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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.

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