Charlie Haden / Egberto Gismonti: In Montreal

Charlie Haden / Egberto Gismonti
In Montreal

I can’t imagine why this has taken 12 years to surface but the current fondness for Latin music won’t hurt its sales. In fact if it didn’t have revered bass player Haden’s name on the cover then this record would probably be consigned to the “world music” slot of any record store. Much of it is jazz only in the sense that Haden has a prominent place in all jazz histories and both men are gifted improvisers. Gismonti has long criss-crossed the folk/jazz/world borders, through output on his own label and during his twenty five year association with ECM.

Actually it would sit even better in the Classical section. This is Brazilian influenced music but is much closer to the likes of Villa Lobos than the Samba Schools. It is contemplative rather than fiery music and has little in common with what usually counts as Latin Jazz. When Gismonti is at the keyboards (he switches between guitar and piano) it is rather like listening to Keith Jarrett playing a South American chamber piece, with the merest touch of Glass-Riley serialism thrown in. It is very impressive but in a subtle way, in certain moods it might float by you almost unnoticed. When it catches your ear though, it refuses to be thenceforth ignored. Haden seems content to follow, this is very much Gismonti’s project.

In fact, although his playing is fine and I will probably be shot for saying it, this would have possibly been just as good a set without Haden. The sections that seem to work the least well are the “free” exchanges about half way through some of the numbers. There is something forced about them as if it was decided, “Well, Charlie Haden was on all those Ornette Coleman albums, we better do a bit of atonal stuff every now and then”. It only matters because the melodies are so delicate and complex in their own right that it is rather like witnessing a rare flower being pulled apart — interesting in its way but hardly pleasurable.

That is problem one. Problem two is that Spanish guitar accompanied by double bass may not be something you want to hear too much of. I certainly don’t, yet it works. Each player thrives on the other’s talent and the resulting soundscape is more varied than might be imagined. The highlight of these duets is the epic “Em Familia” which runs through so many moods and tones that it almost but not quite over-reaches itself. It is prey to a little too much fragmentation but returns from those forays triumphant and whole. The whooping audience response (which is a bit of a pain, generally) is here fully justified. It is a tour de force at the level of both conception and execution.

However it is in the piano pieces that this set’s value truly resides. Gismonti’s compositions, particularly “Maracatu” and “Palhaco”, are magnificent and his playing full of weight and resonance without being in the slightest bit pompous or overbearing. The Spanish/Portuguese classical tradition, to which I feel this belongs, has been overlooked of late because of the flamboyance of the jazz-roots styles, as exemplified by Chucho Valdes, but it is one worth investigating. “Loro” has a definite nineteenth century feel and is none the worse for that. Fans of Chopin and Liszt will appreciate it as much as will those of Gato Barbieri or Gilberto Gil. “Frevo” is more of the same but with a few more obviously twentieth century twists.I can give little indication of the technical excellence in the musicianship but the effects are awe-inspiring.

The event from which these recordings came was a tribute series of performances for Haden. Happily Gismonti’s response was essentially to show us what a talented musician and composer he is. Whether it is or is not jazz need not detain us. It is great piano music and there is a very useful bass player in support. When you throw in the guitar pieces too, you have a sizable slab of contemporary improvisation around traditional styles, carried off with ease and great flare on Gismonti’s part. A little on the heavy, dour side? Surprisingly not. These are not carnival parade rhythms, certainly, but the concert is not as abstract or excessively demanding as the label or the participants might have led you to suppose.

Both men have had careers that demand respect. If Haden is the better known of the two now, then, ironically, Gismonti’s role in the jazz world’s act of homage to the bass-player might begin to reverse that position.His long closing number, “Don Quixote”, is as eloquent a set of impressions of the sadness in that character as one could wish for and it is yet again Gismonti’s playing that holds the attention and drives the piece. Haden’s may be the first name on the album cover but the prizes all go to the Brazilian. Haden plays his part, as he has always done, assuredly and generously and will not grudge for a moment the light falling on a gifted but less familiar figure. It is after all the music that counts and that stands as a substantial tribute to both men.