The Most Musical Man in the World Turns 85
I want to celebrate the birthday of one of my musical heroes. But first I need to tell you what he does, and why you should care. In this case, that’s not easy.
How do I even begin to describe Hermeto Pascoal? It’s possible—perhaps even likely—that you haven’t heard his music. Pascoal has never enjoyed a genuine hit record in the United States. I can’t even recall hearing his music on the radio. I’d like to show you his picture on a magazine cover, but I doubt he has ever been featured on one.
I own some choice albums by the man they call O Bruxo (The Sorcerer), but many I had to purchase in Brazil because, as far as I can tell, they have never been exported. Lately a few of these titles have appeared on streaming platforms, but many still haven’t. Just finding a way to listen to his music in any systematic or comprehensive way remains difficult.
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If I’m forced to come up with a quick description, I tell people that Pascoal played with Miles Davis. And that’s technically a true statement—in fact, Miles allegedly called Pascoal “the most impressive musician in the world”—but perhaps a misleading one. Pascoal’s stint with Davis was so short that it was over before most people knew it started. Yet Davis was clearly fascinated by his new hire, and featured him in several capacities on the Live/Evil album, recorded in 1970, where Pascoal serves as keyboardist, drummer, and composer.
But even that short tenure in Miles Davis’s band represents quite an achievement, especially when you consider that the other pianists on the Live/Evil album were Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. Why did Miles need Hermeto Pascoal, if he already had those talents available to him?
Adding to the puzzle, Pascoal is hardly a pianist or drummer. Or, let me phrase it differently: Pascoal is much more than a pianist or drummer. He does many other things.
And what other things, you ask?
Well, take your pick.
A friend tells me he once saw Pascoal in a concert where he played a different instrument on every song, including the proverbial kitchen sink (with a trumpet mouthpiece attached). If you’ve caught him at the right time or place, you might have heard the Sorcerer make music from teapots, toys, napkins, pints of beer, the carpet, parts of his body, pretty much anything. There’s a video circulating online of Pascoal visiting the dentist, and interrupting the procedure to create a song with the saliva sucker.
On one of the Live/Evil tracks, Pascoal is credited as “whistler”—and that’s maybe the only time the old puckeroo shows up on a Miles Davis album. I tend to gravitate to Pascoal’s work on traditional instruments (he seems capable of playing all of them), but those only give you a small taste of what he represents to his fans, or how he views his craft. “A chair is an instrument,” Pascoal once explained to an interviewer. “A table is an instrument. There are so many instruments." He complains that it would be tedious to view music in any other way.
So, at some point, I stopped calling Pascoal a musician—it seemed more accurate to describe him as musical. His nickname is well chosen, because his ability to extract music from the world around him is a kind of sorcery. Pascoal is like a character in a superhero movie, where each person has some amazing power. His superpower is that he’s the most musical person in the world. And if you disagree, you need to show me someone who makes more music with more things in more ways. Trust me, you can’t.
“A friend tells me he once saw Pascoal in a concert where he played a different instrument on every song, including the proverbial kitchen sink (with a trumpet mouthpiece attached).”
Pascoal was born on June 22, 1936 in Lagoa da Canoa in Algoas, a state in northeastern Brazil known for its lakes, cattle, and sugarcane crop. At age 14, he ran away from home to try his luck as an accordionist in Recife. By the mid-1960s, he was showing up on some of the classic bossa nova recordings, but as accompanist or band member, not a star. Pascoal wouldn’t make his first album as a leader until the 1970s when, with Miles Davis’s enthusiastic endorsement, he started gaining a cult following
The relationship with Miles didn’t end happily. When Live/Evil was released, Pascoal noticed that songs he wrote were attributed to Davis, and initiated a lawsuit to reclaim his rights. So I’m not surprised the he wasn’t invited back for Davis’s next album. But even this short fling allowed Pascoal to secure a recording contract with Cobblestone, which resulted in the album Hermeto (also known as Brazilian Adventure).
