Brazil’s Mehmari adept at classical, jazz

Andre Mehmari

Andre Mehmari is one of those rare musicians equally comfortable in classical and jazz idioms. A prolific composer, he is just as adept at writing down notes in a score as he is pulling them from his imagination on the fly.

His fingers, well trained to navigate the piano keyboard, can do just about anything. Want speed? Power? Elegance? Lyricism? Experimentation? This guy does it all.

Mehmari is a young Brazilian whose musical gifts often are compared to Keith Jarrett. That’s because his imagination is equal to his technique, and his versatility makes him both a great solo performer and a great bandmate.

In the Cistern Yard tonight, he will be joined by Ze Alexandre on double bass and Sergio Reze on drums. The trio is sure to set the place on fire.

Q: You are among a rarefied community of musicians comfortable and accomplished in more than one genre and in multiple performance settings. Sometimes you play alone, sometimes in a band. Sometimes you are a member of someone else’s band, sometimes you are the leader. Sometimes you improvise, sometimes you compose and write down all the notes. What were your formative influences growing up? How did you develop into the kind of musician you are today?

A: When I was a little child, I used to listen to my mother play a great variety of styles and instruments at home. So I had all this diversity coming from my mom, nothing could sound more natural to a child’s ear!

She used to play Chopin, Jobim and Nazareth sitting on the very same piano bench. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do today: to blend all the different (but connected) music I love in a single gesture.

Q: Who are the musicians active in the world who you particularly admire?

A: So many ... Egberto Gismonti, Bobby McFerrin, Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Diego Schissi to name a few.

Q: Your country has developed a vibrant jazz scene over the years. Talk a little about jazz in Brazil, especially Sao Paulo, and the musicians on its leading edge.

A: We call it Brazilian Instrumental Music, this sort of Brazilian jazz. It’s an important tradition here, heavily influenced by the remarkable rich (melodically and harmonically speaking) songwriting school found here.

Q: Do you have a work routine, a composition schedule? How do you balance your career and your other interests?

A: I have to. I receive many commissions from orchestras, chamber groups and instrumentalists. At the same time, I travel quite often to play with several different groups and also piano solo. I prefer to write music at home but sometimes I have to make myself comfortable in a hotel room as well.

Q: Describe the differences between writing classical music for, say, an orchestra, and writing popular or jazz music for a small ensemble. By differences, I’m referring to the way you think about the music, the approach you take as a composer and performer.

A: When I write something that I’m going to perform myself, I write quite differently from when I write for strictly “classical” musicians who do not improvise. I like to re-create music in real time, so every concert gives me an opportunity to rework the flexible material I planned carefully in the process of composing. When writing for such large ensembles, my pen gets very, very detailed and precise, and the opposite occurs when writing for myself. I leave plenty of space reserved for improvisation and variation techniques.

Q: What has been your most disastrous musical experience? And what was your most thrilling?

A: In the first case, I could say it was my debut as a conductor. I had my first and last experience conducting my double bass concerto when I was only 23. That same night I decided it was not for me, for I didn’t have enough political skills to deal with such strong “forces.” Happily, in the second case, I can remember so many special moments ... such as my recent sold-out piano solo concert at the amazing Sala Sao Paulo. Or the Heliopolis Orchestra playing my “City of Sun” at the Beethoven Festival in Bonn, Germany. Or recording duets with my beloved musician friends. Also, my 2005 Spoleto USA concert, which was my U.S. debut, was really, really an unforgettable experience.