I just love a band that grins. Like Whitney Balliett, I see jazz as the sound of surprise preferably a delightful one and I don't believe that serious music has to be made with long faces. Banda Brazil was grinning like mad the other night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, even though the six of them were crowded together on a tiny stage. In fact, two of them were actually off it, squeezed into the packed house that came to celebrate the release of Embrace: Impressions of Brazil , Dave Pietro's fifth lead CD for A-Records.
Alas for me, I managed to sabotage my own seating. Partaking of an excellent dinner upstairs, and lingering over conversation and yummy sour-cherry cheesecake, by the time I got down to the club the best seats were gone. Cornelia Street is shaped like a shoebox, and now the Banda was in the toe, and I was in the heel. Fortunately the acoustics were good, but I missed the pleasure of watching the musicians, especially Valtinho Anastacio singing and making magic on his berimbau. That's the one-stringed instrument that looks like an archer's bow; when played with a shaker, coin or stone, and stick, it gives out a distinctive sound that's part drone, part melody, and part percussion. It's hard to describe but fascinating to witness, and Anastacio's mastery of the instrument is part of what makes Embrace so successful.
It's more than a success: it's a triumph. One of the most satisfying jazz/Brazil mixes since the first bossa nova tsunami, its unique approach creates a category all its own. Most fusion albums make their Brazilian connection by adding some shakers and cuicas, and playing jazz standards with a samba beat (or doing jazz versions of Jobim). But there are no artificial grafts in Embrace , which moves freely through tropical forests and high-rise steel, with each landscape blending into the other.
This is partly because Pietro is such a classy player given his long, fluid lines and respect for melody, it's inconceivable that he would produce anything with ragged edges. His arrangements are crisp and dynamic, his horn charts intricate and fluid (and perfectly executed by Scott Wendholt, Pete McGuinness, and Tom Christensen). Since Pietro wrote or germinated most of the tunes while in Brazil, they are bathed in its direct influence. From "Never Nothing," the relaxed and welcoming opener, it's clear that he's captured Brazil's sensuous, earthy essence, and melded it with the classic traditions of jazz.
Pietro fell in love with the country in 1998, while touring with Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra. Returning a year later with Toshiko Akiyoshi's group, and later on his own, he dove into the local music and began seeking Brazilian-flavored gigs, both in Sao Paulo and New York. "When I first went to Brazil," he relates between tunes, "I had some Jobim in my collection. I went to a record store and asked them to pick out 20 of their best records. That's how I was introduced to [the revered composer] Edu Lobo."
Two of Lobo's haunting songs are here: the gorgeous "Canto Triste" is enhanced by Pete McCann's delicate acoustic guitar and the pure cries of longing from Pietro's reed. The introspective facets of "Choro Bandido" sparkle in their simple duo setting, where Pietro and Helio Alves are soulful and serene. Pietro plays his 1924 Selmer C-melody saxophone on these tracks, which has "a more mellow quality than modern horns," and combines the big-bodied meatiness of the tenor with the lyricism of the alto. "Nobody writes for it," he tells me. "I only play it when I do my own stuff. Also, I'm not usually willing to lug three saxophones around." I would also like to note, with admiration and gratitude, that Pietro manages to play the soprano saxophone without making my fillings hurt. His playing is as graceful as his writing, which comprises eight of the 13 tracks on this CD.
The Massachusetts-born Pietro arrived on the New York scene in 1987, and reading his resumï, it's hard to know when he's had time to compose. Aside from the two jazz orchestras mentioned earlier, he's toured and/or recorded with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Pietro played a key role in 27 East , the terrific CD by the Anita Brown Jazz Orchestra. Pietro did his time in the musical pits of Broadway, and has performed with Blood Sweat and Tears, Louis Bellson, Rosemary Clooney, and John Pizzarelli. Armed with his BA in music ed from North Texas State and a master's degree in jazz composition from New York University, he's also given hundreds of workshops and concerts across the country. Embrace is the follow-up to his widely-acclaimed Standard Wonder (2001), where he transformed Stevie's classics brilliantly, with affection and respect.