Last Saturday’s gig at Cardiff University’s School of Music featured the unique pairing of Welsh pianist and innovator Huw Warren with talented Italian vocalist Maria Pia De Vito. The duo performed an eclectic set of tunes, ranging from Neapolitan poetry-styled songs to arrangements of Brazilian compositions by the likes of Chico Buarque and Hermeto Pascoal.
The emphasis was on music from their 2008 album, ‘Dialektos’, as well as new material from their latest album released earlier this year, ‘Core/Coração’. The performers moved flexibly in and out of different moods and genres, from ironic bebop licks to heavy Latin grooves. There was a fast-paced back-and-forth of ideas and musical jokes between Warren and De Vito and they led each other through hypnotic, spiralling improvisations against a backdrop of percussive, rhythmic loops.
A bubbling energy was present throughout, especially in tunes like ‘Whistling Rufus’ and ‘Last Tango in Powys’, both Warren originals. In untypical fashion, De Vito provided beatbox-like rhythms and swooped from impressively low tones up to the highest notes of her range. Warren’s playing was almost schizophrenic, as he flitted between swing and samba rhythms across various time signatures, keeping the audience on their toes. And yet, there were also moments of pure emotion, as in Buarque’s ‘Todo Sentimento’, and ‘Llirallena’, where De Vito sang the words “Amore, amore” over and over with increasing intensity.
After the performance, Huw Warren explains how the project came together:
Echo When and how did you and Maria meet?
Huw Warren Ten years ago. She heard a tune of mine online and asked me if she could sing. Then she heard some other stuff, and we said let’s get a gig. We weirdly managed to find one, me living in Wales and she living in Rome. We managed to find a gig in the Lake District. It just started like that. It was a very unusual experience in that when we played, it felt like we’d been playing for years.
E What were your key musical inspirations for this project?
HW I think the first thing was a connection with melodic music. If someone had sat me down and said, “Huw you’ve written a nice tune here and someone’s going to turn it into a Neapolitan love song,” I would have been like, “Woah, get out of here!” That was the first point, just that melodic point. It’s a very British thing I think. British jazz has strong melodic roots. There’s an emphasis on singable melodies. Then there’s an angular rhythmic thing and an asymmetrical thing which Maria was really into. We found out that we were both into Brazilian music. We both love free improvisation. The very nice thing about the gig and the project is the fact that we can move from really manic, free, fun improvising to very beautiful, lyrical, emotional music.
I feel also with singers, without wishing to stereotype, that there are people who are brilliant at the free thing, at the sonic way of using your voice as an instrument. And then there are people who go for the emotional side of things. Very few people do both for me. Maria is one of those few. As you heard in the gig, it’s full of extremes. When it’s beautiful it’s very beautiful, when it’s crazy, it’s crazy.
E Did you have to work at becoming more uninhibited with each other?
HW No not really. I feel we’ve pushed the parameters further and further. The first gig we played, we did one set of tunes in a particular order. It worked really well, and we had a rough recording of it. We then went to Rome to do a gig in a place called the Auditorium, which is like the South Bank in London. We played pretty much the same set, and they had a record label who said, “Can you record for us next week.” We ended up doing it a few months later. The third time we played, it was the same tunes in the same order. That’s pretty much how the first record came out.
So not a lot changed. But you know that feeling, when you work with people you trust intuitively, you can do anything. You know that if anything happens, nothing’s going to go wrong. Of course things do go wrong but when they do, you just embrace it. And it’s a really nice thing. It’s really hard to describe if you never experience that. It sort of takes all the stress out of it, and you get rid of all that overthinking about stuff. You just go, “whatever we’ll do, we’ll do together.” It’s a win-win.
E It’s more enjoyable?
HW The fun aspect is part of that. Everyone who has seen this gig over the ten years in different parts of the world picks up on that. It’s not just heavy musical tunes or compositions, it’s sort of about the people really. For me, all music is about people.
E What are you listening to at the moment?
HW That’s a good question. It’s like when I ask the students in college what they’re listening to, they’re like “Oh man there’s too much to tell you about.” I go through period of listening to lots of non-jazz music really. Periods of listening to my own music or projects I’m involved with because you’re making a new record, or you’re mixing it, or you’re preparing a new project. I do listen to some contemporary classical music every now and again. There are certain musicians I really like. Right now, my two favourite piano players are Tigran Hamasyan and Craig Taborn. I suppose it goes through phases of, as a musician, I either listen to stuff that I’ve listened to a lot of in the past and revisit it. Because you know the best music does hold up to a lot of listening I think. You hear more stuff in it. It’s like a really great book.
E Do you have any plans for more projects with Maria?
HW We’ve just finished this Brazilian record. It came out in May. So, that’s actually been quite a lot of years of working on the material. Trying to find the best way of making a record of actual songs. The new record is much less improvising, it’s more of a ‘songs’ record. We like that, but we actually miss the improvising because that’s a lot of fun. I think there will be a new project, once we’ve done some more gigs. We’re going to Germany next week with the Brazilian thing, to Munich. Then a few gigs over the winter.
ECHO | Gail Tasker