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Latin Jazz Conversations: Jovino Santos Neto (Part 3)

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Jovino Santos Neto Spending time with an influential musician during the height of their artistic output means a lot of different things. It's an amazing growth opportunity that results in one of the finest educations available—performing regularly with an innovative musician simply demands artistic evolution. The opportunity to experience the development of the artist's musical development is a priceless experience that provides true insight into their creative process. As the artist tries new approaches, they place their ideas and aesthetics in the open, sharing their most inner thoughts with their collaborators. Most importantly, active involvement opens the possibility of contributing to the artist's musical evolution and effect history in the making. Their performances shape the artist's sound, their ideas push the artist's music in new directions, and their presence becomes a part of history. The opportunity to work with this level of influential artist is a rare and powerful experience that produces mature and important musicians.

Pianist Jovino Santos Neto weaved through an interesting musical development, eventually becoming a prime collaborator with one of the most important figures in modern Brazilian music. Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Neto first found a love for the piano through classical music before becoming deeply involved in pop and rock music as a teenager. By the time that he left for collegiate studies in biology at Montreal's McGill University, he was highly versed in progressive rock. Neto performed regularly in Canada, shifting his attention towards jazz fusion, noticing the dominate influence of Brazilian music in the style. He encountered Hermeto Pascoal at performances in Brazil and then rediscovered him through the jazz fusion work of Miles Davis. Upon his return to Brazil, Neto visited Pascoal, and after some time together, the composer offered him a job. Neto saw the gig as a short term commitment, but later decided to focus all his attention upon Pascoal's music. Deeply ingrained in Pascoal's music, Neto was forced to learn the aesthetics of a whole new musical world through an intensive regimen of practice and rehearsal. The bandleader's unique approach to harmony and composition open the pianist's ears to new musical possibilities and fueled him with a armament of advanced performance concepts. The group began to perform quite extensively in the early eighties, touring extensively across Europe and the United States. Neto became a prime figure during this era, extending his work into the role of manager and producer, helping Pascoal find a secure place for his music around the world. In 1992, after spending fifteen years with Pascoal, Neto decided to focus his attention upon a deeper study of Pascoal's larger works and his own composition, taking him to Cornish College Of The Arts in Seattle.

Neto's work with Pascoal represented an extremely productive period for both musicians, resulting in recordings and numerous concerts around the world. When they parted ways in 1992, Pascoal stood as an established giant in the Brazilian music scene and Neto carried an impressive set of tools into a solo career. We looked at the foundation of Neto's musical development in Part One of our interview, where he built his initial love for performance and worked slowly towards jazz. In Part Two of our interview, we discussed the relationship between Brazilian music and jazz fusion, as well as Neto's early contact with Pascoal. Today, we dig deeply into Neto's time with Pascoal's band, looking at the pianist's education about Pascoal's musical world, his evolving role in the band, and his eventual departure.

———- LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You had heard Hermeto before, but what was it like working with him at first? He is a very unique musician.

JOVINO SANTOS NETO: It was a process of heavy, intense learning everyday. I had never seen anything remotely like it. There was a lot of reading during the rehearsals—for the first concert I played, I spent the whole week rehearsing. But then in the concert, we did not play one single piece that we rehearsed. I was kind of like, “Oh. What happened? What about that song that we rehearsed?" And Hermeto said, “Oh no, not today." It was really funny to see that kind of work develop.

LJC: I've heard that Hermeto had a pretty rigorous rehearsal schedule . . .

JSN: Yea, it was very Spartan, in the sense that for our core group, that was a full time job. In the beginning, some of the horn guys still played in other groups, but not the rhythm section. Not to say that we were not allowed to play elsewhere, it was just that basically there was nowhere else to play. At the same time, the time that we had to put into rehearsal didn't leave any time for us to do anything else. It was really a full time job. You got up in the morning, you practiced, you had lunch and then you would go rehearse, you come home, you're exhausted and you fall asleep, you get up in the morning, you practice—this was gig or no gig, that was the discipline.

At one point, we had rehearsals three times a week, because the horns guys that were playing with us lived Downtown Rio, which was more than an hour away by car. So Hermeto was trying to make it easy for them, only having them drive three days a week. But then the rhythm section started to meet on the other days. The group started touring more, Carlos Malta joined the band, and then everybody moved close to where Hermeto lived. At that point, we all became neighbors and we could rehearse everyday.

LJC: What did those rehearsals look like? I can't even imagine with the complexity of Hermeto's music.

JSN: In spite of all the freedom, all the looseness, and the improvised nature of Hermeto's performances, the rehearsals were very specifically focused on learning music that he had written. We spent time working out all the different layers of the music. He would write something that had all these separate parts, so we had to rehearse just piano and drums, just bass and saxophone, or just saxophone and percussion. We had all these different ways of challenging ourselves to tighten up and clean up the music. You had to practice your individual parts a lot, and then you had to come to the rehearsal to practice the collective aspect. It involved playing your individual part against somebody else's music that had nothing to do with your part.

I remember questioning Hermeto about that. I said, “I used to really like that Return To Forever stuff because the band did all this amazing licks together." He said, “Yea, our band is kind of like that, except each one is playing a different part—the parts are not the same, they are different, but it's the same concept." I said, “Oh, O.K.!" Then I started to understand that when the really wacky thing that you played was combined with the other really wacky thing that the drummer was doing, it worked. You had to learn how to play while listening to something very different from what you were playing and not loose your grounding—the beat and the pulse. That was very challenging. That was one of the biggest parts of the learning —understanding how to listen to the other parts and to understand the context of what you're really playing.

