Piano Panorama: André Mehmari returns to Kerrytown


André Mehmari

André Mehmari piano playing blurs genres and styles. Photo by Flávio Charchar.

André Mehmari plays piano like it's an extension of his body. It's easy to imagine his fingers taking the place of the piano's hammers and directly pounding the strings that stretch from inside the keyboard and connect directly to his brain. His hands move like dancers, gliding over the keys with such grace and flow that it's hard not to stare at them as he fills the room with gorgeous melodies and blissful harmonic combinations.

Born in 1977 in Niterói, Brazil, a town across Guanabara Bay from Rio de Janeiro, Mehmari began studying piano with his mom at age 5, learned how to improvise soon after, and by 10 had written his first compositions. His wide-ranging, highly personal playing incorporates jazz, classical, and all forms of Brazilian music, and those styles spill out on the piano with stunning fluidity.

Mehmari returns to Ann Arbor to play Kerrytown Concert House on Sunday, July 16, two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of his last concert there. He’s also playing the Toledo Museum of Art on Saturday, July 15, where he will get to perform in the Glass Pavilion on a super-cool Wendell Castle-designed Steinway piano as well as playing a percussive improvisation on original glass art that was crafted for the museum’s Hot Shop.

We talked to Mehmari about his technique, sui genris Beatles covers, and glass marimbas

Q: I read that you like to spend a lot of your free time reading music and studying compositions. Are you able to internalize a lot of music just by reading it and then later draw on it from memory when improvising?
A: Yes, I can read music and hear it inside my head. I also have perfect pitch and this also helps a lot in this process.

Q: What's the origin of the maxixe arrangement for The Beatles' "Penny Lane"? Did you just hear the song as a tango in your head and set to work on it? Those rhythmic intervals between the pinky and thumb on your left hand are epic.
A: I recorded an entire album based on Beatles songs, aimed for children, in 2005. I had a hard time trying to play this classic “Penny Lane” without making a boring cover or a poor imitation of the original, so I searched for my Brazilian roots and converted the song into a maxixe, which could be defined as the father of the samba. Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed. I have some negative feedback on YouTube from Beatles purists (laughs). This happens when you are not with the crowd.

Q: You hands look very relaxed and fluid when you play, even during louder or faster parts. Was this something you really concentrated on perfecting?
A: My technique is far from being perfect and I think it is only suitable for my own idiosyncratic style of playing the piano. I never spent much time playing scales or pure technique methods but played a lot of classical music to improve my sound and variety of touch. Playing Bach from a very early age helped me develop a polyphonic ear, something that led me to a much more complex comprehension of music.

Q: I saw the video where you're practicing Paganini improvisations on a Yamaha Reface CP. Our library loans music gear to the public, including the CP. What do you like about the instrument?
A: I love this little instrument! It's portable and has a variety of piano sounds built in so you don’t have to have a computer all the time with you to generate sounds. And it is battery powered! You can play or compose in your backyard!

Q: How do you plan your concerts? Do you know which compositions you're going to play in advance, or you just feel the room and decide in the moment?
A: It depends. Sometimes I plan a week in advance, sometimes I never plan and ask the audience for themes to improvise upon. Depends on my mood or on what the presents wants for me in that particular concert or situation.

Q: How did you start playing the glass marimba? What do you like about it compared to a regular marimba?
A: I wrote the soundtrack for the first Brazilian Netflix series, 3%. I hear it was a huge success in the U.S., being the most popular foreign language Netflix series. The glass marimba is used on the soundtrack I’m writing right now and I just love it. It's fully handmade by a pupil of Marco Antonio Guimaraes, founder of legendary Uakti group. It has a much longer sustain than a wood marimba but it never clutters harmony. It has a very pure sound, with some weird harmonics. I really like it! I recorded myself playing this glass marimba and will play along with the recording during my concert in Toledo. Maybe I can do the same in Ann Arbor.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

André Mehmari plays Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. 4th Ave., Ann Arbor, on Sunday, July 16, at 8 pm. Tickets are $5-$30. Visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com for more info. Mehmari also performs Saturday, July 15, at 8 pm in the Toledo Museum of Art's Glass Pavilion, 2445 Monroe St. Tickets are $5-$10 and can be purchased from eventbrite.com.