When its chimes impinged on his recording session in an old theatre in his hometown high in the Venezuelan Andes, pianist Leo Blanco asked not for whom the bell tolled, but played on regardless.
Eventually, however, once the audience had left he returned to the theatre to improvise a beautiful little nocturne around the chimes, which closes his fine new album of solo piano compositions and improvisations, Pianoforte.
It’s a long way, as the condor flies, from Mérida, nestling amid the Andes, to Glasgow’s City Halls Recital Room, but Blanco plays a solo concert there on 26 June, the opening night of the Glasgow Jazz Festival, and the first gig of the Scottish leg of a UK tour.
And that’s definite, he assures me, bearing in mind that he failed to show for his last scheduled Scottish appearance, at Celtic Connections in 2011, owing to a visa glitch. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, where he teaches at Berklee College of Music, but steeped in his native Latin American traditions which he blends seamlessly with jazz and other elements, Blanco first made a big impression in Scotland in 2006, when I was lucky enough to catch his electrifying gig at The Lot in Edinburgh, with Scots saxophonist (and Berklee alumnus) Laura MacDonald, drummer Alyn Cosker and bassist Mario Caribe. Standing out amid a memorable evening was Poconos, a typically Blanco-ish piece of work, inspired by African pygmy singing, which he worked into hypnotic ostinato lines, over which MacDonald’s sax floated serenely.
On this, Blanco’s first UK tour, however, it’s all down to two hands and a keyboard; and it was the prospect of a fine new piano, presented by the Japanese Embassy in Venezuela, that drew Blanco to his home town’s venerable Teatro César Rengifo in July 2011.
Originally a seminary, dating back to the 18th century, the building is now part of the University of the Andes and a theatre, where Blanco has appeared frequently with bands and indeed where he would, as a youngster, watch his actress mother perform.
“I always used to complain about the piano there,” he recalls. “They had a beautiful Steinway but it was very old and not maintained, but when they got this new one I thought I’d try it.”
He and his sound engineer liked what they heard, as well as the ambience of the place, and decided they’d try recording a solo album there over two nights, one of them in front of an audience. But he’d forgotten about the belfry. “If you live in that city and go to that theatre you get used to it, but for solo piano... when I heard the bells for the first time during a quiet moment when we were recording, yeah, it took me by surprise. But I wasn’t going to stop.”
Bells or no bells, the result is a hugely engaging capturing of largely improvised music, totally of the moment. Blanco’s playing can be spare and luminous, as in the opening of the album’s only cover, Simon Diaz’s Tonada del Cabrestero, or boldly expansive, not infrequently entering into glittering, Debussy-like territory, as in the scintillating trills of Improvisation or when the bass churning of Desiguales suddenly elevates into a sort of chiming children’s rhyme. He reprises the swaying cadences of Light and Dark from his album Roots and Effect and, to close, pulls off that lovely little Haiku for Midnight Bells & Piano.
Recording an album of live solo improvisations was “a kind of an adventure,” he says. “I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like it or not. After we recorded it I was very busy with different projects so didn’t have a chance to really listen to it immediately afterwards.”
It was the sound engineer who persuaded him to listen to it properly. “It is very common for musicians to be self critical... but, having listened to it and edited it, I think it has a satisfying degree of honesty.”
These solo sketches have been likened to imaginary movie soundtracks, but Blanco insists that he doesn’t visualise anything specific when playing. “For me, it’s just laying down a first chord or note on the piano – that’s the beginning for me to develop a story.”
• Leo Blanco plays the City Halls, Glasgow, on 26 June; the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, on 27 June; the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 28 June; and then tours on through Scotland and England, see www.leoblanco.com. For full Glasgow Jazz Festival details, see www.jazzfest.com