Brazil’s Mysterious Traveler

Weber Iago's Os Filhos do VentoPianist and composer Weber Iago, an important albeit insufficiently recognized figure, is somewhat of a nomad. He has lived in Rio, Los Angeles, the Monterey Peninsula, and currently resides in Vancouver, Washington. Formerly Weber Drummond, he adopted the stage name Weber Iago in homage to the Roma people more than a decade ago.

Commonly known as gypsies, these traditionally nomadic people have made the planet their home.  Iago’s CD Os Filhos do Vento (Children of the Wind) is fa sound collage of the moods engendered by gypsy life, melding Brazilian jazz with classical chamber music to musically tell their story.  

Iago has a unique flair and it is certainly displayed here – wistful reverie, unforced virtuosity, and a natural inclination toward impressionism.  All his pianistic and compositional strengths – lyricism, rhythmic conception, an improvisational expertise that enables him to sustain ideas without contrivance – are also present. 

Clearly much of the CD is composed, with players moving between written sections and improvisation, but the music is so tightly-knit, the themes so intriguingly developed and transformed, and the whole conceived on such a dense and cryptic level that one senses the organic form of these performances. 

A commissioned suite in four movements, Os Filhos do Vento is augmented on the CD by five pieces inspired by the same theme and seems both a summation of all that has gone before in Iago’s career and the first definitive statement of a stylistic position.  The compositions alternate between composed and freely improvised, constantly changing character and perspective.  Although the line between composition and improvisation is at times bracingly thin, the thread that binds it all together is never broken. 

On the opening track, “Pelo Mundo Afora” (Out there in this World), a tabla statement sets the rhythmic motif explored.  Solos by Iago and Paul McCandless, an amazing colorist on oboe and English horn (best known for his work in the group Oregon), play out more as a dialogue in this coupling of first-rate soloists.  Written in 3/4, but with a 6/8 feel, the composition’s layering and thematic development shift through several phases and at points arrive at a hushed poignancy.

Iago’s delicacy of touch is heard on “The Making of a Path,” an improvised piano solo that brings in a quiet, reflective mood.  The parallel chords, tone clusters, and chordal punctuations, sounding calmly inevitable, impose structure and form on this darkly ruminative piece.  What is particularly interesting is the degree of subtle rubato that Iago allows himself.  His phrasing, nuancing, and command of tone suggest an adroit technician; his intuition denotes interpretative individuality.

The first two sections of “Sonata Brasileira” for flute and piano display Iago’s variegated ideas of blending and offsetting flute with piano.  Featuring Keith Underwood’s fire-eating flute virtuosity, the work’s sharply etched lines inhabit a territory somewhere between the conceptions of Hindemith and Prokofiev, but the way Iago has arranged for alternately subtle and dramatic color and texture is entirely his own.  The mood of the first section is witty and spiky, the dramatic tension created by its chromaticisms and unpredictable harmonies approaching the work of Bartók in intensity; by contrast, the deep expressiveness of the second section is more romantic, nostalgic, expansive.

Harmonically shrewd and rhythmically daring, the third section is an ebullient romp displaying two very different levels of tension, one slow and mysterious, the other hectic, but controlled.  Here Underwood and Iago discover a near-telepathic blend, continually hinting at sounds beyond the conventions they are playing within.  The unpredictable turns of phrase, oscillating between contemporary classical music and a limitless improvisational approach, show how effortlessly both performers, straining against, yet revelling in the tune’s parameters, lend a fluidity to its angular lines.

“Sara,” scored for oboe, English horn, soprano sax, bass clarinet, piano, and pipe organ, is a meditation on Santa Sara, the patron saint of the Roma people.  Here we find a sonic environment with each idea growing out of its predecessor, all of them flowering from the gentle piano and oboe introduction, which time and again returns sounding elegantly different at each recurrence.  With the aid of multi-tracking, woodwinds are added, vividly coloring the work’s spacious and thoughtful beauty and reflecting Iago’s convictions. 

Dramatic juxtapositions seem to be the organizing principle of “Prologue,” three impromptu vignettes (Ritual 1, 2, and 3) that coalesce around a relevance of response.  As incongruous sounds blend subtly or clash vehemently, the essential meaning of these expressionistic sounds, a ritual experience, comes through unerringly.  Invested with the emotional power of voices that fall somewhere between chanting and whispering, the primitive power of percussion, and Iago’s tightly coiled pianism, which has its own inherent drama, these performances verge on sound-poetry.

