2008 ART OF JAZZ LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD WINNER
A towering figure in modern music, Art of Jazz 2008 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Egberto Gismonti is both an accomplished multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar, cello, flute, percussion) and one of Brazil's - and the world's - most eminent composers. Hs musical creations range from solos and duets to jazz ensembles, from film and ballet scores to orchestral symphonies. During "An Evening with Egberto Gismonti" - one of the highlights of this year's Art of Jazz Celebration - this prolific, one-of-a-kind artist will present a wide array of musical works drawn from a career that has spanned more than three decades.
Born into a musical family on December 5, 1947, in the small town of Carmo, Egberto Gismonti began his formal music training on the piano at the age of six. After studying the classical repertoire for the next fifteen years, this young virtuoso he went to Paris to immerse himself in modern music. There he studied twelve-tone music with composer Jean Barraqué, a disciple of Arnold Schönberg and Anton Webern, and worked with renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, widely regarded as the foremost musical analyst of the twentieth century. Mme. Boulanger also encouraged Gismonti to incorporate the collective Brazilian experience into his music.
With that in mind, Gismonti returned to Brazil and began to look beyond the world of classical music. While he was attracted by Ravel's innovative orchestrations and chord voicings, he also became entranced by the choro, a Brazilian instrumental popular music that features various types of guitars. "Choro represents the foundation of our music," he has declared. "To play, to understand, to be, to think Brazilian music, everyone must cross by the concept and the music of choro." And so, to absorb this rich cultural tradition, he taught himself the guitar by listening to the solo recordings of Baden Powell and transcribing portions of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier.
Longing to transcend the limits of the conventional six-string instrument and expand its intervallic and harmonic potential, Gismonti designed guitars with eight, ten, twelve, and fourteen strings, and experimented with different tunings. His search for new sounds led him to musicians as wide-ranging as the gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and rock giant Jimi Hendrix. To Gismonti, Hendrix's achievements were proof that "popular" and "serious" idioms need not be polar opposites. "There's no difference between the two kinds of music," he concluded. This insight became the foundation of his overall conception of music.
During the late 1970s, Gismonti began studying the music of the Yualapeti Indian tribe of the Xingu region of the Amazon basin, an experience that had a lasting affect on his approach to both life and music, and is documented in his early recordings for the ECM label. His 1977 debut, Danças das Cabeças (Dances of the Heads), a duet with percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, earned him his first international acclaim, having been nominated "Album Of The Year" by Stereo Review and receiving the "Grosser Deutscher Schallplattenpreis," Germany's most prestigious recording award. Gismonti's follow-up album, Sol de Meio Dia (Midday Sun), which he dedicated to the Indians of the Xingu, found the earlier duo augmented by saxophonist Jan Garbarek, percussionist Collin Walcott, and guitarist Ralph Towner.
After releasing the striking 1979 Solo album, a pure and comprehensive presentation of his music on which he played eight-string guitar, piano and bells, Gismonti formed a trio with Garbarek and bassist Charlie Haden. The group produced two recordings and toured extensively throughout Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1989 he reunited with Haden at the Montreal Jazz Festival in a triumphant duo concert that showcased their interplay and intuition, and eventually was released on CD (In Montreal).
Even Gismonti's most sophisticated compositions and complex improvisations are deeply rooted in Brazilian music, from solemn to burlesque. Nowhere is this more evident than on his 1981 album, Sanfona, a two-disc set that features both his Brazilian group, Academia De Danças, and his solo guitar and organ. "I must go back to the Brazilian culture," he consistently maintains. "This is the basic fountain or source that drives my music."
The release of Meeting Point in 1997 represented a huge landmark in Gismonti's composing and recording career. A major orchestral work, it recalls the music of Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse, and is characterized by both dense textures and passages of quiet, austere beauty. For this very special project, Gismonti persuaded ECM Records to build a special studio in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he could prepare the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra to record this extraordinary and challenging work. Conveying the composer's concern for peaceful co-existence, the seven pieces for piano and orchestra that make up Meeting Point reveal a refined, mature brilliance that define it as the work of a true master, one for whom there are no boundaries.
Today, Gismonti continues striving to bring together the diverse musical strains of Western Europe and Brazil, and forging an aesthetic in which the supposed distinction between "serious" and "popular" music simply has no place. In that regard, he belongs to that grand tradition of Brazilian music nurtured by such past masters as Pixinguinha, Villa-Lobos, Baden Powell, João Donato, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. And his meticulously crafted melodies, rich harmonies, and fragile, yet energetic and pulsating, rhythms, place Egberto Gismonti among the most important of all contemporary composers, regardless of genre or nationality.
© Bob Bernotas, 2008. All rights reserved.
Photo: Carol Steuer