Ana Moura at Berklee Performance Center
Defining fado – the song style that emerged in Lisbon in the early 19th century – is as tricky as defining the blues (which is usually 12 bars, but can be 16 or 8, and is usually three chords, but can also be a one-chord drone). Fado is like that, too. It was once tied to strict poetic forms, but now it can encompass all manner of form and expression. Like blues, it can be happy or sad, fast or slow. In fact, it’s sometimes called “Portuguese blues.” And, like jazz, you sort of know what it is when you hear it. Also like jazz, you can define fado as what fado singers sing.
At Berklee on Saturday night, one of the best of the latter generation of fado singers, Ana Moura, all but conceded as much about the slipperiness of genre distinctions when she announced after a couple of songs that she’d be singing “traditional fado,” as well as fado from the north of Portugal, and “jazz.” By the last, she meant Joni Mitchell. Hey, fine by me: Joni played with Jaco and collaborated with Mingus, right?
The latest Moura album, Desfado (Decca) presents a kind of crossover. It’s produced by Mitchell’s former producer (and former husband) Larry Klein and includes her “A Case of You.” Herbie Hancock plays Fender Rhodes on one track. But the core fado sound is there: in Moura’s soulful contralto and in the central instrumentation of acoustic guitars and Portuguese guitar. The latter looks a little like a big, round-bodied mandolin, and it sounds like one too.
At Berklee, Moura’s band included keyboards (piano or organ) and drums, but the instrumental sound was defined by that Portuguese guitar, acoustic guitar, and acoustic bass guitar. The music was least compelling on a couple of occasions when it sounded like no more than middle-of-the-road folk-pop sung in Portuguese. But the basic fado sound was revealed when the keyboardist and drummer left the stage and Moura sang over gentle folkloric dance rhythms to the sound of those strings. Key here were the obligatos of Portuguese guitar player Angelo Freire, who unleashed one virtuoso flourish after another. On faster phrases, his shimmering terminal vibrato gave him a touch of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz.
There was maybe bit of gypsy in Moura’s presentation too. Wearing a long off-the-shoulder black gown, she moved slowly, extended her arms and long-fingered hands, turning her palm in or out to underline a dramatic point. Sometimes she gestured with the fringes of her (traditional) black shawl clutched in her fingers. During one of othe numbers with the trio, she walked slowly over to Freire with her hand held out and then, with each verse, made a small quarter turn toward the audience until she was facing us again. She knew how to profile, how to use her long mane of unevenly cut raven hair for dramatic effect, how to shift her shoulder subtly on a two-beat. And all along, that deep contralto, sometimes husky, poured out of her, sometimes widening with a bit of vibrato. She provoked shouts from the audience, especially on the more traditional numbers.
Mid-show, there was one extended instrumental number, there were fast and slow waltzes, one that approached polka rhythm, and sometimes keyboardist João Gomes suggested an accordion (more gypsy). There were songs about love triangles and one from the new album, “Thank You,” by songwriter David Poe, that she sang in English, but still sounded fado (“Thank you for telling lies/thank you for making me cry”). And there was Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” Which is maybe jazz, maybe folk, but for Moura clearly fado.