“Os Filhos do Vento” was written for flautist Keith Underwood in response to a commission from Peter Meckel, director of Hidden Valley Music Seminars.  “Haven” (Part 1) has three sections:  “Opening” trembles with motifs played continuously by two flutes and hovers near minimalism, the flutes acting as a voluptuous cushion for the cello’s soaring lyricism;  “Flute Cadenza” references several motivic germs from “Opening,” the solo flute exhibiting an extra strength of communication and a quality of spirituality; “Interlude and Bossa” retains the melody and form of “Opening,” but with flutes playing the melody to a bossa accompaniment.

There is an infectious dynamism to “Excellence of Being” (Part 2), which features Underwood’s flute and piccolo, his tone vibrant as he twists and swirls through this baião written in the style of Hermeto Pascoal.  Iago and Underwood solo, exploiting the middle section as if it were a launching pad to almost infinite possibilities, unfolding dexterous lines as beautiful as they are unpredictable.  Underwood instills life in every bar, performing dazzling feats apparently with the utmost ease while Iago provides poetic counterpoint to his mercurial clouds of virtuoso glory.

Yearning and tender, “Aura Lilas” (Part 3) is an intimately reflective ballad in which we hear probing flute playing.  Iago’s addiction to the sheer beauty of the sound he creates makes his sparse solo a captivating aural experience, his superb sense of touch enabling him to build to climaxes and release the tension at just the right moment.  Whereas cellist Joanna Blendulf’s emphasis is more on shadowing flute and piano, her inner light is no less intense, her phrasing no less rhapsodic.  Unsurprisingly, given these ingredients a wonderfully dense tranquility is created.

“Lua Nova” (Part 4) is divided into four fleeting episodes imaginatively linked into a unified entity.  The complex rhythmic conception and austere harmonic vocabulary on “Opening” is modeled on, influenced by, and incorporates many of Iago’s compositional interests in 20th century classical composers.  Tension sets in from the first bars with piano and percussive force.  As meters shift from 2/4 to 5/8 to 3/4 to 3/8 to 7/8, the work’s counterpoint, jagged rhythms, and asymmetric chords, offset against its maracatu groove, contribute drama and linear development.  The work is harmonically shrewd and rhythmically daring, the musicians, technically impeccable.

Iago finds an ecstatic state of inspiration on “Piano Cadenza.”  With the right blend of textural richness, his alternating power and delicacy sustains this spontaneous creation through to its haunting, elegiac conclusion.  “Interlude” oscillates between light-filled dream and stark waking reality.  It opens as a piano and cello duet set among undulating pastels; the flute enters, suggesting a watercolor recast in sound.  Creating a dance of the spirit within a deep inner stillness, the ensemble sound is couched in a musical language at once florid and bittersweet.  The bass comments, the tone darkens, and there is a gripping final chord. 

Exquisite, airy, tuneful, and bordering on the ferocious, “Recapitulation and Afterthoughts” is purposeful, moving from a fugue-like opening through tonal and melodic curves, its growing sense of agitation blossoming into a deliciously lyrical fabric.  Right from the opening, the musicians respond with perceptible keenness to Iago’s orchestral palette, bringing out specific rhythms and tone colors with heightened awareness.  There is a sense of relentless forward motion, of breathlessness almost.  It is an impetuous affair; the  obsessive meter changes and surging sixteenth note patterns that punctuate the work are a concrete example of this.

Weber Iago’s music is difficult to categorize.  Equally adept at improvisation and composition, Iago works in an area where the two disciplines overlap, even blur.  Although his technique is based in contemporary classical procedures, by using musicians well versed in free improvisation, he obtains striking results from small details and intimate ensembles.  Another characteristic is Iago’s recognition that the ensemble players are his partners in portrayal.  And here he and his colleagues are meticulously matched in a thrilling performance, the whole brimming over with life. 

Beyond dispute, Iago’s treatment of material reveals characterization of depth and dimension, the instrumental support is highly polished, and there is no lack of seriousness or ardor where it is called for.  In many ways the mosaic-like thematic references and connective tissue, the chamber music textures, and the ambitious arranging – along with the rich variety of moods, the various layers of instrumentation, and the solo excursions – can be seen as Iago’s distinctive individuality in full flower.  Gentle, beguiling, and hauntingly atmospheric, Os Filhos do Vento casts an enduring and hypnotic spell.

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an online international publication based in Los Angeles, for more than a decade. During that time he has  written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal

He is the recipient of three government grants that allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil.  His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish. You can reach him through his e-mail: cuica@interworld.net.

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