Leo Blanco - Chiming with solo piano images
Leo Blanco had an unusual question ahead of his first UK tour back in the summer of 2013. Would any of the venues, the Venezuelan piano virtuoso wanted to know, have belfries nearby?
Blanco’s concern wasn’t for possible interruptions to his concentration. Since he recorded his latest album, Pianoforte, he has been contemplating a repeat of the opportunity that presented itself during Pianoforte’s live recording sessions: collaborating with church bells – real live ones rather than the digitally recorded, available at the flick of a switch alternative.
His experience with the bells that appear on Pianoforte came about when Blanco returned to his home town, Merida in Andean Venezuela, with the idea of recording a solo piano album. He was pretty sure that he’d find plenty of inspiration in the city where he grew up playing piano and also violin in the youth orchestra; he just needed to find the best piano Merida had to offer.
“We found the ideal instrument and the perfect venue in Teatro Cesar Rengifo, a lovely theatre with quite a lot of character in the centre of town,” says Blanco, who is the proud holder of a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel, earned for his outstanding performances on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006. “It’s quite close to the cathedral but no-one had ever noticed the cathedral bells encroaching on any performances there and so we set up, ready to record two nights, one in private, the other in front of an audience.”
It was during the first night that the bells made their first impact. Undaunted, Blanco incorporated their tolling into one of his piano pieces, playing gorgeously sympathetic chords. Then, on the second night, after the audience had left and he and some friends had met up for a beer, he returned to the theatre to capture the tolling of midnight and work it into what has become Pianoforte’s final track, Haiku for Midnight Bells and Piano.
And there the story of the bells might have ended but for the slightly embarrassing information coming to light that the bells in question didn’t belong to the cathedral. They were much closer than that.
“It turns out that Teatro Cesar Rengifo began life as a seminary back in the 1780s and after the religious order moved into different premises in another part of town, it eventually became part of the university,” he says. “In the old days its bells were the most important indication of the time of day for people in Merida and they’ve recently been renovated and reactivated. But we didn’t know that.”
There was something else in the theatre’s history that, as it were, chimed with Blanco’s modus operandi. Between its use as a seminary and a concert hall, it had been the cinema that housed only the sixth projector in the world made by the Edison Company.
As someone who often visualises movies in his head as he improvises, Blanco finds this quite apt, although it wasn’t until Pianoforte had been completed that the theatre’s history became known to him.
“I’m not sure that having that knowledge at the time would have changed anything,” says Blanco, who is professor of piano at Berklee School of Music in Boston. “I do tend to picture scenes as I’m playing and I can work up soundtracks to quite involved screenplays spontaneously. Sometimes an improvisation will lead me into an established composition. Other times, I’ll create something completely new. There’s one track on Pianoforte that was entirely improvised and someone said it goes as far as introducing a big movie ballad, a sort of Up Where We Belong moment. I wasn’t really conscious of doing that at the time but to get that sort of response shows that I must be communicating at least some of these images through the music to the listener.”
Originally published by The Herald, Scotland.
Leo Blanco - Selling Venezuelan music by the piano
Leo Blanco is a man on a mission. The Venezuelan pianist loves the music that pours out of Brazil and Cuba and understands perfectly why it’s become so popular around the world. There is, however, much more music from South America and the Caribbean that deserves to be heard – and Blanco has taken up its cause.
His words are as persuasive as his piano playing, and that’s saying something. Back in August last year, Blanco made his first appearances in Scotland in a pair of low profile gigs during the Edinburgh Fringe. To say he was sensational would be no exaggeration.
This paper had no hesitation in presenting him with one of our coveted Angel awards for outstanding performances. It seemed the least we could do. A piano – not the best Blanco had ever played on, it has to be said – was summoned to the awards ceremony and Blanco duly obliged by rendering his solo arrangement of fellow countryman Aldemaro Romero’s El Negro y el Blanco. It brought the house down.
Here, clearly, was a naturally, indeed, supernaturally gifted musician whose playing also indicated a wide range of study and playing experience, although the truth is broader and deeper than any of us might have guessed.
