Album review

Amaro Freitas – ‘Sankofa’

Amaro Freitas – Sankofa
(Far Out Recordings. Album review by Adrian Pallant)

There’s always a frisson of excitement when a left-field approach to ‘piano trio’ comes into view; and an online search for ‘Amaro Freitas’ soon returns live video which goes towards confirming the audio essence of new album Sankofa – that of a man who is utterly and perhaps even spiritually absorbed in his instrument and his music-making. Seated at a Steinway, Freitas cuts an enigmatic figure, his often focused gaze contrasted by agile, expansive exploration of the keyboard, with a textural, rhythmic and percussive compulsion that is at least as important as melody.

The Brazilian pianist, who hails from the slums of Recife, is a revelation. Inspired by Capiba, Moacir Santos, Hermeto Pascoal and Gismonti, as well as Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, his 2016 debut release Sangue Negro garnered critical acclaim, followed by 2018’s Rasif. This original music draws on the vibrant dance/carnival culture of Amaro Freitas’ homeland – frevo, baião, maracatu, ciranda, maxixe; and while it may tidily be categorised ‘Latin’, the mesmeric modern jazz produced with double bassist Jean Elton and drummer/percussionist Hugo Medeiros suggests myriad influences.

‘Sankofa’ is a mystical Adinkra symbol of a backward-facing bird which Amaro identifies with, explaining that it “teaches us the possibility of going back to our roots, in order to realize our potential to move forward”. Using it is a conceptual basis for this latest recording, he elucidates: “I worked to try to understand my ancestors, my place, my history, as a black man. Brazil didn’t tell us the truth about Brazil. The history of black people before slavery is rich with ancient philosophies. By understanding the history and the strength of our people, one can start to understand where our desires, dreams and wishes come from.”

The album’s eight tracks soon reveal Freitas’ pianistic distinction. He works the instrument as a democratic third of the whole, rather than soloist supported by rhythm section; and repetitive motifs and rhythms not only echo his Brazilian heritage but also suggest a nod to classical minimalism. The calmative undertow of opening title track Sankofa might easily have taken inspiration from the more reflective side of e.s.t.’s catalogue (at times, the comparison is striking) until the trio breaks into a momentum that showcases the leader’s character. In particular, he leans into high, broken-chord cerebration – imaginable as a personal meditation – while his left hand is closely aligned to Jean Elton’s bass phrases (the split-brain personality of Roland Kirk comes to mind).

In Ayeye, dominated by more top-end piano patterns, Medieros’ mercurial presence at the kit provides a slouchy yet intricate funk-soul groove reminiscent of Jamiroquai, enhanced by the beautifully vocal rasp of double bass. But Freitas’ jazz sensibilities also fill it with ardent soloing, thunderous glissandi and stomping clusters (the Monk connection is right there). Baquaqua – presumably referencing African-born Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua, enslaved in Brazil in the mid-19th century but who ultimately found freedom in New York – has a crashing urgency, Freitas seemingly marking time with his repeating tonic-and-dominant motif (which can initially feel a little overpowering, though comes to add weight to this story). Again, integrated into the busyness of this piece is the pianist’s impressive left-hand groundswell in conjunction with bassist Elton. 

Vila Bela offers a midway oasis, its simply-laid chords providing an easier appraisal of Amaro’s chromatic thoughts before angular, punkish Cázumba fizzes with bass-heavy riffs and hypnotic cross-rhythms, momentarily pausing amidst the echoic, percussive imagery of a forest glade; and snare-beaten Batacuda (samba on steroids) explodes with audicious, sputtering complexity, the pianist eventually turning full-time percussionist at his keyboard. Similarly fervid Malakoff is a stunner, crackling and popping like a Phronesis/Esbjörn Svensson tribute, an impression heightened by Freitas’ electronically-prepared pyrotechnics. To close, the unpredictable chord progressions of pensive Nascimento (birth) are elegantly shaped by the trio – a prayer, perhaps, for the strength of humanity on which this album is built.

The blend of integrity, passion and technical mastery in Sankofa is increasingly seductive. As Freitas himself states, regarding his trio: “We treasure the creative process. We know it takes time to reach a different place, and then it takes time to understand that place, to translate it. Let’s stop swimming in the surface, let’s dive.”

Sankofa is released on Far Out Recordings on Friday, 25 June 2021

LINK: Amaro Freitas on Bandcamp

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