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Nando Michelin - Art


Nando Michelin - Piano,
Jerry Bergonzi - Tenor Sax, Fernando Huergo - Bass, Steve Langone - Drums, Sergio Faluotico - Percussion

1. Juan Gris 8'29
2. Nude 7'55
3. Paul Gauguin 5'47
4. Marc Chagall 8'22
5. Joan Miro 7'38
6. Portrait 5'31
7. Henri Matisse 7'40
8. Picasso in blue 8'08
9. Vassily Kandinsky 5'15

Listen to CD Tracks

  Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings.  The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” — Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).
 Visual art and music are reciprocally inspirational.  Joined at the hip since homo sapiens began to represent experience through organizing line and sound, one is the ideal descriptive metaphor for the other.
 A need to express the ineffable inspired Nando Michelin to write the program of nine original compositions that comprise “Art.”  “When you hear a sound or see a painting that you like,” says the 33-year-old pianist, “you feel there’s something beyond it which is much more important than day-to-day life that you can’t express.  That’s what triggered this project, more than liking a particular painting and deciding to write music about it.  It was more a questioning of my role as an artist.”

 If Michelin were a painter, he’d be going against the grain of visual thinking today.  “Art” is decidedly not about conceptualism, nor mixing materials, nor conveying some philosophical notion at the expense of core emotion.  Neither  minimalist nor baroque, the composer articulates content with economical
themes and structures that project his personality in a manner not so dissimilar to the way the artists he addresses could say it all with a couple of justly placed lines.

 Michelin’s affinity is with the canonic painters of Modernism, who codified contemporary visual sensibility.  Connected by environment and training to the narrative tradition of painting before photography, all sought new perspectives on traditional tropes, told stories with distinctively personal iconographies — innovated on the back of a tradition.

 That happens to be the aesthetic of jazz, and Michelin, who spent his first 24 years in Uruguay, understands it innately.  He says:  “I started playing piano when I was very young, but stopped when I was 12, and though I always listened to music a lot, I never played again until I was 21 or 22.  I studied chemistry in college, then got into classical guitar, and decided to go back to piano.  I kept both for a while.  I was in only classical music, and couldn’t understand how people improvised or composed.  Then I started taking a jazz class where a man named Hugo Gambino taught me some harmony, and everything clicked in place, as though I’d seen the trick behind the magician.

 “My guitar teacher, Alvaro Carlevaro, a very renowned contemporary composer, started lending me some records which got me into jazz, like Dexter Gordon’s Live At The Village Vanguard and Coltrane Sound.  I started listening a lot to Bud Powell and Bill Evans.  He introduced me to Egberto Gismonti, who is one of my biggest influences — not musically, but for being a musician.  The first time I saw Gismonti he made me feel my life wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t do it, that nothing could keep me away from it.  That’s when I decided to be a musician.  I had a band that played every weekend in Montevideo, playing jazz covers, Latin standards, things like that.  Sergio Faluotico, who plays percussion on the record, played drums, and he started pushing me to write music.  I wanted to keep him interested in playing with the band, so I did.  I owe him a lot for that.
 “The African rhythm in Uruguay is called candomb‚, which I get a lot of expression from.  It’s an amazing rhythm, and I use it constantly, creating melodies that interact with it, but I try not to use it as a pattern, a rhythm you can recognize right away.  We aren’t playing the exact clave all the time.  I want the drummer to make up melodies on top of the rhythm, like a jazz drummer; to use the style as a jumping off point.  In Uruguay we’re influenced by music from every part of the world.  It’s a big melting pot.  When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of Argentinean music — chacarera and tango — and a lot of Brazilian music, also American music, Classical music, the Beatles — even Yugoslavian music.”

 In 1989 Michelin moved to Boston, still his home, to attend Berklee College of Music.  “I came here basically thinking that I could play the piano,” he laughs.  “There’s not too many people playing in Uruguay.  I’d recorded my tunes with a band, so I arrived thinking I’d get some guys together and start playing.  I was totally overwhelmed.  Right next door to me practicing was Geoff Keezer; there were so many great players.  I decided to take the challenge.  I locked myself in a practice room ten hours a day.  My biggest issues were trying to develop my technique and working on Bebop language.  I always knew exactly what I wanted to play; I just couldn’t play it.  When I got together with people, since I didn’t play as well as the rest, they would not go with my directions, but just do what they heard, which was frustrating.  In harmony classes, they would name things I’d figured out on my own, and it was easier to understand.

 “At the end of my second year I had a son.  I started working, playing in Brazilian bands a lot, which I still do to make a living.  I didn’t know any of that music.  They’d call a key, and play tunes I had never heard before.  People are dancing, and they don’t care if you’re doing exactly the right changes, or reharmonizing, or doing nice voicings.  They care about the groove, and they want to dance.  If the groove is not there, you don’t work.”

