Back to Brazil: Part Three

Mark Holston By

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San Francisco’s Brazilian music scene has been well established for several decades. A number of notable musicians have relocated to the Bay Area, and this informal colony of Brazilian émigrés has forged propitious relationships with San Francisco’s equally renowned Latin and jazz communities.
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A singer who needs no introduction, Eliane Elias sculpts a predictably sensual soundscape on Love Stories (Concord). The nine-track project features a string orchestra and lush arrangements by Rob Mathes, unobtrusive rhythm section chores by a cadre of Brazilian percussionists, and the steady hand of bassist Marc Johnson. The slinky French film opening track, "A Man and a Woman," establishes a mood of 1960s-era relaxed romanticism that prevails throughout most of the session. In recent years, the São Paulo native has focused more on vocalizing than on her considerable keyboard abilities, and her breathy style is fetching indeed. When she occasionally puts her pianistic skills in the fore, the result is a jolt of energy that keeps the program from overly relying on its ballads-Bossa-and-strings format. On Roberto Menescal's Bossa standard "Little Boat," Elias lets her fingers do some serious talking to pleasing effect. The Frank Sinatra standard "Come Fly With Me" is an album highpoint, notable for its rhythmic drive, blues-tinged piano solo and the leader's more energized vocal attack. "Angel Eyes" is another memorable track, enhanced by Mathes' particularly persuasive string writing. It all adds up to Elias at her alluring best.

San Francisco's Brazilian music scene has been well established for several decades. A number of notable musicians have relocated to the Bay Area, and this informal colony of Brazilian émigrés has forged propitious relationships with San Francisco's equally renowned Latin and jazz communities. Typically, many of the same names pop up in the supporting cast on sessions led by various Brazilian artists. This kind of collective mindset and familiarity generally produces compelling projects.

Vocalist and composer Claudia Villela is the kind of singer who just reaches out and grabs the listener's attention. Her flawless vocalese excursions, perfect pitch and willingness to take chances make her a rare commodity. Encantada (Live) (Taina Music) is the stylistic polar opposite of the Elias' Love Stories—an adventurous, gritty, funky in-your-face mixture of Brazilian folkloric modes and the free spirit of avant-garde jazz. There are hints of vintage Flora Purim, Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti in the air, but Villela and her cohorts do an excellent job of refreshing that decades-old stylistic perspective, tempering exuberance with the intimate, recital hall-quality readings. Guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, another Bay Area Brazilian stalwart, is a particularly effective partner for the vocalist. Villela's compositional talents are also impressive, and her originals nicely complement covers of works by Villa-Lobos and Edu Lobo. The high level of innate musicianship on display here is truly remarkable.

Guitarist Peixoto updates his discography with Scary Beautiful (Moving Finger Productions), a showcase for his acoustic and electric guitar wizardry. The supporting cast includes saxophonist Paul McCandless, percussionist John Santos, keyboardist Marcos Silva, and Villela, among other stars of the Northern California jazz, Brazilian and Latin music scenes. Peixoto masterfully balances a number of stylistic tendencies, creating a sonically rewarding result in the process. At times, there's a hint of Afro-Caribbean rhythm in the blend. The mesmeric title tune, with strings arranged by Luiz Brasil, offers another perspective, with a contemporary classical feel. Elsewhere, the guitarist tiptoes precariously close to the shallow waters of smooth jazz territory without getting wet. Rhythmically tart Brazilian jazz fusion is embraced on "Morro da Paixão," which features Rio-based trumpeter Jessé Sadoc in a blistering solo outing. Scary Beautiful is an accessible and attractive effort that covers many stylistic points of view—all of them impressively.

Keyboardist Marcos Silva, a longtime San Francisco resident, is known for his driving, joyous spin on Brazilian jazz fusion and his fondness for a large arsenal of electric keys and synthesizers. On Brasil—From Head to Toe (Self Produced), he demonstrates some maturation in his choice of instruments, and employs these devices more judiciously than in the past. The result is a recording that's instantly appealing and one that should have a considerable shelf life.

Silva's use of flute, played by Gary Meek, and keyboard unisons to sketch modes related to the folkloric rhythms of rural northeastern Brazil is a winning approach. Drummer Mauricio Zottarelli and electric bassist Scott Thompson provide a rhythm section pulse that skillfully blends Brazilian traditions with West Coast funk. Guitarist Peixoto is featured on classical guitar, backing Meek on soprano sax on Silva's haunting, melodically captivating Bossa-style ballad "It's Gone." Silva wisely tapped Swiss harmonicist Gregoire Maret for a solo on "New Life," another lovely ballad and one that identifies Ivan Lins as the leader's primary influence as a composer. The session's soothing closer, "Spring," features a 12-piece string section and reflects the kind of symphonic music association Antônio Carlos Jobim so brilliantly achieved on his early 1970s album Urubu. The track is a genuine surprise and leaves one with the impression that Silva should strongly consider further exploring this orchestral idiom on future projects. "Spring" creates a luxurious mood that is not easily dismissed.

Brazilian vocalist Rita Figueiredo partners with Cuban-American guitarist/composer/arranger and singer Benji Kaplan on Benji & Rita (Self Produced). The 14-track program is a sonic wake-up call that announces the arrival of a true effort to create music without easily recognizable stylistic markers. The classically trained Figueiredo boasts a rich, powerful voice. One can easily image her cast in the comedic role of an opera buffa production. Kaplan writes elaborate arrangements that make use of an array of brass, woodwind, mallet and string instruments. The result recalls some of the large-scale orchestral work undertaken by Hermeto Pascoal in the early 1970s. Imagine the kind of traveling minstrel show captured in the film Bye Bye Brazil. Add a sugary dollop of flirtatious cabaret influences and the grit of rustic Brazilian folk rhythms, and you will be close to the concept—a chamber music experience with a heavy dose of Brazilian flower-power extravagance and disparate rhythmic touchstones.
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