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Monday, July 5, 2021

Some more magic from Portugal - Vicente and Dos Reis galore

 By Stef Gijssels

It may be a little much for one review, yet we have to follow the prolific output of some of Europe's strongest talents: Luis Vicente and Marcelo Dos Reis. In ideal circumstances we can review each album separately, but of course many other albums have been released recently, so we thought it best to combine. 

Both musicians managed to create a distinct sound in improvised music: hypnotic, intense and lyrical. The backbone is often the unique approach to guitar by Dos Reis, who - preferably acoustic, but also electric - uses his instrument more as percussive tool than a harmonic one. Playing single chords with relentless insistency generates a trance-inducing atmosphere over which the other musicians improvise. Vicente is a stellar artist too, not only by his trumpet technique, but even more by the sound of his instrument and his natural sense of lyricism and emotional depth. Their combined sound has a unique voice, and even if they find themselves in a variety of different line-ups - and even without each other - their signature sound is there to enjoy. 

In Layers - Pliable (FMR, 2020) ****½

After "In Layers" from 2016, This is the sophomore album by the quartet consisting of Marcelo Dos Reis on guitar, Luis Vicente on trumpet, Onno Govaert on drums and Kristjan Martinsson on piano. The album was recorded live on May 17th, 2018 at Salão Brazil in Coimbra. 

Its sound is constantly switching between the gentle and the abrasive, between flow and counter rhythms, between traditional aesthetic concepts and adventure. 

The six tracks are titled to illustrate the flexibility of their approach and care called "Supple", "Malleable", "The Whippy", "Elastic", "Ductile" and "Pliant". The interaction with Govaert and Martinsson is absolutely stellar. The former is a very intense drummer, and without needing to develop the pulse of the improvisations, he can content himself by adding emphasis or subtle contrasts, while Martinsson adds a freshness to the music by minimal runs on his keyboard or by taking over the hypnotic rhythms. He opens the strong "The Whippy", with very short phrases, full of surprise and intensity, generating a similar response from the other band members, resulting in an impromptu dance of piano, guitar and drums. Halfway the track Vicente joins with slow and moving trumpet sounds contrasting with the ever continuing and intensifying sharp cracking sounds of the rhythm section. 

Despite this, the music remains quite airy, with low density. Vicente's playing is strong, building his sound so carefully, using microtonal timbral shifts and changes of pitch, resulting in melancholy moans, quiet whimpers, bird chatter, angry shouts or jubilant singing. Just listen to his stretched phrases on "Supple" (on the video below) or his rhythmic repetitive patterns on "Ductile". Dos Reis again demonstrates that an acoustic guitar can do more than is generally expected, and possibly because he takes away all the normal roles of a guitar: there are no solos - with the rare exception of a dissonant very unconventional multi-string solo on "Malleable" - or harmonic progression, but he uses a whole array of extended techniques. One of the highlights are his slowly ascending guitar chords on "Elastic", interspersed by heavy rumbling of the drums, pushing both Vicente and Martinsson to a crescendo. 

I think I must have listened more than fifty times to this album over the last months. It keeps surprising me. I hope it will do the same for you. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

João Valinho, Luís Vicente, Marcelo dos Reis, Salvoandrea Lucifora - Light Machina (Multikulti Project, 2021) ****½

A new ensemble creates new perspectives on the common approach. It's not clear who leads the dance for the entire album, but the tone is set by Italian trombonist Salvoandrea Lucifora, who opens the album with the plaintive "Machina Girl", by a stunning show of surprise evolving into sad repetitive phrases. Marcelo Dos Reis' electric guitar offers a drone-like background with Joã Valinho's sparse percussive effects creating a gloomy atmosphere. Vicente joins and his sounds echo the slow trombone. Both horns lean on each other, embracing like soul brothers mourning a deep loss. The almost ten minute long piece is slow, deep and moving. Then suddenly dos Reis plays guitar chords, subtle, fresh, opening up the piece to Vicente's trumpet again, increasing the intensity and expansiveness of the piece, supported by Valinho's arhythmic rumbling on the drums. 

On "Saving Pigs", short organic noise bytes interact, like pigs aimlessly wandering around in their pen. Lucifora slowly grows music out of this, by lengthening his phrases and adding melody, but it's Vicente who comes up with a beautiful lyrical phrase, melancholy and pure, changing the dialogue with the trombone. In the meantime, the guitar and the drums keep stubbornly doing anything but conventional things, wayward and obstinate, adding raw and disruptive sounds forcing the trombone into a paroxysm of anxiety near the middle of the piece, full of agony  ... until almost silence, lightly disturbed by voiceless stutters of the trumpet, rhythmic strumming of the same non-chord on the guitar, drums rumbling, and both horns picking up their slow moaning again. 

