In the late fall of 2006, during the year I lived in Lisbon with my family, we took a short trip up to the town of Coimbra. While there, I came upon a small but overstuffed record store, the kind I remember from my childhood, and I immediately made a beeline to the Portuguese music section—I was always looking for new music of this country I loved. One of my best discoveries was Do Outro Lado, a CD of symphonic jazz by the saxophonist Carlos Martins. This is lush and soulful music that I still play obsessively. One of the guiding forces behind the music was Bernardo Sassetti, the Portuguese pianist, arranger, and composer, and I began to seek out his own music.
Sassetti had many CDs to his credit, solo and with a trio, musical scores for films, and among my favorites, his collaboration with fellow jazz pianist Mário Laginha, four hands of extraordinary jazz improvisation.
Every song is a highlight, though perhaps my favorite is Sassetti and Laginha’s version of the classic “Take the A Train.” It’s a slow, dreamy vamp, sexy and reflective at the same time, and filled, it seems to me, with the nostalgia the Portuguese call saudade.
Last week a dear friend from Lisbon, Fernanda Pratas, wrote to tell me that Bernardo Sassetti had died on May 10th, at the age of 41. Besides being an accomplished musician and composer, Sassetti was also a photographer of some note, and he died from a fall while shooting pictures on the edge of a cliff at Guincho, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He left behind a wife, the actress Beatriz Batarda, and two young daughters.
In 1980 I was living in a remote village in Ivory Coast when news came over our battery-run radio that John Lennon had been shot and killed. None of the villagers had heard of him, or the Beatles, and I remember how my wife Alma and I had felt so alone, with no one able to share or understand our sadness at this great musician’s tragic passing. I feel something of this despair today, since Bernardo Sassetti is virtually unknown in the U.S., though he is famous in Portugal and throughout Europe. What a loss Sassetti’s death is, though no one I know here realizes that. So I thought, as an homage, I would present some of his music.
Here Sassetti performs the theme he composed for the movie Alice. You can hear some of the delicacy and harmonic boldness of his playing, a direct line from Bill Evans, but touched with something else, I think, the saudade I mentioned earlier, a complicated emotion of loss and love and longing that has no English equivalent.
In this next video, Sassetti joins with the revered fado singer Carlos de Carmo, for the song “Cantigas de Maio,” composed by the great José Afonso. Here Sassetti’s piano seems to echo the twelve-string Portuguese guitar, the traditional accompaniment for fado singers. Portuguese jazz has its roots in fado (considered the blues of Portugal), and these two remarkable musicians give this influence a deeply felt modern update.
I hesitate to recommend this final video, it has evoked tears in me more than once. It’s a television interview with Mário Laginha the day after Sassetti’s death, and Laginha’s deep sadness is barely contained. I wondered why he would agree to speak publicly so soon after his dear friend and collaborator’s death, until Laginha sits at the piano and plays a song, one from the four handed improvisations CD I mentioned above. The song is “Despedida,”—Farewell—and Laginha plays his part, while Sassetti’s, of course, remains silent.
Click to view video:
Mário Laginha pays homage to Bernardo Sassetti