 However nuanced and specific the content of his pieces, that primary level of communication is what Michelin’s after most of all — “I don’t want the music to sound like only we can play it; I want it to sound like it’s universal.”  His quartet interprets with fire and finesse.  The noted tenorist Jerry Bergonzi, who brought Michelin to Double-Time’s attention, and plays like a man possessed throughout, has much to say: “Nando definitely has Latin music in his blood, yet he has the sophistication of a jazz player in his harmony and voicings and improvisation.  He has perfect pitch.  He is very aware of Latin time and Jazz time, and he paces himself.  He is an accomplished pianist with a classical background, but his playing goes deeper than playing the instrument — he always develops a composition when he solos.  His tunes are very orchestrated, and they’re great to improvise on.  He’s a composer who always hears the whole band — not only does he write great melodies, but he uses great voicings and bass lines to accompany it, along with a Latin rhythm for the drummer to play.  He knows exactly what he wants.”

 That’s evident when Michelin discusses his tunes...

 “Juan Gris” [1887-1927], is dedicated to the Spanish avatar of Cubism, painter of numerous male musical harlequins; cubistically, Michelin develops the churning theme from multiple perspectives.  “The rhythm plays a very important role,” he notes, “because sax plays alone most of the time, while we fill in the open spaces.  I had a hard time naming the chords I was using, because the lines would form a chord.   It’s a continuous flow where nobody has to lead, nobody has the most important part; it’s different planes that interact to create a whole effect.  They don’t have to be the traditional melody-harmony-rhythm.”

 “Nude”: “When an artist paints a nude woman right in front of him, there’s erotic energy going on in the room; some of it gets in the painting and some is left out.  He might change his approach to the painting to convey that tension, and that’s the emotion I tried to get at.”

 “Gauguin” [1848-1903], a stirring concerto for Bergonzi with a memorable melody, “comes from an amazing painting in the Fine Arts Museum in Boston called ‘Where We Come From, Who We Are, and Where We Go To” that overwhelmed me as soon as I saw it — I wrote this out of what I felt.  The whole tune is different modes of D-flat.  Its structure is very much a reflection on the meaning of the title.  The first part is very traditional, with the changes and the melody; it goes to a dark section in the middle, where we start questioning who we are, everything gets clouded and you might not see a way out; then a bright section where we see the future.”

 “Chagall” [1887-1985]: “I tried to get that mood of a Chagall painting where people are floating around, out of perspective.  There’s an oneiric characteristic to it; you’re unclear whether it’s reality or a dream.  In a few places I used a whole tone device that creates that feeling for a while, then it goes away.”

 “Miro” [1893-1983], is built on a powerful bass vamp: “I used all the aggression that comes out in his painting.  The guy was starving, sometimes he had hallucinations out of that, and he was claustrophobic — a lot of dark, aggressive things.  I tried to get the repetition of certain motives that he uses in all his paintings, his bright colors and aggressive lines.”

 “Portrait”, the album’s ballad: “Here I tried to capture a friend with a lot of psychological problems.  She looks perfectly normal, always in a good mood, but a person who knows her sees that other side.  I tried to capture the personality behind the face.”

 “Matisse” [1869-1954], painter of “Dance” and “Jazz”: “It was inspired by a painting that began with a very detailed portrait which he changed around, destroyed the perspective and three-dimensionality, doing like 20 paintings until he really found its essence.  I took ‘It Could Happen To You’ as the starting point; after my first two or three changes, it started to take its own personality, and I just went with the flow.  The melodies used strong curves and exaggerated shapes, analogous to the way Matisse employs perspective in his paintings, where, say, one foot is huge compared to the rest of the body.  I tried to achieve that effect, sometimes using big intervals in consonance with short intervals to create unpredictable melodies.”

 “Picasso In Blue” [1881-1973]: “I saw an exhibition of Picasso’s Blue period, and was struck by how much he extracted from one color.  After a while you start seeing all the different shapes; you get everything you need from the blue.  I tried to do the whole tune in different minor modes, contrasting minor chords to get a lively sound in the harmony.  Sometimes you feel like the tune needs to take off and want to start playing aggressively, but we still try to keep it cool — to get that kind of color.”

 “Kandinsky,” dedicated to the great innovator of abstract painting: “I was struck by a gouache called ‘Picnic,’ where he uses two or three colors as traces, contouring the forms; you see a blue and a yellow, not superimposed, but side-by-side, and seeing them together creates an effect where both feel like one.  It was so beautiful, I decided to use a major and minor mode together on the same chord, and the tune emerged.  He did another painting that’s like a dialogue of sharp-edged forms and bent figures.  I tried to recollect that with a counterpoint in the sections between harshness and more circular lines.”

  Bergonzi, Michelin’s constant mentor over the decade, jokes, “I told Fernando, ‘If I could write tunes like you, I would be a happy blank-blank...’ He’s a natural, his own man, a great composer.  And he’s just growing into who he is.”
 Whatever Nando Michelin grows into, it’s evident he’ll project it in a voice informed by the past, looking to the future.  “I think it’s important that players today, even young players, keep in touch with the tradition,” he concludes.  “You can hear Joshua Redman play exactly like somebody would have 40 or 50 years ago, and he still sounds like himself — fresh and new.  That’s when you see the personality of a player regardless of what he’s playing.  You hear Danilo Perez mixing up all the traditions and coming up with his own language.  I’m trying to make that statement in everything I write.”

Ted Panken - Downbeat, WKCR-FM