"The RainGoat" starts with a funny interaction of short rhythmic bursts by trombone and trumpet, a dialogue of friends, echoing each other and taking the conversation into a different direction, all parlando style. After two minutes the drums start adding intensity, and Vicente starts building up snippets of phrases that will evolve during the improvisation into a theme. There is - believe it or not - even a guitar solo by Dos Reis, raw and angular, as an invitation for both horns to play a warm unison theme, totally unexpected but welcoming before moving the piece back into ferocious space for the intense finale. 

The recipe of Vicente and Dos Reis works well with both Lucifora and Valinho. Lucifora is a wonderful trombone player and it's a shame he is not better known. The interaction of both horns on this album, each with its own timbre and sonic possibilities is stellar, and Lucifora's emotional quality on the trombone also finds a good match with Vicente. Valinho is known from his work with Ernesto Rodrigues on the Creative Sources label. 

All four musicians manage to challenge the conventional approach to ensemble playing without alienating their audience. Its raw ferocity is balanced by its gentle sensitivity. Their music is compelling, infectious and intense throughout. 

The performance was recorded live on March 1, 2020 at Salão Brazil in Coimbra, Portugal. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Luis Vicente Trio - Chanting In The Name Of (Clean Feed, 2021) ****½

The most recent addition to the list is the Luis Vicente Trio, with Gonçalo Almeida on double bass and Pedro Melo Alves on drums. 

The liner notes are by Hamid Drake, explaining some of the titles "Music is much more than an entertaining pastime. It is, in fact, the underlying code of the whole universe", quoting the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927). "Music has the potential to give scope, meaning and lightness to our often times congested lives. It can open new portals of our creative imagination and stretch in ways that we never though possible (...) The music echoes of hope, compassion, beauty and understanding that the human spirit cries out for not only in the times we are now living in, but at all times."

The album is stellar. Vicente's compositions are losely structured around core themes, often beautiful meandering lines, allowing the trio to expand and improvise. The album starts with the gentle 'Anahata',  with plucked bass, a wonderful intro for the theme, and evolves into a peak of high intensity, a challenge and a physical effort for bass and drums to keep up with the soaring trumpet. "Keep Looking" is more exploratory, an open invitation to welcome more organic sounds, and the knowledge that the search itself is important, the open attitude of ears and eyes and minds. Vicente integrates subtle rhythmic and tempo changes, culminating in a repetitive theme on the trumpet that gradually and deliberately dissolves into chaos. 

The centerpiece of the album is also the title song, with a fascinating intro of dissonant bowed bass and lyrical, solemn and spiritual trumpet. It is a chant indeed, a bluesy incantation full of melancholy and hope, full of gentleness and decisiveness, gradually guiding the bass into the same spirit, as it does with Melo Alves' percussion. It is a piece that resonates and will continue to resonate long after you've finished listening. Vicente opens all registers, shifting between intensity and the ethereal, without disrupting the coherence of his sound. It is also clear why Vicente asked Gonçalo Almeida and Pedro Melo Alves for this trio: both musicians have ideas and sufficient character to take the music to a higher level. 

"Connecting The Dots" starts with a more angular and jazzy theme, nervous and agitated, a wonderful playground for the rhythm section. The trumpet oscillates between clarity and ferocious shouts. 

The final piece, "May's Flavour", is another quiet and spiritual incantation, in which the initial gentle theme gets deconstructed, modified only to reappear again in its full beauty at the end. 

Vicente's art, like on so many other albums, gets its magic from its inclusive approach, with elegant themes inviting the listeners in, connecting aesthetically and emotionally, and then taking them forward to more exploratory places, increasing the depth of the music and its unversal trancendence, showing them places of unheard beauty, out of their comfort zone, while at the same time keeping a level of humble authenticity and musical honesty. Even if the result is not boundary-shifting musically, the quality of the music is possibly among the best you will hear this year.  

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Listen on Youtube

Marta Warelis, Carlos  Zíngaro, Helena Espvall & Marcelo dos Reis - Turquoise Dream (JACC, 2021) ****½

On "Turquoise Dream", we find Marcelo Dos Reis and his acoustic guitar in a string ensemble, with Marta Warelis on piano, Carlos Zingaro on violin and Helena Espvall on cello and effects. Their approach is minimalistic, with little sonic bits creating shimmering and fragile soundscapes, gently and cautiously. There is no real soloing taking place, nor harmonic or rhythmic development, and that allows the musicians to focus on active listening and tight interaction, and free sonic creativity. The result is as fresh as it is fascinating. The five pieces each have their own character, ranging between nervous interplay and quiet intensity. 

