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Emiliano Sampaio: Rising Transatlantic Star

Courtesy emilianosampaio.com

Kurt Ellenberger BY

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I would strongly recommend that all musicians invest in a musical life where they perform, compose, conduct, and produce. This gives a broad and unconstrained view of what making music is and what it can be.
In 2013, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach and to work on a research project at the Kunstuniversität Graz ("University of the Arts in Graz"). I taught a first-year course in jazz theory that was really a delight. These students were already extremely accomplished performers and composers. About half of the class was comprised of students from China, the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic, and other countries. One of those students was Emiliano Sampaio, a Brazilian trombonist and guitarist studying composition with the renowned American composer and director of the university's jazz program, Edward Partyka.

Since that time, Sampaio has established himself as one of the most exciting and innovative young jazz composers in Europe. His music resists genre boundaries. He subsumes a huge variety of different stylistic influences, reflected in his music and reimagined by his own unique voice and fertile musical vision. This is contemporary jazz at its finest: conceptually and musically sophisticated and rooted in a diverse array of jazz, rock, blues, and folk traditions.

All About Jazz: You've got such a unique background. Could you talk about your musical life and upbringing in Brazil?

Emiliano Sampaio: I believe each musician has a unique background, and this is what makes music so special. It has to do with the ability to compromise and understand the other players. About my musical life, it was really a coincidence that I became a musician. When I was 14, I had a vacation break and started studying guitar with a friend. I was playing Iron Maiden and other heavy metal bands. From there, I started playing Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Deep Purple, and others. Then came blues, country music, and then, finally, jazz and classical music. Music was consuming more and more time of my time during my teenage years. When I was 17, I decided to make music my job and not only a hobby. This was kind of a shock to my parents and family. There are no musicians in the family.

Strangely, I rediscovered the Brazilian musical tradition years later at the university, but I can say everything was already "in my ears" because of my life in Brazil. After my guitar studies, I started playing trombone as a hobby and I was already writing a lot for big bands and other groups with horns. After a while, I became proficient on the trombone, and it became another instrument that I could explore to express myself with. I also loved composing and arranging, so I am very happy with all these different ways of living as a musician. Performing, composing, arranging, and the experience with very different ensembles—from duets to symphony orchestra —all contributed a great deal to my development and my education.

AAJ: What got you into jazz?

ES: When we play and want to get better at an instrument—especially the ones related to popular music such as guitar, drums, etc.—I think it is quite natural, at some point, to develop an interest in jazz. This curiosity was my entrance into jazz. I have clear memories of listening to the first two tunes I really liked: George Benson's version of "There Will Never Be Another You" and a recording of Charlie Parker playing "Scrapple From The Apple." From that "first contact," I went deeper and deeper into the history of jazz and became a fan of many musicians that have inspired me through the years: Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, to name a few guitar players. Composers such as Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, and Maria Schneider were also very influential.

AAJ: Who are your biggest influences?

ES: I would say my influences are the mix of everything I enjoyed during all these years practicing and listening to music. It embraces a lot of different things. From James Brown to Caetano Veloso, from Iron Maiden to Pixinguinha, from Debussy to Chico Buarque, the spectrum is really large. I think it is the same with every musician nowadays because of the internet and our almost unlimited access to information.

AAJ: Did you have formal university training in Brazil?

ES: I studied electric guitar in Brazil at the University of Campinas [in São Paulo] and finished a bachelor's in popular music in 2007. The focus was on popular music styles such as Brazilian music, jazz, blues, pop, etc. It was the first course focused on popular music in Brazil, and I am very glad I could study there because I met my Meretrio colleagues there and made a lot of great lifetime friends during my bachelor's degree. Later, I did a master's composition project in Brazilian big band music, which motivated me to pursue further studies in composition.

AAJ: What made you decide to move to Austria to do a jazz degree?

ES: The Kunstuniversität Graz in Austria offered the perfect conditions for me to develop as an artist, and I am very glad that I had this opportunity. The university has excellent teachers, and I had the honor to have composition and trombone classes with Ed Partyka, Michael Abene, and Ed Neumeister among many other great teachers and musicians. Besides the teachers, the university has a great studio, two full-time big bands, a great curriculum, and a supportive administrative structure. And the level of the students is amazing, with great musicians from all over the world collaborating and studying together. On top of that, Graz is a beautiful city: full of culture and small enough to offer a great quality of live. Everything is accessible by bike, and I love to swim in the lakes around the city and enjoy a lot of nature in my free time, so I don't regret my move from São Paulo to Graz at all.

AAJ: What was it like embracing Austrian and European jazz when you moved to Graz?

