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Leo Blanco: Pianoforte

When Leo Blanco planned a trip to his home town, Mérida in Andean Venezuela, to record this album in July 2011, his main priority was finding a good piano that would showcase his musicianship and justify making a solo recording. He found the ideal instrument in Teatro Cesar Rengifo near the town centre.  It was only as he played through some ideas on the ‘dry run’ without an audience on the first of two nights’ recording that Blanco realised that he’d forgotten to take something into account.

Teatro Cesar Rengifo is housed in a building that was founded in 1785 as a seminary and although the seminary itself was later relocated, its belfry remained in situ and still records the time of day. As the listener will hear, at 2.10 on Improv #2, the bells announced their presence. Blanco’s improvising style is a form of storytelling and the bells’ intrusion causes him to make a sudden change to the narrative he had established to allow the intruders to have their say before he continues playing.

At this point Blanco knew that the bells were going to be an important part of this recording and on the second night, after the audience had left, he returned with his sound engineer to the theatre to catch the sound of midnight tolling and record the moment with added piano improvisation for Haiku for Piano and Church Bells (12am), the final track here.

The idea of recording in private and in public on the nights of July 28 and 29 was, on the first night, to allow more time and freedom to experiment with microphone placement and, on the second night, to involve the audience. So there are some tracks with audience applause and some without and some tracks with extraneous noises from cameras, floorboards, piano pedals, Blanco’s occasional humming along, and of course, the bells.

For Blanco, these noises are a welcome part of the music. Instead of trying to eliminate them with audio processing, the idea is that the listener feels located at that time and place as Blanco does when he listens back to it now: he had no set ideas on repertoire and each piece was either completely improvised or was a new take on one of his compositions with an improvised introduction.

As you’ll hear on Bells Improvisation 3, he responds to his uninvited musical guests with superb imagination and out of the deeply resonant left-hand chord and delicate bell-like treble notes he conjures a dramatic melody with a rhapsodic development that leads to a kind of mad campanology on the keyboard.  And all of this beauty is spontaneous.

It’s typical of Blanco. He is, at heart, a natural melodist. His primary aim as a musician, it appears to me, is to woo the audience with phrases that will long stay with them, even if they’ve only just occurred to him. There’s a great example of this on Desiguales, towards the end, where the sort of line that would easily have passed Tin Pan Alley’s Old Grey Whistle Test (a system where records were deemed potentially successful if the old greys – doormen in suits – could whistle the tune after one listen) emerges from a quite densely intricate figure that Blanco beats like a drum tattoo.

Rhythm is also an important factor – that left hand pattern on Light Over Dark reminds me of the story of the young Blanco at college in Caracas, taking a gig with a band on bass so that he could work on the strong ostinato lines that have become such a feature of his piano playing and composing.

Light Over Dark, with its initially contemplative nocturnal quality, also illustrates the blend of delicacy and strength in Blanco’s playing. His touch, with its variation in dynamics, is magnificent and can allow him to say much more by implication than by application on Vals Number 5, whose ending is wonderfully delicate.

But then, the instrument he plays is the pianoforte. It’s an instrument he uses like a painter, creating impressionistic images, as on Dancers, or just adding colours. I say “just adding colours” but, in truth, there’s no “just” about it. Every improvisation in this concert has its own story. There’s a filmic quality, particularly to the spontaneously realised pieces. Mérida is city that Blanco clearly still finds inspiring and the three Cinematic Improvs find him, apparently, conjuring up soundtracks to movies that are running in his head as he plays.

Each of these is open to the listener’s own interpretation but the tone of Improv 3 is unashamedly romantic. Was Leo revisiting the British 1940s classic Brief Encounter or Love Story, perhaps, in his imagination’s filmhouse? Improv Last, on the other hand, is positively disturbed to begin with. Are there bats in that belfry whose tolling seeps into the concert? Or is that Quasimodo lurking, ready to pounce on some unsuspecting visitor? There’s a whole epic screenplay unfolding here, a suggestion of Beauty and the Beast and some dizzying passages before a song construction materialises, the Up Where We Belong moment that gives way to a dancing, groovy pattern before bitter-sweet images suggest themselves and the piece finishes, as if it had been pre-composed, with a wistful, bluesy fade-out.

There, again, we have the instrument that lends itself to the title of this album, Pianoforte, in all its, literally, quiet and strong glory. But then, as has been noted before, the piano is Blanco’s band, his orchestra – and if so, he’s a pretty good conductor.

Pianoforte is released to coincide with Leo Blanco's UK tour 2013.

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