There’s something special about seeing a musician at their top of their game. While many musicians can perform extraordinarily difficult music, few can do so with ease and grace, making even the most complex of passages seem effortless.
At the André Mehmari Trio’s concert this past Saturday at the Kerrytown Concert House, Mehmari demonstrated his mastery of his instrument, both improvisationally and technically, as he moved flawlessly between styles and genres. From Afro-Cuban influenced music to stride piano, from ballad to swing, Mehmari fired off quick improvisational passages and lengthy melodic improvisations without blinking an eye — and this in the first two songs alone.
Unfortunately, most foreign jazz artists performing in America are frequently forced to confront the prejudices held against the music of their home countries. They are forced to adapt to our stereotypical expectations, performing the music we expect of artists from their homeland. Mehmari, his bassist Neymar Dias and his drummer Sérgio Reze are from Brazil. At this concert, they performed the music of Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento from the 1972 album “Clube de Esquina.” Yet, despite my expectations for primarily Brazilian-influenced music, the concert drew from an eclectic range of genres and styles. As described in the program, this music draws influences from “pop, folk music, bossa nova, jazz and avant-garde classical.” It focuses not on stylistic continuity but on inter-instrument dialogue and rapid improvisation.
If Mehmari’s goal was to transcend genres, he more than succeeded. At one point, for example, Dias switched from bass to viola caipira (a 10-stringed Brazilian guitar). In a rapidly evolving eight minute improvisation, Dias quoted the “Gigue” from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 3” and the Beatle’s “Norwegian Wood.” While this disparate assortment of musical subjects may sound illogical, it came across as the total opposite. It was just the natural next step in the ever-evolving, stream-of-conscious performance style that the trio had adopted for the evening.
At one point in between two numbers, Mehmari described the connection he sees between Brazilian and American music. We live quite close to each other, he said, and yet “we don’t talk that much.” Drawing on this pan-American worldview, the concert eventually seemed to settle into two specific genres: Brazilian jazz and mid-20th-century American jazz trio music.
Throughout the night, Mehmari would throw brief segments of stride piano into his improvisational repertoire. (Stride piano is the ragtime-esque piano technique common in early 20th-century America.) For perhaps five or ten seconds, he would perform complex stride lines before reverting to a more neutral 21st-century piano trio texture.
At another point, the trio performed a traditional-sounding ballad. Yet during the solo section, the piece quickly departed from the realm of the ballad into a much more lively realm, before returning back to a simple ballad texture. My expectations were constantly challenged throughout the night as the trio moved between stylistic realms.
To this end, Reze’s frequent changes between sticks, brushes and mallets was refreshing. Despite having a small drum kit in front of him, Reze managed to evoke many different textures. I also became fond of his active, expressive style of playing, as he moved his entire body to match each drum stroke. In one dramatic display, he moved one hand in large circles over his snare drum, not making a sound yet still contributing to the expressive effect of the piece.
Dias’s bass playing was also engaging, though perhaps in the polar opposite manner: Despite barely changing his style of playing, he managed to communicate the many different styles that the trio would cover throughout the night. If anything, I found myself wishing that Dias would branch out a bit in his playing. A walking bassline might have been nice at a few points, or perhaps longer and more varied solos. But as a background texture, Dias fit well into the trio.
Overall, the concert was an impressive amalgamation of different styles and genres. It was a captivating two-hour improvisatory journey. Though slightly disorienting in the beginning, I found that by the end I had learned to enjoy the rapid switches. The music was evolving rapidly, beyond my control, and I was merely along for the ride.