Dave Pietro and Banda Brazil: Embrace-ing Cultures

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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There are no artificial grafts in 'Embrace', which moves freely through tropical forests and high-rise steel, with each landscape blending into the other.
I just love a band that grins. Like Whitney Balliett, I see jazz as the sound of surprise — preferably a delightful one — and I don't believe that serious music has to be made with long faces. Banda Brazil was grinning like mad the other night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, even though the six of them were crowded together on a tiny stage. In fact, two of them were actually off it, squeezed into the packed house that came to celebrate the release of Embrace: Impressions of Brazil , Dave Pietro's fifth lead CD for A-Records.

Alas for me, I managed to sabotage my own seating. Partaking of an excellent dinner upstairs, and lingering over conversation and yummy sour-cherry cheesecake, by the time I got down to the club the best seats were gone. Cornelia Street is shaped like a shoebox, and now the Banda was in the toe, and I was in the heel. Fortunately the acoustics were good, but I missed the pleasure of watching the musicians, especially Valtinho Anastacio singing and making magic on his berimbau. That's the one-stringed instrument that looks like an archer's bow; when played with a shaker, coin or stone, and stick, it gives out a distinctive sound that's part drone, part melody, and part percussion. It's hard to describe but fascinating to witness, and Anastacio's mastery of the instrument is part of what makes Embrace so successful.

It's more than a success: it's a triumph. One of the most satisfying jazz/Brazil mixes since the first bossa nova tsunami, its unique approach creates a category all its own. Most fusion albums make their Brazilian connection by adding some shakers and cuicas, and playing jazz standards with a samba beat (or doing jazz versions of Jobim). But there are no artificial grafts in Embrace , which moves freely through tropical forests and high-rise steel, with each landscape blending into the other.

This is partly because Pietro is such a classy player — given his long, fluid lines and respect for melody, it's inconceivable that he would produce anything with ragged edges. His arrangements are crisp and dynamic, his horn charts intricate and fluid (and perfectly executed by Scott Wendholt, Pete McGuinness, and Tom Christensen). Since Pietro wrote or germinated most of the tunes while in Brazil, they are bathed in its direct influence. From "Never Nothing," the relaxed and welcoming opener, it's clear that he's captured Brazil's sensuous, earthy essence, and melded it with the classic traditions of jazz.

Pietro fell in love with the country in 1998, while touring with Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra. Returning a year later with Toshiko Akiyoshi's group, and later on his own, he dove into the local music and began seeking Brazilian-flavored gigs, both in Sao Paulo and New York. "When I first went to Brazil," he relates between tunes, "I had some Jobim in my collection. I went to a record store and asked them to pick out 20 of their best records. That's how I was introduced to [the revered composer] Edu Lobo."

Two of Lobo's haunting songs are here: the gorgeous "Canto Triste" is enhanced by Pete McCann's delicate acoustic guitar and the pure cries of longing from Pietro's reed. The introspective facets of "Choro Bandido" sparkle in their simple duo setting, where Pietro and Helio Alves are soulful and serene. Pietro plays his 1924 Selmer C-melody saxophone on these tracks, which has "a more mellow quality than modern horns," and combines the big-bodied meatiness of the tenor with the lyricism of the alto. "Nobody writes for it," he tells me. "I only play it when I do my own stuff. Also, I'm not usually willing to lug three saxophones around." I would also like to note, with admiration and gratitude, that Pietro manages to play the soprano saxophone without making my fillings hurt. His playing is as graceful as his writing, which comprises eight of the 13 tracks on this CD.

The Massachusetts-born Pietro arrived on the New York scene in 1987, and reading his resumï, it's hard to know when he's had time to compose. Aside from the two jazz orchestras mentioned earlier, he's toured and/or recorded with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Maynard Ferguson, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Pietro played a key role in 27 East , the terrific CD by the Anita Brown Jazz Orchestra. Pietro did his time in the musical pits of Broadway, and has performed with Blood Sweat and Tears, Louis Bellson, Rosemary Clooney, and John Pizzarelli. Armed with his BA in music ed from North Texas State and a master's degree in jazz composition from New York University, he's also given hundreds of workshops and concerts across the country. Embrace is the follow-up to his widely-acclaimed Standard Wonder (2001), where he transformed Stevie's classics brilliantly, with affection and respect.

