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By Lissette Corsa
Gaia Wilmer and her 19-piece ensemble celebrate the genius of Egberto Gismonti.
Brazilian composer and saxophonist Gaia Wilmer feels most at home in an Egberto Gismonti song. “When I listen to some of his pieces, I remember being at my dad’s house,” Wilmer says, on the phone from São Paulo, where she currently lives. “I remember, like, a Sunday morning. Maybe it’s not even what happened, but I feel like I belong in that space.”
Wilmer, who grew up in the southern Brazilian city of Florianópolis listening to the iconic composer and multi-instrumentalist’s music, comes full circle on the two-disc Folia: The Music of Egberto Gismonti(Sunnyside), her third album as a bandleader. She pays homage to her musical idol and friend on 10 tracks culled from his expansive, genre-bending oeuvre and reimagines them as her own. Wilmer re-composed and arranged the music for a large ensemble of 19 instruments, carefully curating an assortment of classics, as well as more obscure pieces, from the prolific composer’s repertoire released between the early-’80s and late-’90s, with a focus on songs from Wilmer’s favorite Gismonti album, 1981’s Em Familia.
Surprisingly, Wilmer never dreamed of becoming a professional musician. She began learning saxophone after graduating from college with a degree in international studies. “At some point, I realized that I was studying people talking about art and about some kind of impulse and some kind of balance between rationality and emotions,” she says, “and I was like, ‘You know, maybe I should try something different.’ I was listening to Paul Desmond, and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll play saxophone.’”
Instead of moving to England to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, Wilmer stayed in Florianópolis and studied music. Two years later she moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she cobbled together as many private lessons as she could and fell in with a community arts organization that sponsored Corações Futuristas, a woodwind orchestra named for Gismonti’s 1976 album and specializing in his music. “Egberto loved it,” Wilmer says. “So he kept working with them.” When the Gismonti tribute orchestra found itself without its alto sax player for a concert in Rio, Wilmer was asked to substitute. It was then that she crossed paths with the enigmatic Gismonti.
“I had like two weeks to practice this crazy hard music,” she recalls. With no rehearsals before the show and only one soundcheck with Gismonti, Wilmer felt the weight of the moment. She practiced his music 10 hours a day leading up to the encounter. “When I got to the soundcheck it wasn’t like I was playing amazingly, it was just that he knew how hard it was. He just looked at me and said, ‘You practiced,’” Wilmer says, laughing. “So then, after that, he just sympathized with me.”
So much so, that Gismonti personally wrote a letter of recommendation for Wilmer when she applied to Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2013. Years later, as a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, in what would become the impetus for Folia, Wilmer began arranging Gismonti’s music for large ensembles as part of her coursework. In 2018, with several arrangements in hand, she received a grant from the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil to record an album and perform her version of Gismonti’s music with the maestro in a series of 12 concerts across four Brazilian cities, to mark his 70th birthday. Folia was recorded in Rio in about three days between shows.
“It was very emotional and touching,” Wilmer says. “Up until the moment we went on stage, I didn’t know what he was going to play, which piece, or which instrument. It was always a mystery.”
On Folia, Wilmer thoughtfully deconstructs and reinvents Gismonti. She invests a sense of reverence and playful familiarity in songs like the cinematic album-title opener and “Infância,” which features Jacques Morelenbaum, a longtime Gismonti collaborator, on sublime cello. Gismonti himself performs on two tracks, “7 Anéis,” originally composed as a choro, and “Karatê.” Both pieces are made bolder, more lyrical, exhilaratingly jagged, layered and disjointed all at once by Gismonti’s irrepressible piano.
In a display of dazzling artistry, Gismonti and Wilmer recognize each other in a shared understanding of the entrancing vastness of Brazilian music. “I always felt this connection with Brazilian music,” Wilmer says. “It’s something that I’m not even trying to do, it’s what makes sense to me, in a way that I feel I can be honest.”
Featured photo by Dani Gurget/Da Pá Virada.