Michael Mahnring and David Darling, the genre then fell into a swath of synths and downright boring new age melodies. Various bluegrass artists, such as Darol Anger and Mike Marshall with their band Montreaux, began to use their bluegrass background as a way to enter into Copeland inspired territory.
In general, most of this didn’t work, didn’t make much of an impact. Well, sometimes it did, but by the time Marshall and Anger were in their Windham Hill heyday, the sound had become the Muzak for the NPR set. Like the jazz-fusion movement of the 1970s, the notion started out strong and invigorating with a decent precept. But eventually the sound becomes undermined and diluted, leaving only the base elements, crafting a saccharine listening experience and an exemplary soundtrack for the rubbing of emollient into your back.
To hear Egberto Gismonti, the brilliant Brazilian multi-instrumentalist, and his Rarum XI: Selected Recordings, consisting of various recordings from 1977 to 1995, is to grab a glimpse of the beginning of the adult contemporary movement. Gismonti reveals an ability to take a simple melody, such as the African influenced track “Kalimba” and embellish with dynamic changes. He doesn’t wash over the changes, but accentuates their depth through what can only be termed crescendos despite being a study in hushed subtlety; drifting in a dreamlike way with equally brilliant guitarist Nando Carneiro awaking him. All before such an approach became clichéd in the world of Windham Hill.
Part of the reason for this sound can be attributed to Gismonti’s custom 10-string guitar, which allows him to employ a hammer laden two-hand technique to create a quiet piano undercurrent to his music. Somewhat similar to Michael Hedges, but with more facility and less of the over the top pyrotechnics. It makes the mellifluous melodies, as on the slow Brazilian samba of “Cavaquinho”, pulse and sway before launching into a fusillade of frantic, almost Al DiMeola strumming.
The other more conspicuous reason for Gismonti’s sound is his background. Growing up in Brazil, Gismonti was a child prodigy, endowed with technical panache and a keen sense of timing. At 23, he ventured to Paris to study under Jean Barraque, one of Webern’s best students and a strong proponent of the 12-tone style. Upon returning to Brazil, Gismonti lived in the Amazon and began to examine the strong correlation between Brazilian and African music.
The opening “Ensaio de Escola de Samba” has all of these qualities inherently rotating underneath the framework. A minimalist 12-tone spirit operates at the structural level, supplying the composition’s simplicity and at times dissonant rotations. Notes don’t break but travel via liminal folkisms, with only the continual tempo gestations to create almost suites. All intensified by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra or Jacques Marelenbaum’s growling cello. Yet these same passages recall Brazilian choro and traditional West African concepts—what became the blues in their crying and moribund teetering between ethereal joy and mundane incomprehensible sorrow.
Which doesn’t mean the entire Rarum XI: Selected Recordings release avoids all of the adult contemporary pitfalls. Even at its best, Gismonti’s music and work has this calmness which translates into an ineffable sterility like a white walled laboratory built in the middle of a sprawling rainforest. It lacks some of the extemporaneous elements of David Darling’s and Keith Jarrett’s work, matching the trees and their madcap meandering, both of whom Gismonti seems to emulate at times with his compositions such as the surfeit 20-minute “Salva Amazonica”. In retrospect that would be much like even the best the adult contemporary movement could muster, of being so close to something moving only to have an air of academia impeding it.