The air was still at The Cistern last night. People languidly made their way to their seats for Brazilian pianist Andre Mehmari’s concert.
My seat five rows back and center stage seemed a bit stuffy for this beautiful outdoor setting and a concert more aural than visual. Besides, I had a bag holding a blanket, a demi-baguette, some charcuterie, olives and artichoke hearts, so I made my way over to the far right side of the stage to claim my plot of grass under the trees. Mine was one of just six blankets.
Mehmari began by playing a very free and airy introduction on the piano. Bass player, Zé Alexandre, and drummer Sérgio Reze, joined in seamlessly as the piece gradually grew more structured and rhythmic. Mehmari kept his head bent low over the keyboard, occasionally swaying it back and forth. Only the slightest raise of his head to nod would cue the band to new sections in the song. And there were many sections to this song. The band deconstructed the song, as subtly as the created it, and Mehmari finished with the same freeness as he began. Just as the last notes were dying away, a distant fireworks display could be heard, almost as if planned. The leaves in the trees overhead were beginning to flutter ever so slightly.
The second song, “Um Anjo Nasce,” while less than two minutes long on his record, started just as sparsely and continued for several minutes. As the piece progressed, hints of Mehmari’s classical composition talents began to elbow their way in. Yet, the improvisational manner of this presentation also showed the trios’ great feel for jazz. The band then went straight into “Suite Clube Da Esquina,” or “The Corner Club.” The first hints of the bands’ Brazilian origin became apparent in the fourth section, called “Cravo e Canela” (“Clove and Cinnamon”). The Latin rhythm and upbeat tempo was nearly enough to get people out of their seats and dancing, but was too brief.
Mehmari then took the mic and introduced the previous three original songs, and his bandmates. He went on to joke that when last playing Spoleto, in 2005, pouring rain forced them indoors for the instruments’ sake. The band loved rain, he explained, as they were from the rainforest.
Next he introduced a new piece, begun by Ernesto Nazareth and completed by Mehmari as part of the sesquicentennial celebration in Brazil of Nazareth’s contribution to music, titled “De Tarde.” This song had a longing, brooding melody. Mehmari’s chromatic harmonization gave the piece even more of a beautiful sadness. Alexandre played a lovely bass solo perfectly befitting the mood. Reze, meanwhile, played very minimally, mostly playing a wash of accents with mallets on his cymbals.
The evening was starting to cool, and the breeze was picking up as the band started into the next song, “Trio For Austin,” written by Mehmari for an engagement in Texas. The bass started this one, with a stuttering, arrhythmic pattern. The band continued through many diverse sections for ten minutes or more. Again, though improvised, the players had an uncanny ability to read each others cues from one section to the next. As they brought the song to a close, I looked around at my fellow blanketeers, many using each other as pillows, or just staring up at the stars through the trees. To see people flat on their backs, clapping, almost seeming to be in prayer, was somehow perfectly fitting and right.
Next, Mehmari said they would play the old Jerome Kern standard, “The Song Is You,” but that they would give it a different feel with the Brazilian Maxixe dance rhythm, and then morph into an original song in the traditional choro form. The themes of both pieces went through a vast array of styles: from freeform jazz to ragtime to a waltz and back again. The crowd showed its’ enthusiasm with many shouts and “woo-hoos.”
Usually Mehmari would play a solo piano piece next, he confided, but he was having too much fun with the band. Instead, he said, they would play a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim featuring Reze on drums. Now, flanking the drummer left and right were two tree like stands with what looked like cast iron skillets hanging from them, which I thought a bit extravagant, as he hadn’t played them once in the show so far. Turns out they were tuned Thai gongs, with which Reze introduced the melody to the song, all the while keeping a complex yet tasteful accompaniment on the rest of the drums. The performance was wholly surreal and familiar all at the same time, to a very pleasing effect.
The Jobim was followed by a suite of improvisations on songs by Nazareth. Again the band ranged in styles and tempos and dynamics fluently and naturally, while not taking away from the intentions of the songs they were honoring.
Mehmari concluded the concert with his own, “Lachramae,” a beautiful ballad offering space for solos from both the piano and bass. The band ebbed and flowed from introspective and calm to passionate and chaotic with ease and grace. As the piece was reaching its highpoint in intensity, I glanced up and noticed the spanish moss swaying wildly on the uplit ghostly branches in perfect time with the band. When the last chord was played, audience members leapt to their feet. Even those around me left their living pillows and their blankets for the ovation.
Jonathan Gray is a musician in Charleston.