To jazz and classical studies, add local dance band gigs on piano, bass guitar and drums, acting as keyboards player and musical director to a Brazilian pop singer, and youth orchestra concerts on violin. There’s more but, heck, this a newspaper feature not a book.
"When I started playing professionally, you just had to learn and play everything," says Blanco by way of explanation. "You have to remember that because of Venezuela’s location – it’s on the Caribbean and next door to Brazil – we hear lots of different music. Plus, as happens all over the world, when you have ports, you get even more music. So we had American, European, all sorts of stuff."
Blanco was fourteen when he began his professional career. Some years before that, a piano had arrived in the Blanco household in the Andean city of Merida. Neither of his parents played but they listened to music all the time and decided that one of their children might take an interest. Enter Leo, who spent hour after hour experimenting with sounds and making up tunes. After a while it became clear that the boy was seriously interested, so Leo was sent to music school to study properly.
"At the same time I had a couple of friends who were really good intuitive musicians," he says. "They had no training, just played by ear, and I really enjoyed playing with them. So I was already coming at music from both the popular and classical sides, and I think that helped a lot."
Merida, being a university town with prestigious film and music schools, had a thriving music scene. The teenaged Blanco immersed himself in it, joining one band as a pianist, learning bass guitar so that he could play in another and acquiring a drum kit so that he could join another who already had piano and bass covered.
"I was just enjoying playing music so much that I never really thought that the other instruments would have any significance," he says. "But they turned out to be really influential in my compositions. Even now, I might start with a rhythm and then come up with a chord sequence and the bass part will act as the bridge between them. I like really strong bass lines, which probably comes from having been a bass player, and although I don’t play any more, I’ll sometimes demonstrate something on the bass when I’m teaching."
At seventeen Blanco moved to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to continue his classical studies, although there were plenty of other musical distractions to keep him busy too. Before long he had joined a band – he went to hear their soundcheck and when their piano player was late, he sat in and was later offered the job – and he began to get work composing TV film music and advertising jingles.
He was, he says, doing quite well for himself financially. So, a few years later, when some friends who had gone off to study at Berklee School of Music in Boston got in touch to say he should follow them, he wasn’t entirely convinced. Rather half-heartedly, he sent a CV and demonstration tape and didn’t expect to hear anything further until he got a call, saying he was being offered a scholarship and he had to come.
"My friends were right, it was a fantastic move. I got to go to Japan to represent the college over there, which was wonderful," he says. "But actually, the thing that I like about Boston and New York, too, although I’m sure this happens in cosmopolitan cities all over the world, is you can travel musically without having to go to another country. I’ve played Yugoslavian music and all sorts of things just by going to someone’s house or a bar."
The most important musical link, however, remains his connection with Venezuela. Now established as an assistant professor of music at Berklee as well as forging ahead with his own playing career, he keeps in constant touch with his family and friends back home and listens to as much Venezuelan music as possible.
"Before I left Caracas I was always experimenting with jazz and Venezuelan music and that’s what I want to continue doing," he says. "I think when you leave your home, it’s inevitable that you’ll be affected by the music in your new surroundings and I love that, but I need to keep my roots and my identity."
En route to a concert at Aberdeen Jazz Festival, whose organisers are always quick to spot special talents, he has reunited with his old friend and record producer Steve Shehan in Paris, where he is recording his new CD, Africa Latina. It will be, he says, a celebration of African music’s influence on South America. At the same time, though, it will be an invitation to listeners to dig further into the continent’s music.
"I hear why world music and jazz audiences have taken so strongly to Brazilian and Cuban music but they’re really just scratching the surface of Latin American music," he says. "In fact, audiences outside South America are only scratching the surface of Brazilian music. There’s so much more to hear. Argentina has much more than tango, and Colombia and Peru and Venezuela have great music too. So if I can draw people’s attention to this and change their vision of Latin American music, I’ll be doing something rewarding."
From The Herald, March 10, 2007