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André Mehmari: Mixing Classical Music and Improvisation at DWNTWN Art Days

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For aesthetic and economic reasons, musical bilingualism between jazz and classical music is not the rarity -- or the scandal -- it once was. But few can master and dazzle in both idioms like Brazilian pianist and composer André Mehmari, who will be appearing for one night during DWNTWN Art Days, kicking off MDCLive's season.

Here is an improviser with ideas, impressive technique, and a clean, luminous sound who is as comfortable leading a jazz piano trio, accompanying a singer or playing with a chamber group.

A prodigy who began taking piano lessons at home with his mother at age five, Mehmari, 36, was a working musician by 11 and teaching at a conservatory in Brazil by 15. He even wrote a collection of short pieces, titled 21 Peças Líricas, as a keyboard method for students.

From the beginning, he says, there were no boundaries between the classical approach and improvisation.

"In fact, I didn't have a very strict classical background," he says in a phone interview from Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he was performing later that night. "I started improvising at a very early age. I was about 8 when I was already inclined to improvisation. I think improvisation took me to the jazz world and also prevented me from becoming a conventional classical pianist. It's something very basic and old in my life and I think it has a strong relationship with the music I listened to growing up at home.

"My mother was my first teacher and she played a variety of music at the piano," he says. "It was not only classical, but all kinds of music. And it was not only on piano but also accordion and guitar. I have a very musical background."

Mehmari's most recent release is a duet with mandolinist Hamilton de Holanda, the excellent Gismonti Pascoal, in which they explore the music of two important, and idiosyncratic, performers and composers in modern Brazilian music: Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal.

Not surprisingly, Gismonti and Pascoal both straddle and challenge the classical/popular divide.

Mehmari, who performs in various settings including solo, duos, trios as well as large ensembles, has won prizes such as the National Composition Competition Award for Omaggio a Berio (Homage to Berio), a tribute to Italian contemporary composer Luciano Berio based in the music of composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), and earned commissions for orchestras and chamber groups.

He can quote Brahms in one his pieces, and then effortlessly turn and address the music of choro master Pixinguinha, or singer songwriters such as Milton Nascimento or Ivan Lins. "I think it's all connected," he says. " I wouldn't say it's all the same, but we can connect these universes when you love them all. I love Pixinguinha as much as I love Brahms, and the piano is a very generous instrument. It works as a melting pot for these different languages and traditions."

In the end, he says, the fundamentals are the same. "I try to blend the rigor of the classical world into my improvisations, but there is a lot of rigor in the popular traditions too," he explains. "When the classical tradition is done at a very high level, spontaneity is also present -- just like in good popular music and jazz."

André Mehmari performs as part of MDLive's programming during DWNTWN Art Days on Friday at 8 p.m., at the Freedom Tower. The performance is free.

--Fernando Gonzalez, artburstmiami.com

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