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Claudio Roditi: A Brazilian in Iowa

Victor Verney By

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Watching trumpeter Claudio Roditi lead some unfamiliar sidemen through an afternoon rehearsal prior to an evening performance provided a good look at something not readily apparent at concerts. While the audience at that night's show in Ottumwa, Iowa saw Roditi's talents as a player and improviser (and even singer) displayed, most concertgoers could only have a vague idea of Roditi's abilities as a bandleader. As one observer witnessed, participants in a Roditi-led rehearsal are likely to learn a thing or two about Brazilian music.

A Rio de Janeiro native now residing in New Jersey, Roditi was in Ottumwa (best known as Radar O'Reilly's ostensible hometown in the TV show M.A.S.H) for a September 2009 concert at Indian Hills Community College. He'd been brought into the Heartland under the aegis of David Sharp, an IHCC instructor whom Roditi had met several years earlier at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln while performing with UNL's jazz orchestra. Sharp, who was playing saxophone with the band at the time, has since garnered wide renown as a talented arranger, and Roditi was eager to praise him. "He's a killer writer," Roditi effused. "I love his arrangements—simple and so effective. And he's a great saxophonist, too."

At his disposal for that afternoon's rehearsal, Roditi had Sharp and three other sidemen regarded throughout Iowa as among the state's elite players. Sharp, a University of Miami alumnus who went to graduate school at UNL and became an adjunct professor there, was drawn to IHCC a decade earlier by every adjunct's dream: a full-time gig. During his tenure, Sharp has made a habit of bringing such national and international heavyweights as Emil Viklicky, Karrin Allyson, Ivan Paduart, Kirk Garrison, Paul McKee and Dave Stryker for performances at IHCC. Drummer Dennis McPartland, who has a percussion degree from the University of Iowa, also teaches at IHCC as well as Kirkwood Community College in his hometown, Cedar Rapids.

Bassist Gabriel Espinosa has been director of jazz studies at Central College in Pella, sixty miles north of Ottumwa, since 1996; his recent CD From Yucatan to Rio (Zoho, 2009) has received favorable AAJ reviews. Jason Danielson, in addition to being an in-demand freelance pianist in orchestra pits and jazz venues around Des Moines, teaches high school history there as well. Collectively, the four have played with a lengthy who's-who of nationally and internationally renowned jazz, soul, and pop performers.

However, Danielson and McPartland had never before played with Roditi. Espinosa—literally a last-minute replacement for the gig—had played on a half-dozen previous occasions with Roditi, who was a sideman on From Yucatan to Rio. But the overall learning curve was made a little steeper since Espinosa, unlike the other three, had not had a chance to hear a couple of CDs worth of preparatory listening material. Nonetheless, the sidemen showed themselves up to the task of mastering Roditi's Brazilian style—something a bit different from the usual mainstream, straight-ahead session.

After some greetings and amiable chit-chat while everyone tuned up, Roditi began rehearsing the ensemble. It immediately became evident that Roditi, a stickler about rhythm, had a very clear idea of what he wanted things to sound like. Just a few bars into the first tune, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "A Felicidade," Roditi waved the song to a halt and began a firm explanation of the bossa nova's subtleties to McPartland.

Claudio RoditiEventually, all four sidemen—accomplished, well-seasoned jazz musicians—would hear good-natured but insistent instructions regarding the nuances of Brazilian music. All four, respected teachers in their own right, nonetheless learned a few things—by their own admission. Roditi, while he can be a demanding bandleader, is anything but mean-spirited or arrogant, and he made efforts to keep the rehearsal mood light. "This is not malicious," he explained with a smile to McPartland after several mini-lectures to him about the proper accents of the samba beat. "It's for the sake of the music," Roditi added, and McPartland nodded agreeably.

Virtually every song on the list was interrupted by Roditi to fine-tune something, most often a matter of tempo. "The samba and bossa nova are 'laid-back'—up to a certain point," he said. "Then, at faster tempos it gets 'nervous'—on top of the beat." Rhythmic punctuation was a particular focus. "The horn melody should be punchier," he told Sharp when going through one of his own compositions. "Don't accent the 'three,' just play it straight," he told Espinosa on another.

After several 'before" and "after" versions of each tune, a cumulative effect emerged. While the "before" versions were tasteful and well-rendered, the "after" versions felt palpably authentic. By the time rehearsal was completed, any sensitive listener, even one relatively unschooled in the nuances of Brazilian music, could see and hear how Roditi, tactfully but authoritatively, had conveyed his ideas and shaped the sound.