ES: Because of my Brazilian background, it was very interesting to get in contact with the folk music in Austria, which is very different from Brazilian music. Brazilian music is very rich, and our popular music is incredible. However, the Austrian folk music is also very interesting but different. They have a great brass and classical music tradition, which was of great interest for my studies.

I have never been to the USA and because of that, I cannot really compare and talk about a difference between jazz in the USA and in Austria. What I can say is that Europe has a great cultural scene that attracts musicians from all over the world with a lot of festivals and clubs, and the audiences there are very interested in music and arts.

AAJ: How has your music evolved since your first recording?

ES: Wow, this is indescribable! My first professional recordings (which were released on albums) were in 2007: first with a pop band and later with my Meretrio [alongside bassist Gustavo Boni and drummer Luis André]. I believe people can recognize that it is me playing, but there has been a lot of improvement since then. Besides technical issues, I would say the years since that first recording gave me time to reflect and focus on what I really wanted to explore and express with my music. Technique became less of a focus, as the concept behind each project became a priority in each new production. I also learned trombone— which opened a lot of doors in my life—and I invested a lot of time in composing and conducting, activities that also contributed to my development.

I believe all these activities are connected and support each other. I would strongly recommend that all musicians invest in a musical life where they perform, compose, conduct, and produce. This gives a broad and unconstrained view of what making music is and what it can be. This helps to make us more open for challenges.

AAJ: You've done a lot of touring with your group. How is the music received in the many different countries you've visited?

ES: Until now, I have traveled around Brazil, Europe, and Australia playing my music. All the experiences were great because this act of playing live is what we are working for as our goal. We compose, record, etc. but the goal is to play the music live—which we are missing a lot since March 2020 because of the pandemic. Of course, each country is different, but the audience that goes to a jazz concert is generally open and very curious, and this helps to develop a good connection.

I always prepare concerts thinking about the audience, but I don't change the music based on what I think a particular audience might or might not like. Instead, I try to bring them into my musical world. I do like to connect with the audience by letting them know who we are, where we come from, why we do the music we do, what we are performing in that concert, etc. I believe that all of these "histories" bring the audience closer to us, and they bring us closer to the audience. This makes a huge difference in our connection with the listeners and our appreciation of the audience.

AAJ: In 2019, you released a double album, Music for Small & Large Ensembles (Session Work, 2019), that featured Meretrio and the Mega Mereneu Project. The nod to Kenny Wheeler's double album is hard to miss! Can you tell us about the recording and the Wheeler reference?

ES: It has almost the same name! My album is called "Music for Small & Large Ensembles" and Kenny's album is Music for Large & Small Ensembles (ECM, 1990). It seems to be a detail, but it has a meaning for me. It relates to the fact that my trio was the starting point to my artistic adventures and exploration. Through the trio work, I achieved new worlds like the big band and orchestra, and that is why "small ensemble" appears first. Another connection I feel with Kenny's work is that he is one of the rare cases of composers who were very active but also active as an instrumentalist. Kenny was a motivation and inspiration for me, not only because of this, but also because his music has a beautiful melodic content that always spoke to my soul.

AAJ: How do you manage to keep up your chops on both guitar and trombone, while also being such a prolific composer? There aren't many musicians who can pull that off, although your fellow Brazilian Egberto Gismonti comes to mind!

ES: It is difficult, but I think we can always find time in life to do what we really like when we are committed to it. I normally work much better in the early hours of the day and I have kind of a nice routine that I really enjoy. So I'll tell you the secret (that's no secret at all): I wake up at 7am, have breakfast, compose for two hours, then a short break and play a bit, then lunch break and relax for a little bit...then I still have some time to play some more, read, etc. In between, I try to exercise regularly and that's it. For some people maybe it sounds very monotonous, but for me, it is the secret to keep the work flowing step by step.

AAJ: Do you have any new projects underway? What are your future plans?

ES: I just finished the composition of a program for jazz symphonic orchestra. It is a large project, about 75 minutes of music, and I am looking forward to conducting it in October. We are scheduling a tour for 2022 with my trio and featuring saxophonist Heinrich von Kalnein, who teaches at the university in Graz. Besides this, I will be on tour during August in Sweden with a great jazz fusion band, Karel Eriksson's Sound Pollution Eclectic. In September, I will be the artistic director and conductor of the Jugend-Jazzorchester Sachsen big band. In May (if the pandemic lets us), I will conduct the Cologne Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, an outstanding big band from Germany. But given the situation, I just have to wait and see, but I am hopeful that we will soon be playing live again.

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