POP / Dada cool, Dada cool: Brazilian jazz is not just bossa nova; Phil Johnson meets Hermeto Pascoal

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The Independent Online
The instruments that litter the stage for a concert by the Brazilian composer and multi- instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal - who begins a Contemporary Music Network tour next week - look, at first, like the standard tools of the trade. Then you notice the sewing machine, standing (near the kettle) on its plinth, like a Dadaist sculpture. The squeaky animals and battery-run toy trains suggest that something strange is going to happen - and it does, at the start of the second set. The sewing machine plays, the trains run riot and the band begins a symphony of squeaks. The kettle gets its moment later, when Pascoal plays it like a trumpet.

Brazilian jazz has been stereotyped as the sand- between-the-toes sound of sensuous samba since the bossa nova craze of the Sixties. The most familiar patterns were long ago picked up by every jobbing musician from Simply Red to the pub organist; even the battery of exotic percussion instruments that were the preserve of Brazilian virtuosi like Airto Moreira or Nana Vasconcelos are now routine. Pascoal's music provides a much needed corrective; it dares to be difficult, though thankfully it swings like the clappers, too.

Pascoal, at 58, is regarded as the godfather of modern Brazilian jazz, having arranged and played for Moreira, Flora Purim and Miles Davis, with whom he guested on the Live Evil album, but the roots of his work go back to the German polkas and Indian folk music of his native region of Alagoas in the remote north east of the country, far from Rio. There he learned to play the accordion for local dances and developed the beginnings of a style that has remained captivatingly eccentric; since there was no electricity in his village until he was 14, he taught himself to play without ever hearing music on the radio. Looking much like a rather hirsute Raymond Briggs-style Father Christmas, Pascoal is famous for his experiments with unusual sound sources; he once performed a concert in a cave, his musicians hitting the limestone rocks with hammers while underground waterfalls cascaded around them. For his coming tour, Pascoal has instructed the 18 Britons joining his octet to bring along bits of their kitchens - pots, pans, wooden spoons - for a new composition.

Via the translation of Marcio Bahia, his drummer and son-in-law, Pascoal told me that though his music 'has its roots in northern Brazil, it is universal, music for all times, all countries.' He would like, he says brightly, 'to dedicate the whole project to my friends Miles Davis and Gil Evans. While I was writing the arrangements I was feeling them very close by (both men are dead), and because of this I was very happy. They said to me it will be a great opportunity.'

Pascoal has taken his responsibilities to his British band extremely seriously; when he heard that the pianist Kim Burton could play the bagpipes, he immediately wrote a piece for them, though without, he concedes regretfully, 'having much idea about their tonality'. He sent the piece to Burton by fax and a reply stated that it was playable, just, but not very idiomatic. Pascoal is now searching out information about the bagpipes in order to improve his composition. The business with the kettle and the sewing machine is, it seems, partly a trick to divert the audience. 'It's something to show off that is not musical,' he says. 'But you have a great responsibility to play them well.'

Touring from 4 Oct

(Photograph omitted)

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