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Back to Brazil: Part One

Back to Brazil: Part One
Mark Holston By

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The allure of Brazil-rooted sounds remains undiminished if not as feverish as it was in the early 1960s when Bossa Nova was at its peak of popularity.
Part 1 | Part 2

The recent passing of Brazilian music icon Joao Gilberto at the age of 88 invites us to reflect on the music revolution he was influential in sparking over six decades ago. The singer and guitarist, partnering with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, announced the arrival of a distinctly new style with his 1958 recording of Jobim's "Chega de Saudade," and the new Brazilian sound, dubbed Bossa Nova (the "New Thing," among other translations), quickly captured worldwide attention.

The passing decades have seen other Brazilian styles and artists emerge and attain some degree of international acclaim. The allure of Brazil-rooted sounds remains undiminished if not as feverish as it was in the early 1960s when Bossa Nova was at its peak of popularity.

Currently, a flood of new releases challenges listeners to tune in and see what's been cooking. What they will discover, in most cases, is that today's crop of Brazilian music interpreters remains willing captives to the set-in-stone stylistic parameters that have been around for decades. Whether polishing off another set of reverential Bossa standards, reveling in the rhythmically brash Samba Jazz instrumental variant, delving into the realm of the folkloric-chamber music hybrid known as Choro, tuneful MPB (sophisticated ballad-style Brazilian Popular Music), or the appropriation of Samba, Forró, Frevo, and other elemental styles, virtually all of the recent releases lack one critical element: a sense of surprise.

A very palpable sense of surprise was what many of us experienced when U.S. audiences heard for the first time the 1962 collaboration of saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd on Jobim's "Desafinado"—a leftfield hit if there ever was one. Likewise, Astrud Gilberto's cover of Jobim's immortal "The Girl from Ipanema" a year later on the historic and multi-Grammy-winning Getz-Gilberto album provided a rush of sensations. For some of my generation, it might have been discovering the soundtrack of the film Black Orpheus, featuring soon-to-be jazz standards authored by Luiz Bonfa and Jobim, that ignited a flame of interest in Brazilian music. Or was it the jolt of hearing for the first time on the radio organist Walter Wanderley's catchy arrangement of songwriter Marcos Valle's "Summer Samba?"

A decade or so later, others may have been hooked by the eyebrow-raising offerings of percussionist Airto, vocalist Flora Purim and multi- instrumentalist and avant-garde composer Hermeto Pascoal. Or perhaps exposure to a rare imported LP that showcased the intoxicating blend of classical, jazz, Brazilian folkloric and psychedelia multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti was concocting fired the imagination. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter's partnership with singer and composer Milton Nascimento on the landmark recording Native Dancer surely won over new Brazilian music converts who were too young to have experienced the early '60s Bossa boom.

Or, the connection might have been well past the fact, as in the case of pianist Jon Gold, who recorded Brazil Confidential for the Zoho label in 2010. He recalls hearing for the first time, two decades after its release, the popular album Equinox by Sergio Mendes. The second of Mendes' Brasil '66 albums, the session contained such ear-grabbing tracks as Jorge Ben's "Chove Chuva" and Jobim's "Wave." That setlist proved to be Gold's gateway to the post-1950s Brazilian sound.

Gold's example is proof that it is still possible to experience a transcendental moment while exploring the myriad Brazilian music idioms even if the listener wasn't around for the work's original incarnation. Most of the recordings surveyed here are examples of artists going, yet one more time, to the well rather than striking out on their own. To jaded ears that have grown a bit weary of the repeat of standard forms for over half a century, many of these releases will offer few mind-altering moments. That said, there are some gems here and there that deserve extra attention.

Let's begin, however, with a sour note or two (or three or four).

Poison Fruit (Far Out Recordings) by drummer Ivan Conte relies mostly on a rehash of the funk-rooted fusion he helped concoct during a several decade-long-tenure with the celebrated trio Azymuth. The session sounds dated and relies almost exclusively on rhythm tracks devoid of any discernable melodic content. When a modicum of melody is present, as on the moody "Jemburi," the results are more satisfying. Bassist Alex Maheiros, the other surviving member of Azymuth, is present. On the whole, the 16-track date amounts to a watered-down update of the Azymuth tried-and-true style. Aspiring drummers and percussionists, however, will find inspiration in the session's heavy accent on funkified Brazilian rhythms.

Sempre (Far Out Recordings), the latest by the legendary Marcos Valle, might have been more aptly titled Sempre Disco (Disco Forever). Perhaps the British label that produced this 11-track date and Ivan Conte's Poison Fruit consciously tailored these sessions to fit current European pop and jazz crossover trends. For the rest of us, Valle, a true genius of melody and groove whose long list of hits includes "Summer Samba," "Os Grilos," and "Gente," is not well served by this '80s-style dance music program. Sad to say, the release is a genuine waste of time and talent.

Over the past two decades, it's been fun hearing Celso Fonseca channel Caetano Veloso channeling João Gilberto. On a string of a dozen albums, the singer and guitarist has done more than virtually anyone to keep the essence of classic Bossa Nova alive, albeit with a contemporary touch here and there. The song "Slow Motion Bossa Nova," from a 2002 album of the same name, was a mesmerizing mini hit, while the artist's 2007 album, Feriado, included a cover of Jobim's "Águas de Março" and a flashy, Walter Wanderley-indebted remake of keyboardist Eumir Deodato's bubbly "Estrelinha." On the prophetically titled Turning Point (Wrasse Records), Fonseca has changed stylistic focus and gets lost in a maze of minimalist Euro techno beats and cloying, puppy-love lyrics. The opening track, "Mais Perto de Mim," is a welcome exception, boasting a bandoneon in the mix and a subtle Tango mood. "Vem Pra Cuidar de Mim" is another throwback to Fonseca's earlier, retro-Bossa romanticism. On the whole, though, Turning Point takes the singer beyond the point of no return. For Fonseca enthusiasts, his earlier discography will prove to be more inviting.

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