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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Daniel Bernardes & Drumming GP - Liturgy of the Birds: In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen (Clean Feed, 2020) ****

By Stuart Broomer

There are few 20th century composers who possess as much relevance for the present as Olivier Messiaen, whether as an early user of electronic instruments, a regular public improviser, a musician who went to great lengths to incorporate bird calls in his works or as someone who composed, rehearsed and performed a modernist masterpiece as an inmate of a concentration camp. His spiritual vision reached outward as well as inward, creating a musical language that extended and combined scales and rhythms from a global storehouse. If Messiaen’s musical language was unique, it was because it invented, compounded and synthesized so many elements.

Just the birds, the improvisation, the adaptation of the Ondes Martinot and the concentration camp might conspire to make him a figure of contemporary relevance. Stanley Crouch thought it was worth attacking Cecil Taylor for being influenced by him, while other improvisers have openly paid tribute. There’s the fine Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen (Boxholder, 2001) by Keith Yaun’s quartet, subtle, free explorations of some Messiaen chamber works with fellow guitarist Bern Nix, Mat Maneri (on baritone violin [a violin or viola with strings thick enough to get it to the cello range]) and drummer Johnny McLellan, a CD (and leader) that deserves to be far better known. More recently there’s Steve Swell’s Music for Six Musicians: Hommage à Olivier Messiaen (Silkheart, 2017), a better-known recording that includes saxophonist Rob Brown and violinist Jason Kao Hwang in music inspired by Messiaen.

Portuguese pianist/composer Daniel Bernardes’ group here combines his own trio, with bassist António Augusto Aguiar and drummer Mário Costa, with the ensemble Drumming GP, a quartet with leader Miquel Bernat on marimba and percussion; Jeff Davis as vibraphone soloist and percussion; João Dias on glockenspiel and percussion; and Pedro Góis on vibraphone and percussion. The sonic richness of the music is a joint reflection of Bernardes, Aguiar and Costa’s warm, spare lyricism and the flashing brilliance of the struck metal and wood figures of Drumming GP, Aguiar and Davis particularly coming to the fore as soloists.

Bernardes’ approach to Messiaen is more conservative than either Keith Yaun or Steve Swell’s, the pianist’s compositions structurally organized and integrating elements of Messiaen’s tonal and rhythmic language into a formal approach to modern jazz. If Yaun and Swell approached Messiaen from a post-Taylor perspective, Bernardes’ Messiaen expands on third stream approaches originating in the 1950s, think Bill Evans’ Scriabin, even Harry Partch’s recently recorded piece for Chet Baker, or a host of explorers as divergent as George Russell and Dave Brubeck. My own previous experience of the adroit Porto-based Drumming GP was a tribute to Max Roach’s percussion ensemble M’Boom, heard at Jazz em Agosto in 2013.

The opening “19” is an episodic work with multiple tempo shifts, luminous from its beginning, with bowed long tones from one of the vibraphones that give way to percussive ostinatos. It’s the shimmering resonance of the instruments that colours this music most strongly, conditioning the hard-edged precision of the trio’s theme statement. “Bolero” takes a slow ruminative melody through a tropical forest of sound, sudden swirling glockenspiel, woody marimba, and bright hanging metal reverberant in the air. At times melody proceeds under the bright wash of cymbals. In the solos Davis and Bernardes are prominent, the former emerging from the percussion ensemble as a significant individual

and a link between the two groups. It’s beautiful, but in a way that struggles with prettiness, resembling such John Zorn projects as The Dreamers and Electric Masada and creating relationships between Messiaen, Martin Denny and Cal Tjader. Evidently Messiaen can be related to all sorts of things that hadn’t occurred to me before.

Contrasts between fast and slow segments abound: on “Globular Clusters,” a complex, rapid-fire theme gives way to lyrically liquid improvisations from Aguiar and Bernardes. “Sobre Kieslowski I” may be the most delightful of Bernardes’ themes, an exotic dance of fleet, bright keyboards (piano, marimba, glockenspiel) with an underlying hint of Balinese pentatonics set against a slow fundamental tempo. It evolves through another beautiful interlude provided by Aguiar, accompanied by isolated notes of cymbal, marimba, vibraphone and other percussion, eventually becoming the trio’s most achieved collective moment. “Ostinato, Interlúdio e Canção V” is a sequence of movements recapitulating many of the moods and dimensions here, with Bernardes touching on both his balladic gifts and some driving two-handed rhythmic counterpoint to bring this fascinating program to a close.