Regardless of your specific musical preferences, the birth of a new record label is always a heartening event. It means some brave entrepreneur has decided to go up against the pentalith of Sony, Universal, EMI, BMG and Warner, creating the opportunity for new artists – or even an entire genre – to take root and flourish. The majors have made possible the glamour and the hedonistic excess, but more often than not it is the minor labels and indies who give us the most in the way of innovation and niche specialization.
The fledgling Blue Toucan label is a self-professed family affair, a collective of in-laws, siblings and cousins who love Brazilian jazz and bossa nova and aim to further the already established scene in New York. Although it has taken at least two-and-a-half years to usher the three discs under review into existence, this initial offering shows that it has largely been worth the time and effort.
Marco Figueira’s debut album Brazilliance features a guest list that includes saxophonist and flautist Oscar Feldman and renowned composer Eumir Deodato responsible for string arrangements. A decent selection of originals and popular standards, Brazilliance makes good use of its talented ensemble but it doesn’t quite live up to its bombastic title. There is nothing that revitalizes the genre the way Vinicius Cantuária has. There is also very little that can wholly match the intimacy and poetry of Jobim and the other composers whose work can be found here, such as Milton Nascimento and João Bosco. As on the opening song “Vem Cá,” Figueira and his collaborative partner on Brazilliance , Paulo André Tavares, occasionally take an electric approach to Brazilian jazz, giving the songs a debatable New Age feel. Tracks like “Olho de Peixe” and “Aluamania” that go without this affectation make for great listening and are all the better for it.
His rendition of Jobim’s “Corcovado (Quiet Nights)” and the Menescal/Boscoli chart “O Barquinho” are nothing particularly new, and Figueira’s nasal English vocals on “Corcovado” irritate more than they soothe. He tries to drag words across the preceding or succeeding bar for the sake of variation, but this is something even Sinatra couldn’t always pull off. Figueira is more at home with the scat-like rapidity of “Preta-Porter de Tafetá.”
For Brazilian jazz fans looking for a solid contemporary remake of some familiar bossa nova standards mixed in with a bit of enjoyable fresh material, Brazilliance ought to fit the bill. But there are definite alternatives, namely When Baden Meets Trane by pianist Glauco Sagebin.
Sagebin set out long ago to defy stereotypes – specifically, that Brazilian musicians can only hail from Rio and that they must confine themselves to samba or bossa nova. He cites Mahler and Coltrane as influences in addition to the music of his native Brazil. Unsurprisingly, at least one of them is evident on the title track, a superb hybrid that in Sagebin’s own words employs “the harmonic style of Baden Powell’s Afro sambas full of diminished seventh chords, and on top of that... the cycle of descending major thirds” used by Coltrane. Drummer Paulo Braga kicks it off, then he and Sagebin circle around, eyeing one another suspiciously before bassist Santi Debriano assures them everything’s okay. They settle into a spicy, swinging stride, though the dramatic wariness between Sagebin and Braga will crop up again and again. The solos are more like a tangle of improv trios, all taking place at the same time with a few intermittent breaks for the individual players to shine.
Two Jobim charts (“Olha Maria” and “Luiza”) bookend three originals as well as “Nada Como ter Amor” by Carlos Lyra. There is also a frenetic rendition of the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm” and a moody, languid take on Johnny Mercer’s “Laura.” Among these Sagebin’s bilingualism is always manifest. Whether reviving the music of his compatriots or the American standards of his current home, the pianist and bandleader is nothing short of expert. He comes to each one with a thoughtful, technically bold interpretation, though this sacrifices none of the requisite emotion, and in the case of bossa nova, the brooding, humble philosophising that gives much of the music its impetus and appeal. When Baden Meets Coltrane is an excellent disc: intelligent, engaging and full of nuance and flair. It should take pride of place when Blue Toucan is showing off its emerging line-up.
On an equal, albeit sonically different, plane is Kerry Linder’s Sail Away with Me. As a female vocalist offering distinctive, accessible performances of both familiar and new songs, Linder could quite easily eke out a spot next to Norah Jones and Katie Melua. Singing in Portuguese and English, the Curaçao native’s vocal style can be as haunting as Astrud Gilberto, as gay and sunny as Ella. Paulo André Tavares, who performed and arranged songs on Figueira’s album, has the same dual role here. His arrangements on Sail Away with Me have much in common with those on Brazilliance , but Linder has the diva-like presence that gives them an extra dose of appeal. She wraps Tavares’ music around herself like a mink coat or a stunning summer dress.
