Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Memoriam: Naná Vasconcelos

Pat Metheny Group: Are You Going With Me (live)

As we all know, 2016 seems to have been the worst year ever for high profile losses in the musical world (and the acting world, and the writing world….). Chuck Prophet released a song from his forthcoming album called “Bad Year For Rock and Roll,” and who would disagree? Every year here at SMM, we look at some of those who we lost this year, the famous, the lesser known, and some in between.

In March, Naná Vasconcelos died of lung cancer in Brazil. Vasconcelos was an incredible musician, and although he was a vocalist and performed on a number of different Brazilian instruments, including the berimbau, he became renowned as a percussionist. As a bad drummer myself, I recognize that percussion is often where you stick the bad musicians, and in my days in the Princeton Band, we had a large “trash percussion” section, which was the home for a bunch of people who wanted to be in the band, but who didn’t actually play an instrument. But much like how right field is where you put the bad baseball player in Little League, while in the majors, right fielders are often stars (like, you know, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron), Vasconcelos was an all-star percussionist. (Question—is that metaphor too attenuated?). Vasconcelos played with many great jazz and Brazilian artists, as well as some titans of rock while also releasing a number of albums as a leader.

I first became aware of Vasconcelos when he collaborated with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, and then became a member of the Pat Metheny Group. (I know that this is the third Pat Metheny related post that I have written this year (all since September), but I went a whole bunch of years without writing about him, so just bear with me).

As I have previously mentioned, my strongest memory of Vasconcelos was when he deservedly embarrassed me. In 1981, I got to see the Pat Metheny Group, with Vasconcelos, at Princeton, in venerable Alexander Hall. If I recall correctly, the band was to play two sets, and I arranged to interview Metheny between sets for WPRB. Unfortunately, I couldn’t arrange to get in for free, so I paid for the first show, did my interview, and simply never left, allowing me to see the second set.

I remember seeing Vasconcelos playing a strange instrument that appeared to be a gourd, with a long neck and a metal string, played with a bow (see the picture above). I had no clue what it was, and because the Internet wasn’t invented yet, I couldn’t Google it. After the first show, I went into the bowels of Alexander Hall to interview Metheny, who couldn’t have been nicer, and at some point approached Vasconcelos. With the arrogance and ignorance of youth, I asked him, “What was that thing that you were playing?” He looked at me with disgust, and with disdain in his voice, he replied, “that musical instrument is a berimbau.” I immediately realized that I had insulted him, and probably his culture, with my question, mumbled a response and fled. As you can see here, he was truly a master of the berimbau. And I was an idiot.

The lesson that I learned that day, and which I have tried to follow since, is that if you are unprepared, you will get embarrassed. And while that wasn’t the last time that happened to me (unfortunately), it hasn’t happened all that often.

One of the highlights of that show was their performance of “Are You Going With Me,” a song with a strong samba feel which must have been influenced by Vasconcelos. The song, which is often referred to as a “fusion ballad” builds from a quiet start to an intense climax, and the crew had rigged lights so that Alexander Hall’s stained glass windows gradually lit up as the song built, a relatively subtle and clever way of tying the visuals to the sound.

The version above is from Travels, a live album recorded in 1982 at a number of venues, so it is likely be pretty close to what I heard that night in 1981.