At a time when most jazz fans associated Brazilian music with gentle bossa nova musings, this wild and unpredictable album must have shaken up listeners. In fact, Pascoal was already developing a reputation as a rule-breaking performer who rarely took the familiar path. (Check out, for example, how he plays “Girl from Ipanema” on this track with Elis Regina, especially the chords he uses in the bridge.) He makes occasional nods in the direction of bossa nova stylings on his debut leader date, but his maximalist tendencies ultimately subvert any crossover potential for the record, which relinquishes the sensual Copacabana sensibility for something showier and more free-form, more akin to what the Brazilian squad was doing at the World Cup at almost at the same moment Pascoal was recording this music.
Yet even after this Brazilian Adventure, Pascoal still seemed a promising bet for US labels. After all, he possessed so much talent. There had to be some way for him to rise above his insider status and capture a larger dose of fame. On his 1977 album Slaves Mass, he seemed on the verge of doing just that. With the support of his label Warner Bros., Pascoal enlisted the services of Ron Carter, Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and incorporated elements of jazz-rock fusion and contemporary Brazilian popular music into his personal soundscapes. Would this be the decisive moment when the man who sued Miles Davis gained recognition as a global star?
How did Pascoal handle this opportunity? On the title track to Slaves Mass, he mixes dissonant guitar chords with screeches and what sounds like loud grunts of percussive intensity—yet even this experimental music is eerily danceable, and features a hypnotic chanting interlude that pushes at the borderline between artistic performance and magical ritual. This was hardly a formula for a platinum album, but was perhaps something better, a propulsive invitation to a probing mind determined to take songs to hitherto unknown places.
Pascoal’s style and instrumental palette would change over the years, but the strangeness and surprises never stopped. When he released an album of forró music, that traditional dance style so popular in northeastern Brazil, where he grew up, Pascoal turned this folk music into true devil’s dances, unrelenting and maddening in their melodic complexity. In other instances, his songs veered between free jazz pandemonium and funky grooves, refusing to recognize the subgenre boundaries other musicians took for granted. Or he might sit down at the piano to play a languid waltz, but soon the tempo is changing, the chords getting stranger, and finally the pianist starts shrieking and talking to the keyboard.
Then there was that time Pascoal made his whole band jump in a lagoon and play a kind of water music never envisioned by Handel.
Jovino Santos Neto, who was a member of Pascoal’s band for fifteen years, recently called my attention to an even more unusual recording made at Jovino’s home in 1980. Some frogs were croaking on a rainy day, and Pascoal, in typical fashion, viewed this as an invitation to join them in performance. The master pulled out a piccolo, and here was the result:
Or consider Pascoal stepping away from the piano at the 1:45 mark in “Autumn Leaves” in order to take a percolating solo on the coffee mug.
The experiential or humanistic aspect of Pascoal’s work is of paramount importance, as these examples make clear. But his legacy is just as rich when approached from the more purely analytic perspective of music theory. Check out, for example, this transcription of his remarkable recording of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight”—which is part of a series of 14 online lectures on Pascoal by Richard Boukas.
The more deeply you become immersed in Pascoal’s life and music, the more you realize that his vision can’t be contained in an album. As I promised (or warned) at the start, he represents a musical way of life, and no recording can convey more than a small taste of what that actually signifies. I’m reluctant to even provide a playlist—how can any curation on my part, however astute, show you how to follow the musical paths embedded in your own destiny? Because that’s what the Sorcerer is ultimately all about—discovering ecstatic sources of music ready-at-hand that you always took for granted. Pascoal should have lived in some other time and place, when the most prominent musicians were shamans and gurus—instead he’s expected to operate as a mere recording artist. Despite what the music business tells you, that’s a small thing compared to what an artist of this stature potentially offers us.
A tribute of this sort requires a summing up. But that’s the one thing Hermeto Pascoal won’t allow. For a man who views the whole universe as a source of music, no box or category is large enough to contain him. So I won’t try to attach him to a genre or a style or even a country. Instead I’ll pay tribute to a career and an oeuvre, but even more to an attitude, or perhaps what I might call a philosophy of music—almost a real-life demonstration of Schopenhauer’s claim that songs are our best entry point into the greater reality that surpasses our everyday experiences.
Let others point to the Grammy awards and gold disks on their walls. Pascoal, the most musical man in the world, may not have those honors. But, to his credit, he doesn’t even recognize the walls. To follow his lead, we may need to tear down a few ourselves.