|Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins|
By Antonio Poscic
Coimbra-based guitarist and improviser Marcelo dos Reis first caught our eyes and ears in 2015 when two of his records, Chamber 4 (with Luis Vicente, Theo Ceccaldi, and Valentin Ceccaldi) and Concentric Rinds (with Angélica V. Salvi), topped our annual list of best releases. Two years later, he has become one of the loudest and brightest voices of an explosive and dynamic Portuguese free improv and free jazz scene, producing album after album in tireless fashion, without sign of artistic wear. Whether on acoustic or electric guitar, as a sideman or a leader, his style is unequivocal, shaping Fail Better!, Chamber 4, Pedra Contida, In Layers, Open Field, STAUB Quartet, and others into unique, most excellent projects.
To mark the release of his five new records, we’ll be dedicating this week to his work. And what better way to start things off than with an interview?
If circumstances were better, this would be the point at which I’d describe the wonderful atmosphere at the Piano Negro club in Coimbra, Marcelo and myself sitting opposite to each other, enjoying some fancy imported beers. Instead, because of the distance, conflicting schedules, and the frantic rhythm of modern life, we’re forced to correspond via email. Similar to his music, it’s obvious that dos Reis prefers direct and spontaneous communication, but he easily adapts to the format. His responses flow passionately and earnestly, defying the black on white sparseness of text.
We start by going back, to his roots and inspirations.
What made Marcelo dos Reis the musician he is today?
I started to develop a big interest in music when I was 6 or 7 years old, but my family was not connected with music at all and at that time music education wasn’t included in the primary school. So things in the beginning were a little bit difficult when I was starting to develop my musical capabilities, and also because things started a little bit in the opposite way. For example, I remember that my cousin that was my age had a guitar on the wall, and I used to ask his parents and grandmother if I could play it and their answer was always “no,” so I used to pretend to sing and play a tennis racket, imagining a big crowd—basically what kids dream. Then I started to listen to a lot of music, recording everything I liked on cassette tapes, and soon I started to buy records and believe me, I was like 9 or 10 years old and my parents used to give me some money for me to learn how to manage it, but I was spending it all on records! It took a while until I really started playing, because amongst my friends playing football was what was cool.
Can you think of any defining moments that pushed you from someone who liked music passively into someone who thinks about music creatively and propulsively—a musician?
When I moved to the Lisbon suburbs I finally found my tribe, friends that were much more into sharing records between ourselves, talking about music and playing the first notes, studying in local music schools. When I was almost 15 years old I started my first rock band, and after one year we were already playing live all around Portugal. It was so funny because none of us had a driver’s license, so we were always searching for someone to drive us. I was talking recently with two good friends, Miguel Condeço and Bruno Soares, about that period and I feel we were very lucky we had it that way, because it was so important and inspiring for our development as human beings.
Obviously and expectedly, a connected and nurturing environment inspires creativity in the long-term, regardless of any obstacles. But what was it that propelled you towards free improvisation specifically? Why not some other, more popular genre? I’m sure that most kids want to be rock stars, not contemplative improvisers.
My first musical experiences were rock music, but I always found great pleasure when I was listening to the improvisation and psychedelic parts of the rock bands. I used to have a great naïve pleasure when I was improvising at that time, especially after smoking something, and that led me to learn more about improvisation. I was listening more and more to jazz since I was working in record shops, so I started studying jazz in Lisbon at the same time I was studying voice at the Conservatory. I think the first thing that made me interested in free improvisation was Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their music wasn’t part of the jazz school program, but the studying process at the school was really important for me to understand how theory works and how to use it, and that is still part of my everyday study.
Besides the Art Ensemble of Chicago, were there any other musicians that influenced you early on? I’m guessing that the Jazz ao Centro Clube (or JACC) also had a role in directing you as a musician.
I started to listen to the later work of Coltrane, which led me to Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Bill Dixon among others. I felt they were playing much more outside of the harmonic structures and that was really different from what I was studying, and that was the way of improvising I wanted. Later, I moved to Coimbra and I got involved with JACC and started to meet a lot of musicians from all around the globe. I thought: that's it, this is what I want to do. I feel nowadays we’re very fortunate with all the diversity that exists in the arts and happily we’re able to question it and choose.
Speaking of JACC and the scene(s) in Lisbon and Coimbra, are they at all supported by the local or state government or are you all self-financed and self-organized?
It’s surprising the considerable number of improvisers we have not just in Lisbon, but all around Portugal when you think about the size of our country. Some are really good in my opinion, but the reality is that we have some problems. Since it’s a small country, there aren’t many places to play with proper financial conditions, so you have to be rich or you need to have another job. In my case, I teach music because support for individual artists doesn’t really exist. There is some support, but the government insists on giving the money to bigger associations and corporations, which creates a lot of ignorance amongst the crowd in general, as people only listen to and buy what the media is giving them.
In that sense, did the internet help or hinder the scene? Do you think it perhaps helped you get more exposure?
Since the internet has played a bigger role in opinion-making, I feel like people’s tastes are much more influenced by the mass media nowadays. I think it’s very important to have our “filters” turned on and to have a personal opinion about what is good and what’s not good. There are so many good artists all around, and our efforts as independent artists and small labels and small venues are pushing things forward, but all these small things also make me think about music programmers that keep insisting on programing the same musicians every year in the festivals (here I’m talking about the improvisation and free jazz events). I really love a lot of those musicians, but come on, the programmers have an important role in presenting new things for the listeners, and since there’s such a large number of incredible improvisers around the globe, I feel it’s like a social responsibility to show new things to the audience. But to develop all these questions properly, we would need at least another interview devoted just to this topic!
|Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins|
But enough about finances and media, let’s talk about dos Reis’ interesting collaborations.