In a way, that gave us further material for when improvisational aspects would explode on stage. We had so many resources to draw from, based on all the music that he had written and given to us. For a lot of people, improvisation means that everybody falls into a blues scale—people just play blues lines or bebop on top of the chart. Hermeto's music gave us so many more musical languages—everything from jazz to baião to samba to fado. We had all these things that we could draw from. At the same time, he had a very sophisticated harmonic concept that allowed multiple tonalities to co-exist as extensions. You could play a very simple folk melody in G over a groove that's being played in C#. So that way, you still are connected to something that's very intuitive and very traditional, but it doesn't sound like that at all—it sounds like something very modern and advanced.

LJC: That must have been quite an education.

JSN: Yea, when you look at it in perspective, it's amazing, the learning experience. And then to be able to keep on sharing that music with younger students today is really important to me, because I really think that this is the way. A lot of people talk about universal music, but if you think about it, classical music is universal music—people play Beethoven in Tasmania. We're still using the regional languages of music, we're just uplifting them from their original ground and building them on top of intense harmonic and rhythmic structures.

LJC: During that time, what was the work like—did he perform a lot, did he record a lot?

JSN: We had all kinds of situations—we had three months without gigs and then we had two-month tours where we played gigs every day. It was always a question of how things worked out. When I joined the band, we didn't play a lot. Starting in the early eighties, we started to play some more gigs in Sao Paulo and started doing small tours. In 1982, we came to Germany for almost a month. Hermeto came and did some work with the symphony orchestra. In Berlin, we played some concerts. In 1984, we got invited to do a tour of France that was almost a month long. Then we did another two weeks touring Europe. That was the beginning of us touring Europe more regularly. That went all the way until 1992. From 1984 until 1992, in those eight years, we did a lot of European tours. Then we did some work in the United States in 1985, 1989, 1990, and 1991.

LJC: During that time, you took on a lot of leadership roles in Hermeto's group, how did that come about?

JSN: It started with the language thing; I could speak the languages and I could learn the languages that I didn't speak. Eventually, I ended up being the person that was put forward to deal with all the international connections—producers, managers, promoters, and press. Maybe because I also have a natural tendency for diplomacy. I could help potentially tense situations and diffuse it so the music could go on. It was stuff like you get there and the sound was really bad or the hotel was awful; you have to find a way to communicate without burning the bridge. People liked working with us and we liked playing together. So we could actually go on the road for sixty days. It was intensely stressful, most of all to our families who were left at home. But also to me on the road—I think that I got all my white hair from those days!

LJC: Somewhere along that time, you became a multi-instrumentalist, playing flute, melodica, and more . . .

JSN: It came naturally. I didn't care much about the flute before or actually any horn. As somebody who came from a rock and roll background, my idea of a saxophone was Bobby Keys. I liked that kind of burning sound, but that was just a side thing. I heard a record of John Coltrane once and I was really blown away—I said, “Wow, that's got an intensity that I like." But I didn't really know anybody that played like that. I heard Hermeto play the flute and the saxophone live, and he totally blew my mind as to what he could do with it. Then I wanted to play the flute.

We played in Montreal in 1979 and then we went to Japan to play at a festival—on that trip, I bought my first flute in Japan. Then Hermeto started to write music for flute. In 1981, when Carlos Malta joined the group, we had Hermeto playing flute, Carlos Malta, me, and then for a while, Hermeto's brother Eilsio joined us—he also played flute. So we had a flute quartet and Hermeto started to write all this flute quartet music. For me, that was a big learning experience, because Malta is such an amazing instrumentalist. Being in the shadow of him, trying to tune to him was challenging.

The flute is very different than the piano. On the piano, if you press a G and the piano is in tune, you get a G. Just pressing the keys for a G on the flute, you don't get a G unless you hear the G in your head and then you can make your breath create that G. So it was very different for me to have to deal with that. But on the other hand, it gave me a much stronger melodic sense of the intervals and the breathing that the piano doesn't have. I liked that and I still enjoy it. I don't consider myself a serious flautist like any of these other guys, but I still enjoy playing flute. I like playing flute in a situation of two or three flutes—the ensemble for me is a lot of fun.

LJC: In 1992, you left Hermeto's band, what was happening and why did you leave?

JSN: It was that same process of taking more and more of the managerial duties. I saw it increasing more and more. We would be rehearsing and then somebody would call, “There's a guy from France wanting to know if you want red lights or blue lights on the stage." That kind of stuff—I had to deal with more and more of the daily grind of running the band on the road. Those responsibilities were becoming more and more me. I did a good job, but on the other hand, that was taking a toll on the music side. I was not having the time to practice and grow.

My own music was suffering too—I was getting more and more ideas to compose and eventually I realized that that band was not a place where I would play my own music. I remember back in day, I showed Hermeto my compositions and he said, “Oh, that's very cool, on the next record, I'm going to make sure to have one of your songs on our record." I said, “Oh, that would be great!" But then it never happened—and I understand, because he had so much of his own music, there was really no room to put anyone else's. Then I realized that if I want to play my own music, I've got to find my own space to do that.

At the same time, I wanted to get more into the music that I was learning—Hermeto's music. Being the road manager, translator, technician, and financial advisor . . . it was like eight functions piled into one. I realized that I liked this music so much that I wanted to dedicate myself to learning this music, rather than not having to run it. The goal was to move somewhere and actually learn conducting so that I could work with Hermeto's more elaborate structural music that he wrote for orchestras and big bands. So I came here to study conducting, and that's what I did for the first couple of semesters.

LJC: So that's how you ended up at Cornish College Of The Arts?

JSN: That's right.


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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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