Review: Hermeto Pascoal @ Barbican Centre (London, 9th July 2016)

It really is something special to see a live performance by ‘O Bruxo’ (the sorcerer). The eminent Brazilian musician, producer, arranger and composer Hermeto Pascoal was once described by Miles Davis, no less, as ‘the most impressive musician in the world.’ His show at London’s Barbican Centre was hugely anticipated by his UK-based fans, many of whom travelled long distances to see him. What is even more remarkable is that Hermeto is still touring with the energy, humour and musical prowess of a thirty-year-old, despite the fact that this concert was part of his 80th birthday tour – and what a memorable performance it was!

But it was also a double act. A big band consisting of specially selected players directed by Noel Langley shared the stage, performing some of Hermeto’s works as an homage to the great man. The format of the performance alternated between the big band and Hermeto’s Brazilian line-up, which included his son Fabio Pascoal (himself an exceptional percussionist and stage director), the remarkable Jota P Ramos on sax, André Marques on piano, Itiberê Zwarg on bass guitar, Ajurina Zwarg on drum kit and vocalist Aline Morena. All of the above doubled up on flutes, bottles, triangles and other assorted instruments.

Throughout the concert the big band made their interjections in a rather conventional style with eight pieces by the great man, but by the end of the evening the formality had broken down due to Hermeto’s hilarious interferences. At one point he even persuaded bandleader Noel Langley to dance with him rather than direct the ensemble.

The big band began the show with Apresentação; glorious rows of trombones, trumpets, flutes and saxophones suddenly producing timbres reminiscent of a Blaxploitaion soundtrack. Then Hermeto himself appeared with his flowing white hair, broad-brimmed hat and multi-coloured shirt to get the audience singing right from the start.  His first piano piece followed, accompanied by the sound of a toy cockerel. The rest of the band arrived with some on-stage antics, shouting and arguing an introduction for a little piece that included squeaky toys and whistles. Meanwhile, the group members engaged in a game of ‘pass Hermeto’s hat’.

After a bit of flatulent horn-playing from Hermeto the big band led us into another of his pieces, ‘Viva Gil Evans’. The next number played by the Brazilian group rather showed up the stiff English jazz ensemble. These guys are in a league of their own! Break-neck bossas and sambas were rolled out, fast, tight and groovy. The pandeira playing of Fabio and Ajurina was extraordinarily skilled, and the accuracy of unison melodies played at ridiculously fast tempos between the sax, Hermeto’s keyboard and vocals was breathtaking.