You’ve mostly been working with Portuguese musicians, but one of your new releases is a delightful duo with Eve Risser. What led to that encounter? Do you feel that your collaboration with local artists differs in any way from when you work with internationally acclaimed musicians?
Since I started to get involved with the improvised music scene, I’ve been very fortunate to share experiences with musicians from all around the world. The collaboration with Eve happened after Jazz ao Centro Festival in Coimbra asked me to invite a musician to do a concert and to record an album, so I invited her because I identify with her musical approach. After that, we’re very happy with our album and friendship, and hopefully we can play more together—we’ll see what the future will bring us.
Do you have plans for other, similar collaborations?
As I said, I’m constantly collaborating with musicians from everywhere, but in the end that doesn’t really matter because I don’t care at all about nationality, ethnicity, or genre. It’s all about the music, friendship, and human connection. For example, I’ve been having so much fun working with my brother Luís Vicente. We started working together almost 10 years ago, and since then we’ve done tours, we’ve already done five records together, and we still have a lot of things planned for the near future. I believe those things are happening because of mutual respect, friendship, and a sense of space between two persons. This question made me think that we should keep fighting against racism, homophobia, and gender inequality. In the end what makes me really sad is why these things are still a reality in the 21st century. Hopefully we will witness a world without all this ignorance.
|Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins|
With those thoughtful reflections in mind, we move on to a somewhat different topic: dos Reis’ playing style, motivation, and artistic generative processes.
Can you explain the frame of mind and motivation that drives you while playing, whether solo or with others? While listening to your music, I always have a feeling that you adapt your style depending on the setting and musicians around you.
I really like the idea of how I can work my “speech” and "sound palette” into the diverse situations I’m in, because I feel that improvisation will sound different every time you play. I think each human being is unique, but I guess it’s also impossible not to repeat yourself, so it’s always challenging trying not to get tired of listening to yourself. That happens very often with me because it’s definitely not a lightning bolt that comes from the gods and you play, no, it requires a lot of work and dedication. That’s why I try to adapt differently in my different projects: it can be changing from the acoustic to the electric guitar, or the use of the prepared or the unprepared guitar. You try to modulate your material in the interaction with others in a way that gives a unique energy and personality to the music, because it’s all about that moment in that place. So maybe that’s why you’re saying I vary my style, because I think each project I’m involved in needs different things so that it will be a different project. Otherwise, I would be always playing with the same band.
Is that also a way for you to keep things fresh? The constant changes?
Maybe this is what keeps things interesting for me. I preserve the same projects, but take breaks from them, and then after a while everyone returns with different ideas because you learn and develop your way of thinking about the music.
Do you keep track of the recent output of other jazz/improv musicians? Or do you look for inspiration in other genres?
In my case, I listen to so many different things, but specifically I don’t listen to much guitar in improvisation. I prefer to listen more to rock, folk, and ethnic styles than free improvisation, but I try to follow as much as I can of what’s happening in free improvisation. But definitely I want to get more inspiration from artists of other art forms, traveling, friends, family, my dog, and to try to avoid my brain thinking about all the shit in the world that makes me very sad.
|Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins|
Our conversation turns to Marcelo dos Reis the label co-owner.
Cipsela Records is a remarkable young label. While its catalogue might not be the largest with seven releases, it is of the highest quality. How did you envision it?
At first it was an idea José Miguel Pereira and I had to become more independent to release our own work, but since we were organizing the Double Bill concert series and got involved with a huge number of improvisers, the first idea changed and fortunately got much bigger than ourselves.
And where does Joe McPhee’s record Flowers fit in the story?
So in 2009 during the Jazz ao Centro Festival, I worked with Joe McPhee to record his solo performance since it wasn’t supposed to be done, and that was done already with the idea of creating the label. It took six more years until it materialized, and from then lot of things happened and we created our identity, releasing just a few records to give them the deserved attention. We did limited editions of 300 copies, and each release had a very specific image created by Kátia Sá, all with a huge focus on the physicality of the object, since we can’t conceive of the idea of just digital releases. We offer the digital version to our customers after they buy the physical copy.
Can you elaborate on the digital vs. physical conundrum?
We understand the advantages of digital and we use tools from modern technology, but can you imagine a musician or a record label selling a pen after a concert instead of a CD or vinyl?! I think it’s so important to feel the full art and understand the atmosphere and time in which the music was created. I really think people and the industry shouldn’t separate these things, but that’s just our position.
Finally, we briefly touch upon the five excellent records that dos Reis played on and released this year (with STAUB Quartet, Chamber 4, Pedra Contida, in duo with Eve Risser, and solo).
This has been a very productive year for you.
It’s true, I feel very lucky to be involved in a considerable number of things and projects. I’ve been thinking lately about my working process and my development since I started playing, and I think I’m a little bit of a workaholic. But that’s because I really love music. This year I released five records, and I remember when I was 14 or 15 years old that my main goal was to have a record and to play outside of my country. Since then, these things are happening and those objectives have all been surpassed! New challenges are always arising and that makes everything alive.
Do you have any favorites among your recent albums? One of them is also your first solo record, how different was that experience?
I think I really like the ones where I’m playing in group, because I feel all this connection and chemistry in the playing between me and my colleagues. My solo record is a different story, because I think it could have been very different. When I started doing it, I had a very specific idea of how everything would work, but when I finished, I felt most of the material was much more interesting to present live than in a studio setting, so I found myself in a changing process. I think I felt it in a very positive way, because it can be a real turning point in the way you normally feel yourself playing, and that makes you evolve and forget some barriers and show more of yourself. But in the end, I’m so happy that I’m an independent artist. I have all the time in the world to develop my work the way I want, in the path I always dreamed of. So, I’m enjoying songs right now. Maybe the next step will be just songs.