Since first joining forces over a quarter-century ago, vocalist Mili Bermejo and bassist Dan Greenspan have created a recorded library of timeless music with a number of cherished partners. For those fortunate enough to experience them in live performance, however, the lingering memory of this brilliantly skilled and totally compatible couple is likely to be the moments when they stand alone. “We have always wanted to make pure music,” Greenspan explains, “and have always included duo tunes in our sets.” On October 7, 2016 the pair releases their first all-duo program in two decades, Arte de Duo, on Ediciones Pentagrama.
Bermejo, born in Buenos Aires, raised in Mexico City and a professor at Berklee College of Music since 1984, and Greenspan, a New Haven native and classically trained cellist who became one of the Boston area’s leading freelance bassists, have created a unique body of music that applies jazz improvisation to original songs and music from throughout the Americas. Themes of political liberation, environmental responsibility and interpersonal commitment have defined both their music and their career and led them to a major life decison. “The business changed so much post-9/11 that we had to decide whether we should reinvent ourselves,” Bermejo notes. This led to what Greenspan describes as “an entire creative undertaking of another kind” – a move to New Hampshire, where the couple built their own house.
“We decided to live the right way,” Bermejo says of their relocation to a nature reserve. “It has brought us closer and closer to `do it yourself,’ including growing as much of our own food and making as many of our own clothes as possible. It has purified us, and removed many of our frustrations.” But, Greenspan adds, “For a while, the move replaced music. Finding opportunities to rehearse in Boston when everyone we worked with had so many other gigs became hell.” The bassist also turned his attention to baking and has built a growing reputation with his Dan’s Brick Oven Bread, while a construction accident also left him unable to play for several months. The future of their performing partnership became unclear.
“But Mili insisted that we couldn’t let the music go,” Greenspan stresses, and the result is a new focus on the intimate artistry that had previously only been showcased on their 1997 album Duo which was released on Gunther Schuller’s GM Records. “It got us back to the essence of art,” he says, “and provides the best opportunity to use all of the classical information that we have.” Yet the new music, developed over a series of monthly gigs at the Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes the pair beyond their previous achievements. “We didn’t want to repeat ourselves,” Bermejo adds. “Now we reduce. I think of the music like my garden, as being all about beauty after years of work. And nobody told me how to do it.”
The influence of life in New Hampshire is clear in the Bermejo originals “La Casa del Arbol” (“The Tree House”), about “a secret refugeŠamong trees and stars” and “Cosecha” (“Harvest”); but she also contributes two new titles in her string of beautiful love songs, “Los que se Aman” (“Those Who Love”) and “No Dejo de Quererte” (“I Don’t Stop Loving You”). The duo also links Bermejo’s “Décima Muerte I” from their first duo disc and “Décima Muerte II” by the Mexican poet and playwright Xavier Villarrutiga in a medley linked by a powerful Greenspan solo.
Greenspan’s bass also launches “Las Orillas del Mar” (“At the Edge of the Sea”), a 13th Century feminist poem with music by Hafez Modirzadeh, the composer-saxophonist who featured Bermejo extensively on his acclaimed 2011 album In Convergence Liberation (Pi Recordings). “Working with Hafez is the most challenging thing I’ve done,” she notes, “and it has opened both of our minds. Now I’m improvising more, though not `taking a chorus’ in the traditional sense.” This new improvisational freedom is joyously displayed on “Tres Veces Heroica” (“Three Times Heroic”), written by Mexican composer Charlie Dríguez and previously heard on the 2006 live recording De Tierra (Of Earth) (Ediciones Pentagrama), and “End of the Beginning,” written for the duo by the Armenian-born pianist and composer Vardan Ovsepian. “Windmills of Your Mind,” by French composer Michel Legrand with Spanish lyrics by Manuel Gurria, was also arranged by Ovsepian. “Vardan’s arrangement got Dan back in shape after his injury,” Bermejo notes, adding with a laugh, “it also made me get back in shape.”
Two works from Argentina are included, “Equipaje” (“Luggage”) by Juan Quintero and “Cambalache” (“Pawn Shop”) by E. Santos Discépolo. The latter, a classic tango, gives Greenspan the opportunity to display his skill with the bow. “Candombe para Gardel” (“Candombe for Gardel”), a tribute to Argentinian tango master Carlos Gardel from the Afro-Uruguayan perspective of Rubén Rada, completes the program.
Arte del Duo is Bermejo’s fifth release on Mexico’s Ediciones Pentagrama label, which recently received the Independence Award from the Fundación Mediterránea Mar y Tierra in Tarragona, Spain. “We’ve stayed faithful to the vision of [label founder] Modesto López: Independence and 35 years of support to Latin American artists dedicated to progressive social change,” she notes.
The album will be released at the Lilypad on Sunday afternoon, October 23, where a new audio system created especially for the duo by sound engineer Art Steele will enhance the performance. “I asked Art for a minimal system, with just two small speakers, Greenspan explains. “Now my hands are free, just like my mother’s were when she sang,” Bermejo adds.
Creativity, and the magic that ensues, remain at the heart of Mili Bermejo’s and Dan Greenspan’s music; and Arte del Duo is their most creative and magical statement to date.