One of the more unusual ECM releases of the time, and a welcome re-issue serving as timely reminder of just how unique a musician Naná Vasconcelos was…

ECM 1147 / 450 5341 (Vinyl)

Naná Vasconcelos (berimbau, percussion, voice, gongs); Egberto Gismonti (super 8 string guitar on Cego Aderaldo)

Members of Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, conducted by Mladen Gutesha

Recorded March 1979

One of the first releases in the Luminessence series in ECM’s new audiophile vinyl-reissue programme, Saudades make a welcome appearance as one Vasconcelos’s early albums for the label and stands as an important document in the career of this unique artist.

The percussionist and berimbau master’s only other recording for ECM until this point was the excellent Dança das Cabeças under the leadership of Egberto Gismonti. In a startling and intriguing series of duets, guitar and percussion made a wonderous music combing traditional Brazilian music with contemporary music along with the ancient, and this path was one that Vascancelos would follow throughout his career.

If Dança das Cabeças served to bring the attention of these two fine musicians to a wider audience, then Saudades marking Vasconcelos’s leadership debut for ECM took the music a massive leap forward. Harbouring a long-held dream to feature his beloved berimbau with a full orchestra he set about realising his dream assisted by Gismonti.

During their travels together, the percussionist would sing his ideas to Gismonti who would in turn hastily notate them in the moment. He would then take his notes away to compose the basis of the orchestral score which he would then sing back to Vasconcelos prior to arranging for the orchestra.

Listening to the album with Vasconcelos and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart it is phenomenal to imagine how Gismonti managed to compose such glorious scores in such a manner, but the music speaks for itself and does so standing the test of time.

That is perhaps the beauty of Naná Vasconcelos and his music. His playing is timeless and almost beyond time. When listening to him playing the berimbau or any of his assortment of percussion instruments it feels as if time itself is suspended, and you are one with the music.

Having established his musical vocabulary early on in his career, he was remarkably adept at being able to play with almost anyone and it making it sound as if he had always been there so seamlessly would he fit into the context in which he was invited to play.

And so it is when listening to this album. The long opening piece ‘O Beimbau’ is all that Vasconcelos envisaged for the instrument, and Gismonti’s arrangements for the orchestra work superbly with the percussionist’s virtuoso performance.

Opening with solo berimbau, Vanconcelos establishes the rhythmic and melodic feel for the music with never a dull moment. The berimbau in his hands becomes a versatile and expressive instrument with his constant manipulation of the pitch of the single string and use of the caxixi, the small rattle that is held in the hand.

When the symphony orchestra enters the moment seems just right as the lush orchestration plays Gismonti’s melodies around the berimbau. Vansconcelos also uses vocal effects to further colour the ensemble, and the unlikely pairing of traditional percussion instrument and orchestra comes together as unified whole.

Other pieces feature Vasconcelos with the other percussion instruments with which he established his remarkable vocabulary. ‘Vozes (Saudades) incorporates overdubbed vocal choir from Naná with orchestra, and ‘Ondas (Na óhlos de Petronila)’ an extended percussion introduction featuring congas, gong and talking drum and other assorted percussion instruments in addition to vocals before one gradually becomes aware of the lower register strings of the symphony orchestra providing an underlying accompaniment.

Egberto Gismonti steps out from his arranger’s role to pick up the guitar in a lovely duet with Vascancelos for ‘Cego Aderaldo’, a dancing melodic piece that the guitarist had recorded a few years earlier on the Folk Songs album with Jan Garbarek and Charlie Haden.

In this duo reading Gismont’s fleet fingered melody lines are gently accentuated and enhanced by Vansoncelos’s delicate percussion.

This one-of-a-kind album closes fittingly with ‘Dado’, a solo piece for berimbau, however not with the percussionist’s familiar instrument but with a two string berimbau that was presented to Vasconcelos only hours before the recording sessions.

Working on how to tune the two strings and some diligent practice with unfamiliar instrument, Vasconcelos’s mastery shines through in a solo that is packed with subtle detail and nuance.

One of the more unusual ECM releases of the time, and a welcome re-issue serving as timely reminder of just how unique a musician Naná Vasconcelos was, and how much he is missed.

Reviewed by Nick Lea