The Post and Courier
Pianist plays from heart
by: Adam Parker
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Brazil native blends folk influence with energy of jazz

Heloísa Fernandes
Heloisa Fernandes, hunched over a piano keyboard and concentrating on her playing, mesmerized audiences at Spoleto Festival USA, where she made her U.S. debut in 2008.

Fernandes, a classically trained piano prodigy from Sao Paolo, Brazil who is making her reputation as an innovative interpreter of her country's folk music, recently released her second CD, "Candeias." Managed by Michael Grofsorean, producer of Spoleto's Wachovia Jazz Series, Fernandes evokes old Brazil while simultaneously creating a new, shimmering, lyrical and textured sound that contains something of Brazil's soul and much of the pianist's heart.

At the root of "Candeias" is the anthropological work of Mario de Andrade, who led an expedition in 1938 to document the music of Brazil's indigenous tribes and its communities of African origin. Fernandes, assisted by bass player Zeca Assumpcao and percussionist Ari Colares, begins with these folk songs, adding structure, rich layers of musical texture, fantastic moments of improvisation and jazz's grand sense of possibility.

Perhaps more than anyone else in a country whose popular music is often made with the voice, percussion, guitar and flute, Fernandes is offering the piano as a lead instrument. She made an impression with her first release, "Fruto." With playing so lavish and heartfelt, blending ideas with mood, it is difficult not to take notice.

Q&A with Heloisa Fernandes
A conversation between Heloisa Fernandes and Post and Courier
writer Adam Parker

Q: I understand much of the inspiration for "Candeias" comes from a song book of Brazilian folk music. Can you describe the way in which you assimilated and transformed the original music? Did you use certain melodies or rhythmic patterns as a building block or basis for improvisation? Did you embed the old tunes into your own texture? How might the unpracticed listener detect the source material?

A: Brazilian culture is rich, sensitive, affectionate, religious and honest. The research material was the source of my creation. Its assimilation started in my childhood, when I learned many popular Brazilian themes at home or with children at school. This experience is valuable for anyone and is part of a collective unconscious. Later, as an adult, the process of assimilation changed to one of research into Brazilian popular themes recorded between 1936 and 1938 by Mario de Andrade and his colleagues. At the Oneyda Alvarenga Historic Archive at Sao Paulo Cultural Center, I spent months researching photos, videos and recordings. I heard all the folk material recorded in 1938 -- a total of 33 hours of music recorded in various regions of Brazil. I made many rhythmic and melodic transcriptions of the material, taking notes of everything in a notebook, especially my feelings, sensations and impressions. My challenge was to hear "through" the music. The music that I love and learned to know better with this research took me back in time, making me recognize the transformations it has passed through over the years. The emotions and vibrations belong to the popular themes in a pure form, without interference.

After these months of study and immersion in the material, I began to compose freely. My goal was to let all that I had studied -- all that had been absorbed into my unconscious mind and heart, all that had mingled with my existing musical knowledge and experience -- come to the surface as new music that expressed things that I feel most deeply. These new songs reflected some general rhythmic and melodic characteristics of the source material, as well as a few melodic and rhythmic fragments that refer directly to the national melodies that echoed inside me, but they were created without being literally or directly linked to this or that particular popular melody. They are creations that resulted from research and emotional involvement, from being inspired to create something new.

Q: The music is richly colored and textured, an eloquent expression of mood and ideas. The songs are reminiscent of French impressionism or the jazz of Keith Jarrett and deftly combine "composed" musical ideas with improvised passages. What is your approach? It is difficult to discern when precisely you abandon the written notes for controlled flights of fancy, and this adds to the evocative and expressive nature of the music. What goes through your mind when you are playing?

A: I have many influences in music. The impressionism of Debussy, as well as Bach and Keith Jarrett, have the same space in my soul.

Composition and improvisation are two languages that make the other complete. It's fascinating to play what was written by the composer. They were improvisers before being composers. I like to practice playing styles of distinct composers. I also like to mix the written and improvised universes in such a way that the transitions from the written to the improvised seems imperceptible.

I like structures in my music -- almost everything is written, sometimes with spaces for improvisation that are built in with determined harmony, rhythm or dynamic structures. The moments of improvisation need to contrast with an aesthetic structure that needs colors, textures, dynamics and fluidity. Improvisation always gives our ear something new, fresh and intense -- improvisation is the music that is being creating at that exact moment. This is very important. The group interaction can motivate the breach of certain structures, changing the direction of what was thought before, bringing surprising moments to the musicians. Improvisation can have a magical effect of transformation.

I try to bring my emotions out while I am playing. Nothing, absolutely nothing, goes through my mind!

Q: Your technique suggests many years of classical training, and your musicality indicates a strong love for many styles of music, not least the music of Brazil. Tell me a little about your musical background, tastes and inspirations. Do you play other styles of music?

A: I love many styles of music and have had many years of classical training. My mom was responsible for my passion for music since I was a child. All my dolls were easily "replaced" by the piano when I was 4 and asked her to teach me. She showed me that everything could be expressed and transformed in music. Since the very beginning, I had the feeling that I was free and that my happiness was to play the piano. I studied with Paulo Gori and Gilberto Tinetti, to whom I owe my classical training. Further, my studies of composition and conducting helped expand my musical understanding, and I have been composing and arranging professionally since then.

I love Bach, Egberto Gismonti, Keith Jarrett, Bartok, Scriabin, Debussy, Villa-Lobos and every single melody which led me in the way of expression. I like to play the compositions that inspire me most, and I am always looking for new contemporary composers. I believe in the music that touches my soul.

Q: Piano isn't a very common lead instrument in Brazilian popular music. What about the piano has drawn you to it? To what extent are you trying to make the piano a "Brazilian" instrument? What is its potential for expressing the ideas and styles of Brazilian music? Are there other young Brazilian musicians who have embraced the piano?

A: I feel it is important to translate my own expression and musical intentions to the instrument I play. I am very comfortable with the piano and keep looking for sounds that can translate emotion and intensity most deeply. The piano is a percussion instrument and "sings" a lot, too! So it is also very comfortable to play percussive and at the same time find the poetry of Brazilian popular melodies. It's all very natural. I think the strength of expression depends on how the composer develops each song and how he uses the sounds that he imagines considering the nature of each instrument.

There are musicians who have embraced the piano as a Brazilian instrument other than Egberto Gismonti: for example, Laercio de Freitas with "choro" and Amilton Godoy with "samba" and "baiao."

Q: The ensemble work on "Candeias" is subtle and extraordinary. The musicians are so exposed, yet so sensitive to one another. I know your collaborators are experienced and talented, but was this format a particular challenge for all of you?

A: Yes. It was a challenge because we looked for a new sonority all the time, with balance, softness and textures without letting go of Brazilian characteristics.

While I was directing the rehearsals and the recording, I tried to balance the piano and the percussion with dynamics in a way that both could complement each other rhythmically, and sound as one.

The bass found its place to "sing" the melodies in a lyrical way, which is one of the most important characteristics of Zeca's playing. His counterpoint and creativity were perfect and gave us the sensation that every note he played was there for a very special reason. Less was more, and this was one of our desires in this recording. It was an extraordinary experience, and I am very grateful to Zeca and Ari, these wonderful musicians, who helped me build this music.

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