Hermeto Pascoal and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra
(St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich – 13 May 2022. Review by John Arnett)
It would be hard to imagine a more exhilarating and celebratory opening night than this one, the first concert of the 250th Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Established in 1772, it is one of the oldest arts festivals in the world. The C15th St Andrew’s Hall, with its colossal Victorian concert organ as backdrop, provided a suitably grand and capacious (it needed to be) stage to accommodate the 22-piece NYJO as well as the six members of Hermeto Pascoal‘s band.
This collaboration with NYJO has its roots in Pascoal’s 2019 London Jazz Festival appearance at the Barbican where he issued an invitation to young people to create their own interpretations of his music. The offer was taken up by the NYJO and three years later here it was – NYJO stage right, with Pascoal’s band stage left and the man himself center stage at the electric piano. Conducting the orchestra, and introducing them individually just before the interval, was formerly long-time Pascoal band member and pianist Jovino Santos Neto, himself instrumental in bringing this collaboration to fruition. (He also contributed a particularly beautiful melodica solo on the penultimate tune.) As he explained at the end of the show, all of the pieces, some 12 in all, were composed and arranged by Pascoal. Some showcased the smaller band, some the orchestra, in alternating fashion, occasionally both together, a formula that created sustained interest and drama throughout.
Whilst there was an abundance of spontaneity and playfulness in the music and the spectacle, this was very clearly built upon rigorous discipline and musicianship. The show started with the NYJO, without instruments, in an improvised crowd scene of exuberant laughter and chatter, gradually shifting into the scoring and conducted big band introduction building to spirited, fiery alto sax and trumpet solos. At this point, Pascoal made his way onstage to add piano and underwater vocals to an already combustible mix. The rest of his band soon followed, moving deftly into the second piece. What was noticeable here was that even when not playing, Pascoal was constantly shaping and directing the music, for example bringing bass player Itiberê Zwarg in to solo, then singing through a cow horn and at the end, raising and lowering the volume of the whole orchestra by raising and lowering his hat!
The versatility and virtuosity of Pascoal’s five band members was intrinsic to the success of the whole evening’s music. Zwarg on electric bass contributed at least two thrilling, searching solos, his face a study of elation. Jota P‘s (saxes and flute) mastery of and feeling for this often highly complex music was consummate, perhaps especially on the soprano. Percussionists and drummers Fabio Pascoal (Hermeto’s son) and Ajurinã Zwarg seemed to share an intuitive understanding of the rhythmic foundations of the music, playing brilliantly together. One great moment was when all five came to the front to play delicate folk-like melodies on whistle, kazoo and various wooden blocks. (There was an echo of this at the end when all members of NYJO put down their instruments to play coconut shells).
In many ways this was an evening of contrasts: small group and large orchestra; the experience and maturity of the former and the youth of the latter; Brazilian and British; the composed and the improvised; the spoken and the instrumental; the earliest instruments and the most modern. Presiding over all of this was the magus figure of Hermeto Pascoal himself. It is hard to believe that he will soon be 86. The fact that he says he wrote some 1,500 tunes during the lockdown betokens no creative slowing down. He did take a seat at the side of the stage at times this evening, but seemingly so that he could keep a better eye on the musicians. His vocal call and response interlude with the audience towards the end drew a rapturous and enthusiastic response. At the end of the show the members of the NYJO left the stage still playing their instruments to congregate in the foyer and carry on playing. Along with the two members of the brass section, at the back, who never stopped dancing the whole way through the show, these are images that will live on in the mind.
The opening set in Norwich was by the NYJO Ambassadors. They played five compositions, all by members of the group: Vera – Emma Rawicz / Spirit Crawl – Fergus Quill / Keple Road – Josh Millard / Don’t Warren – Mischa Jardine / Sun Dream – Fergus Quill