Two of the most electrifying and original voices in contemporary jazz come together on Live in Montreal, the thrilling new album from Hiromi and Edmar Castaneda. Captured live at the 2017 Montreal International Jazz Festival, the album features the Japanese pianist/composer and the Colombian harpist finding common ground on Canadian soil, joining forces for a duo set that’s alternately – and at times simultaneously – engaging, explosive, moving, intricate and infectious.
Out this month on Telarc, a division of Concord Music, Live in Montreal was recorded exactly one year from the day when Hiromi and Castaneda first met. It was at the 2016 edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival that the harpist was scheduled to open for a performance of Hiromi’s Trio Project. Each caught the other’s set and instantly fell under one another’s spell, as so many audiences had done before.
“I didn't really know what to expect,” Hiromi remembers. “When I heard Edmar play I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. It was a jaw-dropping experience. I didn't realize the harp could create such rhythm and groove. I only knew about classical harp, so my image of the instrument was very different. His way of playing was pure energy, full of passion - I was just blown away.
For his part, Castaneda was equally awed by Hiromi’s set that night. “Her trio was burning, really crazy. The energy that she produced was the same as I like to play. I realized that we share the same passion for our instruments.”
After the show that night the two broached the topic of a collaboration, but so often that kind of backstage talk gets forgotten the moment that each side moves on to the next town. Fortunately that didn’t happen this time around, and it was less than two weeks later that Castaneda’s phone rang with an invitation to join Hiromi for a weeklong engagement at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club. The moment they began to meld their distinctive sounds, the chemistry they’d suspected was more than confirmed.
“We both clearly remember the first few minutes of playing together in soundcheck,” Hiromi says. “It was really magical and effortless. It felt like all the musical notes that we created were happy to be together. It was like dancing.
From the blooming string swell that opens Castaneda’s “A Harp in New York,” the duo’s synchronicity is gorgeously apparent. As a duo, their shared intuitions lead them from moments of serene beauty into bursts of propulsive momentum, leaving the listener floating with the perfect balance of tranquility and drive. The opening tug-of-war on “For Jaco” elicits appreciative laughter from the Montreal audience, providing a glimpse of the sheer joy that the pair finds in playing together. The tune’s buoyant groove was created in tribute to the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, whose brilliant art and tragic life proved both inspiration and cautionary tale for Castaneda.
“I was so impressed - and I’m still impressed - by all the tones and options Jaco created on the four string bass,” Castaneda says. “He inspired me to keep doing what I do on the harp, to try to show a different face of the instrument to people. At the same time, he showed me what not to do, how to try to be a musician but not try to go on the bad path that he took. I learned a lot from him, both personal and technical.”
Hiromi’s stunningly lyrical “Moonlight Sunshine” was written in response to the devastating tsunami and earthquake suffered by her native Japan in 2011. Though she’s performed it in the past with bass giant Stanley Clarke, it’s a perfect fit for the soul-stirring virtuosity of both of these players. Their shared musical passions turn more fiery on the album’s closer, an entrancingly sultry take on Astor Piazzolla’s immortal “Libertango.”
John Williams’ familiar “Cantina Band” from Star Wars swings the mood in the other direction, its playful spirit rendered in an arrangement that evokes Django Reinhardt’s gypsy swing, Calypso rhythms, and saloon-style stride piano. Hiromi, a diehard Star Wars fan from childhood, had long been looking for an outlet to tackle the tune, while Castaneda, shockingly for anyone born in the late ‘70s, has still never seen the film.
The centerpiece of the set is Hiromi’s four-part suite “The Elements,” composed especially for this duo. “I couldn't find anything written for this particular instrument combination, and I also wanted to write something for the way we played,” Hiromi explains. “I was imagining Edmar’s sound and it reminded me a lot of sounds in nature.” Each piece imaginatively reflects its subject: the weightless of “air,” the gritty, deep-rooted groove of “earth,” the shimmering fluidity of “water,” the roiling simmer of “fire.”
Most importantly, the suite allows the duo to show off the limitless range of their approaches to their instruments, especially Castaneda’s relatively unfamiliar (in jazz settings) harp. “She really studied what I do and wrote for the way that I play,” Castaneda says. “I always try to be away from ‘harp,’ all these glissandos and soft sounds. It was really nice to have grooves and a different approach to harmony and the combination of the voices in this suite.”
The final element in the concert was provided by the famously appreciative Montreal audience. One of the most renowned jazz festivals in the world, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, as it’s known north of the border, attracts true lovers of the music, who listen raptly and respond enthusiastically. It was as much for that reason as for the nostalgic thrill of returning to the same site where they’d met a year prior that the duo chose to record at the festival.
“I always love the audience in Montreal,” Hiromi says. “I always felt that they listen to the music with the same dynamics that we play it. They can be really loud and cheerful, but at the same time they can be really focused and quiet. That combination is very rare and amazing, and it puts me in the perfect mood to record.”
Not that either she or Castaneda need much encouragement beyond the spark they feel from each other’s inspiration. Live in Montreal captures all the exuberance and virtuosity that both bring to all of their music, with the added thrill of the new that comes with such an unusual pairing. “It takes courage to come hear a new combination of instruments,” Hiromi says – though she shrugs off the courage it takes to be part of creating such a new sound. “I can assure everyone that it will be a very exciting, brand new experience.”
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