The title track is a self-penned lament for the victims of the September 11 attacks. It evokes the overwhelming grief of that event and encourages optimism without slipping into the easy trap of sentimentalism that afflicts so much of the same. Assisted by rousing solos from trombonist Clark Gayton and saxophonist Anat Cohen, she tackles Baden Powell’s “Deixa” with verve, drifting between English and Portuguese. Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” is rewarded with a warm, exotic rendition. The Paul Simon lullaby “St. Judy’s Comet” is cast in a folksier, world music light, complete with accordion. A swaying, samba-fied “As Time Goes by” closes the disc – just in case the listener has any lingering reservations about playing it again.
Sail Away with Me has as much to offer the casual listener as it does the discerning ear. It should go on to introduce Linder to an audience far beyond the New York Brazilian jazz scene, maybe even earning her that blessing and curse of mainstream radio play. If only she retains the good sense to tell the Big Five where to go when they come calling, promising riches and fame in exchange for a major label deal. After Blue Toucan has given these artists such an auspicious start – not to mention one for itself in return – it’s safe to say that the label won't be keen to see them leave anytime soon.
Brazilliance track listing:
1. Vem Cá (3:44); 2. Minha (4:42); 3. Amizade (4:20); 4. Olho de Peixe (3:40); 5. Preta-Porter de Tafetá (3:23); 6. Romance (Vocal) (3:44); 7. Dunas (3:44); 8. Corcovado (Quiet Nights) (4:10); 9. Feito Nós (5:10); 10. O Barquinho (Little Boat) (2:51); 11. Águas de Março (Waters of March) (3:44); 12. Aluamania (3:11); bonus track: Romance (Instrumental) (3:43)
Paulo André Tavares: guitars; Sergio Brandão: bass, cavaquinho; Paulo Braga: drums, percussion; Helio Alves: piano (3, 5, 7, 8, 10 & 11); Hendrik Meurkens: harmonica (6 & 8); Claudio Roditi: trumpet (2 & 11); Hiram Bullock: electric guitars (1); Mauro Refosco: percussion, programming (1, 4, 7, 9 & 12); Oscar Feldman: alto sax, flute (12 & 13); Kerry Linder: backing vocals (1, 4 & 12); Luiz Simas: backing vocals (4 & 12); string musicians: (2, 6, 8, 10 & 13) - violins: Krista Feeney, Anca Nicolau, Mark Feldman, Rachel Golub; violas: Ron Lawrence, Kathleen Foster; cellos: Myron Luteke, Ariane Lallemand
When Baden Meets Trane track listing:
1. When Baden Meets Trane (4:23); 2. Fascinating Rhythm (3:38); 3. Olha Maria (3:40); 4. Short Story (5:38); 5. Earlier Departure (4:58); 6. Villa (5:52); 7. Nada Como ter Amor (4:06); 8. Luiza (7:25); 9. Rio Negro (4:06); 10. Pra Dizer Adeus (5:26); 11. Laura (6:31)
Glauco Sagebin: piano; Santi Debriano: acoustic bass; Paulo Braga: drums
Sail Away with Me track listing:
1. Sail Away with Me (3:32); 2. Adeus Batucada (5:04); 3. Deixa (3:44); 4. Language and Love (4:07); 5. St. Judy's Comet (4:25); 6. Song for My Father (4:20); 7. Inquetacao (5:32); 8. That’s All (3:05); 9. I Don’t Know (3:38); 10. God Bless the Child (3:55);11. Manha de Carnaval (4:50); 12. As Time Goes By (3:50)
Kerry Linder: vocals; Paulo André Tavares: guitar; Mauro Refosco: percussion; Helio Schiavo: drums (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 & 8); David Finck: bass (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 & 8); Erik Friedlander: cello (tracks 1, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 & 12); Hendrik Meurkens: harmonica (tracks 4 & 11); Paulo Levi: soprano sax, flute (track 1), tenor sax (track 10); Anat Cohen: clarinet (track 2), soprano sax (track 3); Clark Gayton: trombone (track 3); Robert Curto: accordion (track 5); Michael Phillip Mossman : trumpet (tracks 6 & 11)