The real discovery in this ensemble is Marta Warelis, who graduated with honours in her native Poland before moving to the Netherlands to attend the Prins Claus Conservatory. She has become an active member of the Amsterdam free improv scene, playing in a dozen ensembles and with now seven albums released. She manages to nicely balance hypnotic runs on the keys with unexpected sounds from the inside of the piano. Swedish cellist Helena Espvall has credits on more than 100 albums, and her career has fluctuated between the genres of rock, folk and the avant-garde. We probably now her best from her collaborations with the Portuguese Creative Sources ecosystem. Carlos Zingaro no longer needs to be introduced, apart from the fact that he manages to keep his playing and improvising young and new. 

Regardless of their backgrounds, age differences ... or maybe because of this diversity, the music moves as one. The respectful co-creation of the music results in fascinating moments, mesmerising and compelling. And like with the other music of Dos Reis, the combination of repetitive elements and completely free notes works. It would be hard to speak of real rhythms, but rather of pulse, a forward-moving dynamic that captures the listener physically, and that offers a backbone for the other musicians to join or escape into wilder territory, knowing they can return to the base. 

This results in gradual movements, minor shifts and changes, lightly touching on the possibility of forms and patterns to be created, but still withdrawing into abstract shapes and colours, and back, in line with the dreamstate suggested by the album's title. The canvas they create is intense, full of fantasy, kaleidoscopic, unpredictable and smart. The result is music that you can listen to endlessly without tiring of it. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Fail Better! - The Fall (JACC, 2021) ****

This the third album by the ensemble, but now with Marco Franco on drums and Albert Cirera on saxophone. José Miguel Pereira remains on double bass next to Vicente and Dos Reis. 

Of all the albums reviewed here, this one is without a doubt the most ferocious and raw. It starts with electric guitar and drums, allowing for wild entries for bass and horns. Dos Reis quickly resorts to a manic rhythm on his guitar, allowing the normal rhythm section to join in the mayhem of the lead instruments. 

The second track, "Rise Up" is built around a sax vamp by Cirera and does diminish the dense and intense interaction. It's only on the long "Falling Stars" that we get some time to breathe, as the density is significantly lowered, allowing the musicians to create a slowly developing soundscape of interacting sonic bits, first loosely, then coalescing in a more rhythmic pattern. It is equally raw and unpredictable, strange and compelling at the same time. 

"Skyfall" starts with a relatively fast rhythm on acoustic guitar, supported by drums and bass, and with both horns playing slow entwining phrases, both with an incredibly strong wailing component to them. It is an impressive piece of being emotionally crushed. The album ends with an organic piece, initiated by Cirera, evolving into intense utter chaos, slowing down halfway, and allowing the guitar to bring a sense of pulse into the improvisation, subduing the horns and rhythm section. It ends with human frailty and sensitivity. 

As mentioned earlier on this blog, the band's name comes from surrealist author Samuel's Becket short piece of prose: Worstward Ho!

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”

This short extract encapsulates the physicality, rhythmic pulse and the open-ended risk of the music. It is not a very positive message. 

This will not be for everyone's ears, but keep listening, and repeatedly. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

João Madeira, Mário Rua & Luís Vicente - Trio (Self, 2021) ****

This trio with João Madeira on bass, Mario Rua on drums and Luis Vicente on trumpet was recorded in December 2020. Madeira has released a few albums in the last years with George Haslam, Ernesto Rodrigues and Hernani Faustino. Mario Rua too released two albums with George Haslam. 

The trio offers us four tracks of improvised music. Even if Vicente's familiar trumpet is the lead instrument, the music is really a collective achievement. The first track is called "Amor Supremo", a nice wink to John Coltrane. The third track, "Grão" (grain) is more adventurous, starting with voiceless trumpet, bowed bass and single percussive beats, slowly creating a combined growth of the sound, picking up a voice and rhythm as it expands, drone-like, intense, with stuttering trumpet sounds, manic bass and raw percussion. The long last track is called "Desassossego" (restlessness), as its title suggest, it is nervous, built with granular bits of sound, little sharp beats and bass plucks, over which the trumpet weaves sustained notes in strong contrast with the rhythm section, but the free improv sound gradually shifts into more free jazz territory, with stronger pulse and a more collective approach with the exception of a drums solo in the middle part. 

There is lots to enjoy on this album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp