Leo Blanco: pianoforte
The Bank of Scotland Herald Angels awards ceremony isn’t a gig as such. Presented every Saturday morning during Edinburgh’s month-long festival season, these awards reward outstanding performances and contributions in music, theatre, visual art, literature and indeed right across the arts spectrum as judged by the reviewing team of Scotland’s leading quality daily newspaper. It’s become the norm for one of the musical recipients to “do a number” as a gesture of thanks and to entertain the assembled artists and their representatives.
So it was that, on the final Angels Saturday in 2006, Leo Blanco sat down to play a piano that, shall we say, wouldn’t have been the best instrument that he’d ever encountered. The sound he created nevertheless caused jaws to drop and people to ask who this virtuoso was, where he had come from and why wasn’t he a major star – and this wasn’t an easily impressed audience. Leo’s fellow Angel winners that day were almost all drawn from the Edinburgh International Festival’s world class programme.
The piece he played, El Negro y el Blanco, was a fantasia based on El Negro Jose, a popular composition by Leo’s fellow Venezuelan, Aldemaro Romero, that appeared on Leo’s first album, Roots & Effect. It contained a lot of the characteristics you’ll hear on this latest recording. I like to think that its performance that day may even have been the seed for these tracks.
Who Leo was and where he had come from was answered, I hesitate to say, in a fairly off-hand way. He’d been introduced to me a week or two previously, just before a Chick Corea concert at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, by the Scottish saxophonist Laura Macdonald, a friend of Leo’s from Berklee School of Music in Boston, as simply Leo. “You must come and hear him – he’s playing some gigs with me on the Fringe,” Laura told me. I complied and within about five minutes of their first number on their opening night, I was texting the arts editor of the Herald, advising him to get himself down to the Lot, a compact venue in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket that’s no longer with us.
The result was the aforementioned Angel and a cyberspace relationship between Leo and myself that would, the following spring, lead to him producing one of these evenings where everyone’s pinching themselves to make sure they’re not dreaming as the sound of world class music making from an ad hoc quartet filled the Blue Lamp, a natural jazz club masquerading as a city centre pub, during Aberdeen Jazz Festival 2007. The Lampie, as it’s affectionately known, wasn’t just jumpin’, as in full of people, it was dancing.
Cut to February of this year and a chance remark made to Jill Rodger of Glasgow Jazz Festival led to another of the periodic increases in frequency of the emails between Leo and me. Would Leo fancy playing a concert of completely solo piano? Some combination of solo piano and various collaborations had come up in our cyberspace exchanges before and while I had every confidence in Leo putting a solo programme together, I had no idea that he’d already recorded just such a concert – this one – or that it was going to be quite so magical.
When the first music files arrived on this side of the Atlantic, Leo’s Glasgow Jazz Festival concert had morphed into his first Scottish tour. Dates in England were being slowly added and a logistical problem was soon presenting itself: how could we get church bells to ring at a suitable time so that Leo could improvise piano chords to them in each concert as he did that evening in Merida, his home town? And could the church clocks be switched to the twenty-four hour system to prolong the dialogue?
As you’ll hear on Bells Improvisation 3, Leo responds to the unexpected tolling intrusion 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 Leo. 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 Leo beats like a drum tattoo.
Rhythm is also an important part of his repertoire – that left hand pattern on Light Over Dark, familiar from Roots & Effect, reminds me of the story of the young Leo 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 contemplative nocturnal quality, also illustrates the blend of delicacy and strength in Leo’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, as he does to those bells that briefly appear on Last Improv 2. And yet, as someone remarked that day after he’d stunned the gathering at the Angels presentation, the piano is his band, his orchestra. If so, he’s a pretty good conductor.