Archive for July, 2009

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Umbria Jazz Festival: Guinga

July 23, 2009

One thing I love to do is go to concerts when I’m away. There’s something special about hearing live music in a foreign place—you get the feeling of experiencing a unique event that wouldn’t happen back home.

The rare time when I’m at one of those foreign concerts, there’s usually a moment when the whole experience sinks in. I had one of those moments the other week, during a concert by Guinga at the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy. It came during one of the encores, when the Brazilian sang and played guitar on “Senhorinha”, a song from his Noturno Copacabana album. His solo performance of the gorgeous tune was incredibly affecting, and brought it all home: I was hearing a great Brazilian musician in a beautiful theatre at an acclaimed jazz festival in sublime Italy. It’s hard to top that.

Guinga is one of those artists who I would drop everything for and go to great lengths to hear live if I had the chance. That’s exactly what I did. To get to Perugia from San Venanzo, the small town in Umbria where we stayed, I drove for a good 45 minutes on a two-lane road that includes a mountainous section with sharp, twisting curves that aren’t for the faint-of-heart.

The drive was well worth it. I’m crazy about Brazilian music, and Guinga is one of Brazil’s master musicians and composers. The first music I heard by Guinga was from his Suite Leopoldina album, which happens to be his masterpiece. I remember what a revelation it was to hear that album, which features his compelling compositions. I’ve listened to a lot of Brazilian music, but I had never heard arrangements like this: combining vocals, guitar, piano, clarinet, flute, percussion, harmonica, a full string section (on some tracks) and other instruments in a grand but intimate way. With a host of high-caliber guest artists like Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque, Lenine, Jaques Morelenbaum and Toots Thielemans, Suite Leopoldina is a landmark recording that I’m sure not enough people outside of Brazil have heard. (Guinga trivia: he’s also a dentist.)

The venue: Teatro Morlacchi, before the concert:

Teatro Morlacchi

Guinga’s Umbria Jazz concert was very different from the large-scale, cinematic splendour of Suite Leopoldina. He performed with just two musicians: clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi and another Brazilian guitarist Lula Galvão. They played mainly instrumental music—Guinga sang on just the encore song. There was a strong rapport between the players, particularly with Guinga and Mirabassi, who’s an excellent musician from Umbria.

It was interesting to see the division of labour: while they all played the melodies, which sounded decidedly Brazilian, only Mirabassi and Galvao took improvised solos (which were very good ones). I didn’t know this before the concert, but Guinga doesn’t seem to improvise in the strict sense of the word. Instead, he excels at playing chords on the guitar that convey the striking essence of Brazilian harmony. That’s a form of improvisation, because he comes up with choice voicings that likely change each time he plays the tunes. He also plays amazing intros to songs that set the mood. (More Guinga trivia: apparently he can’t read a single note of music, which makes his harmonically intricate compositions and playing even more impressive.)

Guinga’s approach doesn’t make him less of a musician. Playing Brazilian guitar is an art, with a high standard that was set by greats like Baden Powell. Guinga understands and insightfully carries on that tradition. He’s not technically astounding like Yamandu, another Brazilian guitarist who I’ve enjoyed twice in Vancouver. But he’s as harmonically engaging and emotionally powerful as any Brazilian artist I’ve heard.

Guinga actually spoke in Italian between some songs, as did Mirabassi. I wish I understood what they were saying, but the mutual respect on stage was obvious. The concert was a prime example of an international collaboration that works, not unlike what Vancouver’s jazz festival pulls off every year with a number of shows. But this concert probably only could have happened in Umbria because of the local connection (Mirabassi). Over the years the Umbria Jazz Festival has also programmed a lot of top Brazilian artists, who rarely come to Vancouver (if at all). So for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I savoured every chord.

Guinga and his two collaborators performed in the Teatro Morlacchi, which opened an astonishing 228 years ago. It’s designed in the traditional Italian theatre style with a horseshoe-shaped interior and domed ceiling. Above the floor seats, five tiers of boxes wrap around the theatre. On the ordine quattro (fourth level), an usher escorted me to my seat in a box directly across from the centre of the stage. Four Italians sat with me in the box. I was almost as much in awe with the wondrous setting as I was with the profound music.