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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 | Part 3

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.

The simply titled Brasil! (Jazz Forum Records), led by trumpeter Mark Morganelli and featuring his "Jazz Forum All-Stars," is something of an oddity. If anything, the two-CD release deserves an award for perseverance—its 27 tracks were recorded in just two days, and at times the overworked leader sounds a little lip-weary. A collection of mostly well-known Brazilian standards, including 18 by Jobim, is characterized by short and straightforward arrangements, with most performances clocking in at between two to four minutes. The rhythm section includes some heavyweights, among them bassist Nilson Matta, pianist Abelita Mateus and Carlos Barbosa-Lima on guitar. For his part, the trumpeter sticks mostly to stating the melody with warm, Art Farmer-esque tones on trumpet and flugelhorn. The real star is accordionist Eddie Monteiro, who generates some truly exciting solos, adding a Sivuca-like vocal unison line over his accordion takeoffs. The session falters when the band's phrasing-challenged female vocalist is featured. Yes, we all know that "Desafinado" means "out of tune," but really?

A vocalist who deserves more attention in the U.S. is Cris Delanno, primarily known for her long association with guitarist and composer Roberto Menescal. On Bossa is Her Name (Batuke Music), she, guitarist Nelson Faria and bassist Guto Wirtti pay tribute to vocal seductress Julie London. The singer's first release, 1955's Julie is Her Name, featured guitarist Barney Kessel and has long been a favorite among Brazilian musicians. This is the kind of session that speaks most directly to the legacy of João Gilberto through its low key, intimate style. More than just a clever concept, Bossa is Her Name is a celebration of great melodies paired with sultry Bossa rhythms. "Cry Me A River," "I'm Glad There Is You" and "I Should Care" are but three of many album highlights. Most will be quickly won over by this cool school-meets-Bossa singer.

Give credit to any group that would open a live set with the challenging Jobim tune "Surfboard"—one of the late composer's most rhythmically-compelling and melodically-intricate works. On Por Causa de Voce (Adventure Music), pianist Jovino Santos Neto, once a member of Hermeto Pascoal's working group, and a Seattle, Washington-based rhythm section offer a fairly standard collection of Jobim classics, but with an élan that speaks of the virtuosity of the leader, his group, and two notable guests—guitarist Romero Lubambo and the husky-voiced Maucha Adnet.

Santos Neto is a hard-driving pianist who can when the mood calls for it, dash off a flourish of classically inspired pianistics. He does so charmingly on "Retrato em Branco e Preto." He's also an arranger with an ear for the kind of rhythms and harmonies he absorbed while with Pascoal. On "Chovendo na Roseira," the leader shows his arranging acumen by the adroit use of vibraphonist Ben Thomas on the opening few bars, where Pascoal's penchant for chordal tension is evident. The album also serves as a tribute to the late Richard Zirinski, Jr., the founder of Adventure Music, a label that became a dependable source of quality Brazilian music in the U.S. in recent decades.

Roberto Menescal 80 Anos (Som Livre) is an invitation to celebrate this notable composer and guitarist at the occasion of his 80th birthday through a 17-track outing that features a different guest on each performance. Author of "Little Boat," ,"Você" "Bye, Bye Brasil" and dozens of other hits, Menescal is one of the surviving members of a generation that produced the core of the Bossa Nova repertoire in the early 1960s. His warm, Barney Kessel-style guitar comping has become a signature sound of Bossa in recent decades. The guest list includes a veritable who's who of Bossa royalty, including vocalists Leny Andrade, Wanda Sá, Marcos Valle, Danilo Caymmi, and Cris Delanno. If you are not yet hip to Menescal's sound, it's far past time to become acquainted with this soft-spoken genius' easy-to-love songs— quintessential Bossa.

"Samba Jazz" is a term that's been in use since the mid-1960s to differentiate a more driving, jazz-oriented and instrumental version of Bossa from the whispery vocals and soft guitar inflections of the likes of Gilberto. In the U.S., "Jazz Samba" is preferred, putting the emphasis on the jazz aspect of the music. The Brazilians, naturally, prefer to elevate their national music, the samba, over the association with jazz. Inspired by the likes of Horace Silver, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, among others, Samba Jazz initially produced a flourish of releases by the young Brazilian instrumentalists of the day, from Sérgio Mendes to trombonist Raul de Souza, trumpeter Pedro Paulo, and saxophonist Moacir Santos, among many others. The style continues to have its advocates today, including both veterans who were on the scene in the 1960s and '70s and musicians of a more recent vintage who prefer to be associated with fusion and straight-ahead jazz.

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