Carta de Amor
The boss of Germany’s ECM record label, Manfred Eicher, is given to light-bulb moments. He had one in 1979 when he decided to assemble three great improvising musicians from different corners of the world: Charlie Haden, Egberto Gismonti and Jan Garbarek.
Eicher once told me that he loved to take risks, and the risk here was to bring strangers together from Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro and Oslo and see what happened. In trying to ease them into the right mood he did not discuss music, however, but rather “the surroundings, the light… our memories, our lives,” he recalled. “That is what makes records live, and also makes them stay alive after 30 years.”
What happened was a genre without a name.
Haden was the senior partner, the celebrated American bassist having helped invent free jazz with Ornette Coleman 20 years earlier. From Norway came the stunningly original Garbarek, who played his tenor and soprano saxophones with a sound as wide as a glacier and perfect intonation.
Brazil’s Gismonti, a pianist and acoustic guitarist, had, like Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla among others, studied with Nadia Boulanger, a mentor of Stravinsky’s. His eclectic influences included George Gershwin, Jimi Hendrix and the Xingu indigenous people of his homeland, whose culture he had thoroughly absorbed.
They first assembled in June, 1979, with Gismonti’s Magico lending its name to the first album. When they went on tour after the release of the second, Folk Songs, Magico became, appropriately, an informal name for the trio, itself. Now, three decades on, a live double album has emerged, recorded in Munich in 1981.
Although they concentrate mainly on new compositions (from within the band), these maintain the folk-song simplicity and charm of the previous material. There is also a playfulness and openness at work in the improvising, together with an easy cohesion.
Among the new material is Haden’s gorgeous La Pasionaria, the nickname of Dolores Ibarruri, a hero in the desperate fight against fascism that was the Spanish Civil War. Garbarek takes the lilting melody on soprano, then solos with phenomenal drive and breadth of tone over the rippling guitar and thrumming bass. Haden is subdued in the mix, but his playing is supreme in its beauty, conviction, invention and instinct.
Gismonti is the elfin spirit in the room. Even his guitars are unusual, one having 10 strings and the other 12, but set up as an eight-string instrument with the four top strings doubled. He plays them with techniques of his own devising, too, and often the effect is akin to a harp or kora, while having an unmistakably Brazilian rhythmic litheness. His ability to also bring a concert pianist’s facility to bear on the music makes him as potent a force as his mighty colleagues. A perfect triangle, in effect. Magico!