United Kingdom Huw Warren and Jovina Santos Neto: Huw Warren (piano), Jovina Santos Neto (piano, flute, melodica), Paula Gardiner (bass), Steve Warren (drums). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Cardiff, 8.6.2019. (GPu)
I was delighted to spend a Saturday evening listening to this beautiful and joyful performance by two fine musicians, Welshman Huw Warren and Brazilian Jovina Santos Neto. Much the greater part of their concert was given by these two alone, but towards its end drummer Steve Warren (Huw’s son I believe) and bassist Paula Gardiner (Head of Jazz at the RWCMD) were summoned from the audience to join them on stage. Sadly, from where I was sitting it was difficult to hear Gardiner’s contributions with any degree of clarity, and beyond some additional colours, I am not sure that bass and drums added a great deal (which is no reflection on the two musicians concerned). Certainly, Warren and Santos Neto had no need of additional rhythmic support.
Born in Wales (and now living back in Wales) Huw Warren has worked in many different musical settings, reflecting his appetite for music of many kinds and a willingness to transcend conventional ‘boundaries’. He was co-founder of the adventurous jazz quartet Perfect Houseplants (the other musicians being sax-player Mark Lockheart, bassist Dudley Philips and drummer Martin France); he has worked extensively with the Brazilian singer Maria Pia De Vito; he has for some years been part of the trio Quercus (with the legendary folk-singer June Tabor and saxophonist Iain Ballamy; he has released two CDs of solo piano; he has recorded an album of Weldh Hymn tunes – Duw Â Ŵyr (‘God Only Knows’) with singer Lleuwen Steffan; he has written a suite – Do Not Go Gentle – based on the poetry of Dylan Thomas of which I reviewed a concert performance (review click here). I believe that Do Not Go Gentle has since been recorded, though the recording does not seem to have appeared as yet. Though, in his own words, a ‘proud Welshman’, Huw Warren is very much a citizen of the world, musically speaking.
At this particular performance Warren was working with the Brazilian multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Jovina Santos Neto; born in Rio de Janeiro in 1954, but based in the USA since 1993, Santos Neto worked with the great Hermeto Pascoal (one of Warren’s musical heroes – see his album Hermeto+) from 1977 to 1992, touring the world with him and recording many albums as an important member of his band. Paul Rauch has written of Santos Neto that ‘through his own music, he celebrates the marriage between the music of his country and jazz, and expresses a love for his homeland illuminated through his ebullient and captivating creative persona’. This concert provided much evidence to support that statement. Everything Santos Neto plays, whatever its narrower emotional content or style, feels like an affirmation of life, creativity and love.
The day of this concert was apparently the first occasion on which Warren and Santos Neto had worked together. Yet, as they explored a range of Brazilian music, by figures such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Pixinghuina, Guina, Egberto Gismonti and Santos Neto himself and others (as well as one tune by Warren) and others, in a variety of genres, including samba and maracuto, the togetherness of Warren and Santos Neto was astonishing, characterized not only by superbly reactive ‘listening’ but also by what seemed an almost telepathic ability to anticipate what the other was about to play. Throughout, the performers’ mutual joy in the discovery of new possibilities and in their shared creativity was communicated unostentatiously to their very responsive audience.
The first number (a composition by Warren) began with Warren at a ‘prepared’ Grand, on which some notes produced a woody percussive sound, while others sounded as Herr Steinway would have wished, with Santos Neto playing a small, simple flute, which I assumed to be of Brazilian folk origin. The resulting sound was utterly enchanting, the music fluid and spontaneous, Santos Neto’s flute melody (improvised?) sounding almost Amazonian in resonance. Santos Neto put down his flute and played his Steinway. As Warren and Santos Neto created their two-piano dialogue, the oneness of purpose and sensibility was immediately apparent, the bluesy phrasing of some of Warren’s playing perfectly complemented by Santos Neto’s decidedly Brazilian rhythms. At one point one pianist ‘led’ and the other ‘accompanied’, before these roles were reversed. At other times there was no leader and no accompanist, the two pianists creating a dialogue of absolute ‘equals’. This first number set the pattern for most of what followed, though the flute of Santos Neto (unfortunately) remained unused thereafter, although he did pick up the melodica for one number.
The mutual dialogue of ‘equals’, in which each player was audibly stimulated by what the other did, made for exhilarating listening. Much of what was created before our eyes and ears was very sophisticated, musically speaking, but it wasn’t the sophistication of which one was most conscious. There was a sense of two ‘learned’ musicians abler, in improvisation, to access a kind of inner innocence. I found myself thinking of Picasso saying ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’. In the music created by Warren and Santos Neto we seemed to be hearing music which, like Picasso’s mature masterpieces, possessed the complexity of learning and experience expressed through an innocence which drew on, but transcended, all that had been learned. Both Warren and Santos Neto have, in musical terms, learned to ‘paint’ like Raphael and then gone on to ‘paint’ like a child.
At one point, Santos Neto compared Brazilian music to a huge river (the Amazon, perhaps) fed by
innumerable tributaries of diverse origins, mixing their own essences with the waters of the flowing river. His metaphor nicely captures, I think why this music is a matter of synthesis rather than mere eclecticism. We may have heard passages reminiscent of Charles Ives or Thelonious Monk, of a Rio Samba band or a Welsh chapel choir, of nineteenth century Romanticism (amongst much else). But this was not ‘clever’ postmodernism – these musics emerged because they are there in the minds of Warren and Santos Neto and inevitably emerge in their playing.
In an essay ‘Hermeto Pascoal, Universal Musician’ (click here) the ethnomusicologist Andrew Connell quotes Pascoal’s assertion ‘There is no Brazilian music. But I am a Brazilian, and what I produce must be the result of my experiences and my fate’ and goes on to comment ‘Hermeto prefers to call what he does “universal” music’. In a 2018 interview with Jakob Baekgaard, published online as ‘Huw Warren: Global Music from a Local Perspective’ (click here) Warren says ‘I’ve been living in Wales for the last 25 years, and I’m sure that one’s immediate environment must have an impact on one’s work. As a proud Welshman, I’m also aware of the cultural responsibility of not just looking “inward” and am very influenced by Hermeto Pascoal’s idea of “Universal” music.’
Call it ‘Universal music’ or ‘Global Music’, this is quite different from the superficialities of fusion music. This, whether played by Pascoal or by Warren and Santos Neto, is music played by musicians who have absorbed and thoroughly interiorized a number of the musical traditions which we all too readily partition off from one another. In the same interview referred to above, Warren is asked ‘Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? Why or why not? … In general, how do you relate to musical traditions?’. He replies ‘Always a tricky question! The simple answer is that it would be great just to be called a musician, as the J word can have positive and negative connotations. A deeper way of looking at it is maybe the idea that, rather than being a style, jazz is more of an attitude? Improvisation and creating a sense of surprise is definitely part of that attitude, but stylistically I feel this can be very open.’
Apart from the joyful pleasure it created in abundance, this concert was a powerful argument for our learning to think and talk purely in terms of ‘music’ and ‘musicians’ rather than jazz or classical music or, indeed, Brazilian music.