At 86, Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal continues to gloriously defy music genres

Bandmate Jovino Santos Neto claims Pascoal would doubtless be a Guinness World Records holder if his oeuvre could be accurately quantified, as he is, even at 86, constantly churning out new works.

SHARE At 86, Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal continues to gloriously defy music genres
André Marques (from left), Fabio Pascoal, Jota Pê, Hermeto Pascoal, Itiberê Zwarg and Ajurinã Zwarg. 

Hermeto Pascoal (center) and his band: André Marques (from left), Fabio Pascoal, Jota Pê, Itiberê Zwarg and Ajurinã Zwarg.

Gabriel Qu

There are musicians and then “meta-musicians” — those beyond professional tropes, who live and breathe what they do, fostering a family of dedicated disciples. This rarified breed includes such “larger than life” personas, occupying distinct self-styled genres, as Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, Lee Perry, George Clinton and Frank Zappa.

Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal might possess something of Zappa’s zaniness, virtuosity, melodic idiosyncrasy and oddball humor but occupies a class entirely his own. Miles Davis recognized that, inviting the diminutive musical Merlin to record several enigmatic ballads on “Live/Evil” (1970), to which Pascoal contributed vocals, whistles, drums and electric piano, sharing the Columbia studio with burgeoning jazz/rock fusion pioneers Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

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Hermeto Pascoal y Grupo
With: Angel Bat Dawid and her band

When: 8 p.m. May 23

Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport St.

Tickets: $32; 17+over

Info: thaliahallchicago.com

Born albino, sensitive to extreme heat in the tobacco plantation region of his native northeastern Brazil, Pascoal wasn’t fit for farming and spent his formative years mastering his father’s “orto baixos,” a small button accordion. Prior to that, boundless curiosity for sound saw him fashion a flute from a pumpkin stem and jam with birds and frogs, delight in the music of splashing water, or the clanging of metal left around by his blacksmith grandfather.

His accordion skills however found him work in Recife and then Sao Paulo, where he connected with Elis Regina and Edu Lobo, among other influential artists, and eventually compatriot percussionist Airto Moreira in the U.S., before he resettled in the Jabour neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

Hankus Netsky, co-chair of Contemporary Musical Arts at the New England Conservatory (where Pascoal received an honorary doctorate in 2017), recently recalled revelations during Pascoal’s storied visit in the late 1980s.

“At one point Jovino Santos Neto (Pascoal’s past bandmember and ongoing archivist/musical translator/conductor/producer) banged two rocks together and said, ‘when someone does that, normal people and most musicians just hear a noise, but Hermeto hears a chord.’ Hermeto went to the piano and played precisely the 10-note chord that duplicated the sound the rocks made!”

Though a savant with acute vision deficiency, (his optical nerves are twisted, rendering him legally blind), Pascoal writes and orchestrates his myriad compositions using meticulous notation, often holding his nose close to the writing surface, be it napkin or brickwork.

“We took him to a Brazilian restaurant,” recalls Netsky, “We noticed he seemed to be scribbling on his placemat. Upon closer examination, he was actually composing. Minutes later, when the attractive waitress came to take our order, through Jovino, he told her that he had no idea what he wanted to eat — but gifted her the placemat, the piece he had composed dedicated to her.”

Santos Neto claims Pascoal would doubtless be a Guinness World Records holder if his oeuvre could be accurately quantified, as he is, even at 86, constantly churning out new works.

In 1996 his “Calendário do som,” a composition for every day of the year, alone yielded 414 pages of music and he’s routinely giving his loyal bandmates — bassist Itibere Zwarg, drummer Ajurinã Zwarg, pianist André Marques and saxophonist/flatuist Jota Pê, plus Fabio, his sixty-year-old son who plays percussion — fresh, complex pieces to shed.

Pascoal has historically played all the saxophones and assorted brass instruments, not to mention a kettle with a trumpet mouthpiece (using a pot lid as a mute). He’s also deployed vintage sewing machines, hubcaps, saws and auto springs, even featured pigs on his key recording “Slaves Mass” (1977). Additionally he performs on guitar, melodica and flute. Extended techniques on the latter recall another blind genius, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, often sidelined as a sideshow act, but Pascoal doesn’t receive music pedantically and has never owned a record player.

“Correlation doesn’t mean causation,” asserts Santos Neto, regarding the maestro’s supposed influences. Elements of folkloric frevo, xaxado and forro mingle with jazz and rock but a listen to the current sextet’s insanely tight, yet wildly frenetic No Mundo dos Sons (‘In the World of Sounds,’ 2017) will convince even the most casual listener: this is music like no other.

“Hermeto’s imagination is like a fountain,” marvels Santos Neto, who will reconnect with the group in Seattle, after the tour encompasses another honorary degree ceremony for their leader at Juilliard in New York City on May 20. “It’ll probably take 50 years — generations! —to fully appreciate Hermeto’s legacy. It’s his gift for the future.”

But, he cautions, “The band is intense; it’s like drinking from a fire hose!”

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