Roditi's admitted perfectionism about his music's sound is informed by both American and Brazilian varieties. He is fond of the term "Gemini Man" to describe his blending of Brazilian and American jazz traditions, and the second tune rehearsed, "Impressions," showed that his focus on authenticity encompasses the spirit and sound of Coltrane, too. After a couple of brief asides to Danielson, the second run-through, somehow, sounded more like something to be expected from someone who has played extensively with McCoy Tyner—as Roditi has. His sensibility has been further refined by two other key influences with whom he has played, Horace Silver and Tito Puente, themselves products of the Caribbean's dynamic mix of North and South America.

After rehearsal, Roditi hoped aloud that no one had been offended, but no egos were showing any bruise marks. Unsurprisingly for professional educators, his sidemen had treated the rehearsal as a world-class learning opportunity: Roditi has taught master classes and performed with student ensembles around the globe. "Hey, what do I know? I'm just a gringo from Iowa," joked McPartland. "I thought I knew a little about Brazilian music!" mentioning his youthful fondness for Airto Moreira's classic album Fingers (CTI, 1973). Danielson smiled and nodded in agreement: "It makes you realize how much you don't know."

A week earlier, Roditi had graciously consented to a telephone interview—an hour-long, wide-ranging discussion which he supplemented after rehearsal with some additional remarks. Roditi recounted his early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, his exposure to American jazz and its Brazilian offshoots, and the challenges facing many deserving players attempting to raise their professional profiles.

Roditi had just returned from an engagement at the Hollywood Bowl, his third gig at the storied open-air venue. On one other occasion there, he related, some big players like James Moody and Jimmy Heath had played as well, but Dizzy Gillespie, who was slated to perform, was sick and couldn't make it. Roditi enjoyed a lengthy gig playing in Gillespie's band, and he reminisced about a celebration of Diz at the Blue Note prior to his death in 1993. "They had saxophone players one week, another week piano players, another week something else" Roditi recounted.

Asked about growing up in Rio, he began by clarifying a biographical note. "Actually, I started at age six, on the piano," he recounted. "I knew I wanted to play trumpet when I was nine. My father was very supportive, and he bought me one right away." Although Roditi's parents had the Brazilians' love of singing at parties while strumming a guitar or piano, it was an American uncle, Harold Axman, who was responsible for introducing his ten-year-old nephew to jazz.

"He was an American sailor during World War II," Roditi explained with a fond laugh. "I don't know what the mission was, but he met my mother's sister in Rio. He didn't speak Portuguese, and she didn't speak English, but they fell in love and got married." He continued. "We visited him in Bahia, and he really had a very nice collection of jazz albums. He had a pad that he used to practice drum rudiments on, so I think he may have played the full drum set back in the States, but I'm not certain of that."

Thinking of the vinyl 33s his now-deceased American uncle played on the stereo, Roditi mentioned canonical names like Bird, Miles and Dizzy. Told earlier that his interviewer grew up in Buffalo, NY, he also referred to Stan Kenton's Cuban Fire (Capitol, 1956), "with Sam Noto—someone from your area." That album, featuring Buffalonian Noto on trumpet, had just been released on Blue Note at the time of his formative visit to his uncle Harold. "I knew that was the music I wanted, that's what I was attracted to."

There was another uncle, one on his father's side (which is Jewish, according to Roditi), who also did a great deal to instill an early love of jazz. "His name was Moises Sion, in fact, and his son went on to become a professional saxophonist. When we moved to Santos in 1959, he used to have jam sessions. When he first began sitting in with the big guys, he said, "I was so scared I used to sit under the piano." That would not be the last set of jitters as his talents began taking him to Europe and later the U.S.

Roditi recalled the emergence of Joao Gilberto and Jobim in the late 1950s. "It wasn't necessarily 'bossa nova' at that point," he said, adding that 1959 saw the beginning of a very creative period. However, in 1964 the Brazilian cultural climate "had a decline because at that point there was a military coup, and things got very bad. There was no emphasis on creative music, and many people were leaving the country, afraid they would be persecuted by the military. It definitely changed the whole scene." The political environment normalized a few years later, and regular jam sessions reemerged with participants like Sergio Mendes. "His commercial success in the States with Brazil '66 came later," Roditi said. "He was really a very good jazz player. At that time, Sergio was influenced a lot by Horace Silver, and it was more free instrumental music."

Asked later about his non-trumpeter influences, Roditi mentioned Mendes again. "Sergio had a sextet, Bossa Rio, that had two trombones and a tenor sax. They had a very warm, rich sound. Raul de Souza played the valve trombone, so I could see what was going on. I would say he had a big influence on me." [Note: Cannonball Adderley recorded Cannonball's Bossa Nova (Blue Note, 1962) with this group, marking the first North American exposure of drummer Dom Um Romao, who went on to fame with the group Weather Report]. "I played with Airto and Flora Purim in '92," Roditi mentioned, and this led to a brief discussion Romao and Airto's intertwined experiences with Shorter and Zawinul's jazz/fusion super group during the early 1970s.
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