Friday, October 3, 2014


Egberto Gismonti, Toronto, 1990

I HAD HEARD OF EGBERTO GISMONTI: His records came out on ECM, a label that specialized in the more intellectual sort of post-free jazz, and were drenched in a long, resonant reverb that critics jokingly referred to as the "Sound of the Fjords." Based on those records, I didn't know what he was doing on the same bill with Hermeto Pascoal, whose very busy records, full of melodies chasing each other in a frenzy, couldn't have sounded more different from something like Sol Do Meio Dia, the Gismonti ECM record I bought to familiarize myself with him before the show.

Gismonti (pronounced "Zhis-monsch" in Brazilian Portuguese, apparently: You sound like an ass when you say it like this but that's apparently the correct way) kept mostly to the background in the dressing rooms at Berlin, the uptown nightclub where they were playing. Certainly Pascoal and his band were such a boisterous crowd that it would have been the correct response. He agreed to sit for a roll of portraits, however, and so I found a dim but evenly-lit spot - the "Anton corner" - and started shooting with my Nikon F3 and a roll of T-Max 3200.

Egberto Gismonti, Toronto, 1990

Gismonti was a child prodigy with musical parents who learned to play the flute, clarinet, piano and, eventually, his own custom-made guitars. He recorded his first record when he was 21 and began making records for ECM when EMI/Odeon, his Brazilian label, told him his recording career was over after Brazil's economy collapsed. It's hard to pin down what he does; I'm very fond of Agua & Vinho, a now-rare record he made for EMI/Odeon that sounds like art songs. A lot of people love the live record he made with Charlie Haden in Montreal just a year before I photographed him, but which wasn't released on ECM for another decade.

I've always relied on a single working method when I don't have the luxury of a striking background or beautiful light: Put on a short lens and get up close. In a crowded dressing room lit by a handful of lightbulbs, this was the best option for shooting Gismonti. You end up being a little bit confrontational with your subject, having invaded their personal space, but most of the time you get something more than a practiced smile or a wary look.

I took a variation of the top photo of Gismonti in and out of my book for years, but its simplicity never seemed to get much out of art directors and photo editors. I really wanted to put the bottom shot in, but caution always got the better of me. In retrospect I regret it - it's not like I had that much to lose.


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