This new CD is designed and paced so artistically that it nearly becomes a suite. The Brazilian percussion weaves in and out, like light streaming through a rain forest; the cultural flavors are seamlessly blended, as when Pietro trades fours with a cuica. During the intense improv of "Equanimity," there's a subtle insinuation of rattles, and a brief, distant samba whistle. The tune pauses for a splendid rubato statement by Dave Berkman; it swirls up and builds once again, then fades gently as a lone berimbau heralds the first of three brief "Interludes."

These are Anastacio's solo vocal/percussive gems, although his passionate, wordless singing serves as a native instrument throughout. Crucial to the connective tissue of this fusion, "Interlude #1" essentially ends the track before it, then in turn becomes the introduction to "The Scene Between Two Unseens," where the fender rhodes, sensuous alto, and rolling Carnaval drums take over. Similarly, the pensive mood of "Canto Triste" gets just enough time to settle in before a parade begins and gathers into the joyful "Cururu."

A CD and performance highlight, this is Pietro's jolly tune about a guy who's so environmentally correct that he makes his own paper; it features a witty cuica solo that sounds like a verbal polemic, and its ending makes me laugh every time I hear it. Banda Brazil offers a killing live version, as Pietro grins and boogies around its molten core. "It's amazing how the groove can be so strong and relaxed at the same time," he tells me later. "It's almost an excruciating pleasure." Judging from the audience's reaction, they were feeling it too (but in a good way).

Embrace 's intriguing layers and influences include some from the other side of the world. Pietro is also attracted to Indian culture, where the music, like Brazil's, is lush, romantic, and rhythmically complex; a continuing seeker, he also finds a spiritual connection there. "Music in India is spirit," he explains. "The stage is a temple, and it's disrespectful to play your instrument out of tune." Pietro's Indian studies are reflected in some of the odd meters in Embrace , as well as in "The Scene Between Two Unseens," which he conceived after reading the Bhagavad Gita , a sacred Indian text. He wrote it soon after, while visiting his parents' house, an occasion that often stimulates a need for perspective. Meditating on things "seen" and "unseen," he sat down at the piano, and "the tune flowed out." (When their busy schedules permit, Pietro plays in a trio called East Meets Jazz , led by renowned tabla player Sandip Burman, with Paul Bollenback on guitar.)

There are other meanings in the titles and sequence of the CD (at least, it seems so to me, even without playing it backwards.) For example, "Remembrance" begins with a thoughtful, questioning solo by bassist Nilson Matta. The questioning gets progressively more insistent, Anastacio ruminates on his berimbau for a minute (literally, in "Interlude #3"), and the answer finally comes in the quiet acceptance of "And So It Is." "Equanimity" repeats a goofy carousel figure that conveys the endless merry-go-round quest for balance, while the urgent "Hamartia," whipped up by McCann's electric guitar, refers to the classic Greek theme of the hero who's doomed by a tragic flaw.

There was no flaw this night at Cornelia, although the Banda has about half the CD personnel: Pietro is the only horn, and "new" on bass and drums are the fine Leonardo Cioglia and Adriano Santos, part of the touring group that will soon Embrace a wider audience. "You can't get the same colors with a smaller group, but you can get deeper and more intimate," says Pietro. "Anyway, I look at each piece as a living creation. I'm not wedded to the 'perfect' arrangement. Any recording or performance is just a snapshot of where things are at the moment."

The next moment for Pietro sounds more like a whirlwind: touring with Banda Brazil or his quartet in Texas, Colorado, and Arizona, he will be playing in Japan for most of May. In the meantime, I strongly recommend getting your own "snapshot" of this brilliant and intriguing CD. That way you can eat your sour-cherry cheesecake, and have the music too.

Embrace: Impressions of Brazil - A-Records

Tracks: Never Nothing, Equanimity, Interlude #1, The Scene Between Two Unseens, Canto Triste, Cururu, Interlude #2, Remembrance, Interlude #3, And So It Is, Hamartia, Embrace, Choro Bandido

Personnel: Dave Pietro (alto, soprano, C-melody saxophones, composer, producer), Scott Wendholt (trumpet, flugelhorn), Tom Christensen (alto flute, clarinet, tenor sax), Pete McGuiness (trombone), Pete McCann (electric and acoustic guitars), David Berkman (piano, fender rhodes), Helio Alves (piano), Sergio Brandao (electric bass), David Finck and Nilson Matta (acoustic bass), Paulo Braga and Duduka Da Fonseca (drums), Valtinho Anastacio (vocals and percussion, including shaker, congas, caxixi, pandeiro, berimbau, surdo, tamborim, and whistles)


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