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Ensemble Novo At Kahn Park Summer Concert Series

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Ensemble Novo
Kahn Park Summer Concert Series
Philadelphia, PA
August 18, 2021

This was somewhat of a down time for a concert in the park, in this case Kahn Park, at 11th and Pine Streets in Philadelphia, named after the renowned architect Louis Kahn, who grew up there. The rain clouds were moving in. And while the restrictions of the pandemic were lightened enough to allow for outdoor gatherings, the pandemic-weary audience of families and neighbors were not likely to burst into applause or get up and dance to the bossa nova and jazz samba rhythms of the Ensemble Novo, a Philadelphia-based group that has spent most of the past decade specializing in the exciting music of Brazil in the 1960s. Such music, when done well, as it was on this evening, is so absorbing that it soon made irrelevant the rain clouds and the COVID masks. Tinged with a sadness of its own, something in this music about its pulsating rhythm and the bittersweet feeling of love lost still moves the heart and soul sixty years after it became a wave of popularity in Brazil and not long after, the United States.

To really appreciate this music in its breadth and depth, you also have to detach from the instant popularity of the first best-selling albums made by Stan Getz and others who correctly sensed the connection between the bossa nova and American jazz. Like the best of American jazz, the music from Brazil was not just party music. It was an exploration of what it means to be human, the feeling of being broken, alone, lovelorn, of things not working out. The creators, like Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Edu Lobo, Elis Regina, and many others, borrowed from their own Brazilian music, modern jazz, European impressionism and other sources to create music that you can dance to, but if you listen to it carefully, wrenches your gut -the Brazilian equivalent of the blues.

The first bossa nova records by João Gilberto, in the last years of the 1950s, quickly became huge hits in Brazil. Jobim and other composers helped further develop this fusion of jazz harmonies and a smoother, often slower, samba beat, which developed at the beach neighborhoods of Ipamema, and, later, the Copacabana nightclubs.

Thus, this concert by the Philadelphia-based Ensemble Novo was meant not only for relaxing on a summer's night; it was also deserving of serious listening. To quote their own website: "In the years since the release of its debut Blue Night (Frosty Cordial Records) in 2013, Ensemble Novo has refined a sound that's perfectly suited to its primary inspiration—music made in Brazil during the 1960s and early 70s. It's a sound built on contrasts—the crystalline clarity of the vibraphone crossed with the husky introspection of tenor saxophone, the warmth of nylon string guitar woven into the crisp pulse of samba percussion. As is true of so much from Brazil, this is music that encourages (and sometimes demands) dancing, but is equally suited to contemplative listening."

The group played extended choruses of all the tunes, allowing all the musicians, especially the leader Tom Moon on saxophone, guitarist Ron McNeely, and vibraphonist Tony Miceli (subbing for Behn Gillece) opportunities for creative solos. They honored their Brazilian brothers and sisters by the artistic quality of their playing, reflecting the depth of feeling that the innovators were seeking.

In addition to consummate artistry and improvisation, the key for making this music really beautiful is the bossa nova rhythm, which is a slight alteration of a samba that makes the music so memorable. The rhythm section of Mark Przbylowski on bass and Claudio de Pujadas (subbing for Jim Hamilton) on drums sustained this rhythm with metronomic and microscopic finesse, allowing the lyricism of Miceli and McNeely to take hold on songs like "How Insensitive" and "Samba de Orpheu." Miceli's as always exceptionally painterly expressions on vibes brought the set over the tops in terms of "getting it," expressing the intent of the composers.

This was the first live in-person concert that this reviewer has attended in the year and a half since the pandemic began. (The last, in March 2020, was at the Mezzrow in New York.) "Waiting for the Rain" could have been a Brazilian song title, and in this case the short burst of raindrops that fell at the very end did nothing to spoil this experience of bossa nova and Brazilian jazz as it was meant to be.

Set list: Quem Te Viux, Quem Te Ve (Chico Buarque); Photograph (Jobim); Bahia (Joao GIlberto); Outra Vez (Jobim); Vento Bravo (Edu Lobo); How Insensitive (Jobim); E Preciso Perdoar (João Gilberto); Casa Forte (Edu Lobo); Samba de Orfeu (Luiz Bonfa)

Personnel: Leader and tenor saxophone: Tom Moon; Ryan McNeely: guitar; Tony Miceli: vibraphone; Mark Przbylowski: bass; Claudio de Pujadas: drums.

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