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Spokfrevo Orquestra, London, UK, July 2, 2013

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Spokfrevo Orquestra
Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club
London, UK
July 2, 2013

Frevo is a hectic mix of Latin jazz with elaborate arrangements and intricacies. It evolved from several historical musical influences including military marching bands and polka. The composers of old are referred to as "maestros," to by the musicians. Refice, capital of the state of Pernambuco in northern Brazil, hosts a carnival for four days each summer and many of its compositions were born from the mix of the festival's marching, dancing and carnival flavors—Frevo is a Portuguese word that means "ferver," (to boil), and the music conjures up the frenetic joy of the carnival season. Some of this music has deep regional roots originating over 100 years ago. Its street origins can be heard through the marching rhythms and distinctive dance tunes, mostly played at a mind-blowing speed.

The Spokfrevo Orquestra is a 17-piece band led by Inaldo Calvalcante de Albequerque, otherwise known as Spok. Spok used to play nonstop for eight or ten hours during the carnival period in Refice, his native town, and is well known in the region as a modern day frevo maestro. Through his interpreter, he explained, to the audience at Ronnie Scott's that he used to play in Bermuda shorts and tee-shirt, so playing in a suit was very novel for him and his musicians.

While essentially street music, not all frevo was composed for the carnival season. There is a distinctive sound which makes it instantly recognizable as from the northern regions of Brazil, and some of it is composed out of respect for the unique culture and character of the region. Frevo is highly infectious, the tunes rapid and completely absorbing.

The Spokfrevo Orquestra comprises three saxophones apart from Spok, four trombones, four trumpets, guitar, bass guitar and three percussionists. Spok introduced various tunes through an interpreter, Natalia de Santana Revi, who also helps organize things for the band, explaining the origins of several numbers and the meaning behind them. The opening tune "Spokiando" started the proceedings at a blistering pace with the entire band playing, then solos from guitar, alto sax, trombone and tenor sax and a duet between Spok on soprano sax and Gilberto Pontes on tenor. This set the theme for the rest of the first half as numbers led seamlessly into each other, offering the audience a relentless, driving flow of nonstop frevo with more superb solos from saxophones, trumpets, guitar and drums. When the band united they created a full-on big band sound, playing tightly together, yet at breakneck speed.

Spok is a truly superb saxophonist. As his fingers flew over the keys, he astonished onlookers with his dexterity. Every note in a melody, however fast, could be clearly heard while he played the soprano and alto saxophones, at times seemingly at the speed of light. Leading with his shoulders, bopping and popping like a marionette, dressed in dapper suit and fedora hat, he cut a dashing figure. All the band were suited and by the end of the third number, several were sweating with exertion—numbers were generally fast but there were small moments when the pace slowed, but only for a few bars. When introducing numbers composed by frevo maestros, Spok respectfully doffed his hat when he mentioned their names. "Multo obrigado (thank you very much)," was his comment.

Some numbers were written by Pernambuco ex-pats living abroad who missed the carnival and frevo music so much they had written songs to remind themselves of home. Sivuca, a maestro living in Paris, wrote the beautiful melodies of " Foliao Ausente" to remind him of his home. "People in the area," Spok said, "are born playing this music. They play it in carnivals and on the street." He looked around Ronnie Scott's and then said, grinning, "Actually, the street is good, but being on stage here is better." Saying he could sometimes feel the presence of legendary frevo maestros when the band played, he referred to one maestro called Duda, then introduced band member and Duda's grandson, Rafael Santos, who had the honor of playing solos in a tune written by his grandfather—and playing the maestro's saxophone. In "Onze de Abril" there was an amazing rolling fugue of trumpet, guitar, trombone, and a second trumpet, a wonderful play-off between two saxophones, and finally the entire band joined in, winding up the volume and pace to end the first half.

"Ninho de Vespa (wasp's nest)," the title track from their forthcoming CD, opened up the second half. Renato Bandeira on guitar played a magnificent solo at blistering speed, which was quickly followed by a sultry tenor sax solo by Santos. Every one of the magnificent musicians on stage got to solo. The camaraderie between them was evident and the love of the music came across in the exuberance of their playing. There was much back slapping and smiling between the players after solos, and a towel was passed around to mop brows, coming to rest on the balding head of one particularly warm trombonist.

During an amusing interlude Spok introduced a medley composed by frevo maestro Nelson Ferriara, consisting of three short tunes titled "Very Delicious," "Little Delicious" and "Delicious." He explained that "'delicious" in Brazil is what men call themselves if they think they are good looking, then assigned the titles to three band members, reminding them that only they thought they were delicious. "Very Delicious" featured four trombones playing solos and then coming together in a lovely lilting melody, much slower than the audience were used to by now. In "Delicious," four saxophones combined to produce a huge, fast and uplifting sound.

Spok explained before one number that it was written by cowmen (vaqueiro)and used to communicate with their cows. He needed the audience to repeat the tune—easy at first, but the tune soon became too long and too complicated for anyone to keep up with—Spok has a sense of humor. This frivolity was followed by a beautiful slow number "Passo de Anjo" (Angel Steps)," which included a haunting sax solo and was written in homage to their native area.

The modern number "Caranca" (the monster figurehead on the prow of a boat) was a little slower and included several soloists improvising around the tune. Spok introduced the finale, inviting the entire audience to, "come to the carnival in Brazil next year"—jokingly pointing out that one of the band members had a very large house and a wife who loved to cook, so there would be no hotel or food bills. Then he invited everyone to take part in a carnival "right now" and do it in frevo style—that meant standing up. Most of the audience got to their feet and the number "Vasshourinhas" began, again at frenetic speed with a driving beat. It was impossible to keep still.

In person, Spok is charming and charismatic. Through his interpreter, we managed a few words when I was introduced to him and he said he would love to play on TV and get more people to enjoy this music. I tried a bit of Portuguese, telling him I enjoyed his performance. His face lit up, and I thought for one moment I was going to get caught pretending I spoke the language, but the interpreter flew to my side and duly introduced us for a three-way chat.

He spent a long time talking to people, signing programs and making his way slowly back towards the dressing room, never hurrying but evidently enjoying the time at Ronnie Scott's and the interaction with people. He continually thanked people for listening and seemed genuinely thrilled to find himself at the famous jazz club (a great setting with its low lighting and quiet, relaxed ambience—even if that went out the window once frevo was under way—featuring three shows most nights which people can enjoy until 3:00 a.m., including Ronnie Scott's All Stars which opens many shows, the main act, and then a showcase of newer acts at midnight.)

Noteworthy was the age of many of the band's instruments. Spok plays an old, slightly battered, curved silver soprano, and many of the instruments look like they have traveled a long line before reaching their current owner. This perhaps explains why they are handled so lovingly and why the timbre of the tenor saxophones and trumpets is so well rounded—or maybe they just play them that way. It would be difficult to find jazz music which is more infectious than frevo or more definitive of a region. It would be difficult to find on one stage so many truly talented players and in Spok himself, it would be difficult to find a man more humble, genial and supremely gifted.

Frevo has very special, distinctive tunes and rhythms at its heart and is evidently much loved by those who play it. It involves big band sounds while fully embracing players who want to solo and improvise around the tunes. The music relates to the players' history, heritage and culture—it speaks to their hearts. In observing that the music communicates and joins people together, during a rare calm moment Spok looked into the audience and said simply, "Never lose your soul."

Multo obrigado.

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