Ithamara Koorax: Celestial Elegance

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Singer thamara Koorax recorded her 15th solo CD, Got to Be Real (Irma, 2012), "live in the studio" in Rio de Janeiro, the place of her birth, with her touring band—bassist Jorge Pescara, drummer Haroldo Jobim (a cousin of Antonio Carlos Jobim) and keyboardist Jose Roberto Bertrami, founding member of Brazil's famous fusion export Azymuth, on Rhodes, Yamaha and Hammond organs, clavinet, and synthesizers. Small wonder that on Got to Be Real, Koorax sounds completely at home in different types of material, from Azymuth ("Toque de Cuica") to Herbie Hancock ("Butterfly") to Cole Porter to 1960s pop tunes by Little Anthony & The Imperials and The Fifth Dimension, to its title track, a David Foster-produced hit for disco diva Cheryl Lynn.

Koorax's career highlights are numerous and diverse. She's recorded or performed with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, Thiago de Mello, Hermeto Pascal and Eumir Deodato from her native Brazil, along with Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, Larry Coryell, Claus Ogerman, John McLaughlin and stars from elsewhere in the jazz constellation. While Koorax was primarily introduced to international audiences through Serenade in Blue, licensed by Milestone Records for release in 2000, previous albums such as Ithamara Koorax Sings the Luiz Bonfa Songbook (King, 1996) were hits in her homeland and other countries.

Koorax and Azymuth soaked in the liquid warmth of Ivan Lins' title track for her Love Dance: The Ballad Album (Milestone, 2003) follow-up. On Autumn in New York (Jazz Station Records, 2005), she dedicated her stunning performance of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" to one of its most famous interpreters, Miles Davis, and dedicated "She Was Too Good to Me" to Chet Baker and Don Sebesky. In 2009, Koorax partnered with Brazilian guitarist Juarez Moreria for Bim Bom (Motéma), the first ever Joao Gilberto songbook. That same year, she collaborated with Swiss pianist Peter Schärli and his trio for the elegy Obrigado Dom Um Romao (TCB Music) upon the passing of the eponymous, illustrious Brazilian percussionist, followed with The Peter Schärli Trio featuring Ithamara Koorax: O Grande Amor (TCB Music) in 2010.

But like the enigmatic, exotic landscapes of her native Brazil, to many music fans Ithamara Koorax remains undiscovered beauty. Arranged and produced by Arnaldo DeSouteiro, Got to Be Real begins with several languid and lush interpretations of pop classics from the 1960s and '70s before moving into Brazilian and jazz colors. "Ithamara has been singing these songs for many, many years, and this trio has been touring with her since 2005, not only in Brazil, but also in Europe and Asia," explains DeSouteiro. "We've been doing little modifications all the time, experimenting with different tempos and details until we felt they were finished and ready to record." (Sadly, Mr. Bertrami passed away in July 2012.)

Most Koorax albums contain a moment when her throat opens and unleashes an impossible but perfectly rendered note. On Got to Be Real, it's her impossibly high and long sustained note that closes the first chorus of its title track, expertly rearranged into a simmering and luxurious Sade quiet storm. Wrapping "Going Out of My Head" in Koorax's passionate and colorful voice turns it into something much more than the original hit by Little Anthony & The Imperials, plaintive as a teenager in love.

"Toque de Cuica" lights up a Real Brazilian jazz manifesto, thundering with echoes of the groundbreaking vocal/percussion work by Brazil's Flora Purim and Airto Moreira while Koorax's voice, sharp as a whip, thrashes its melody forward. Rendered as a duet between Koorax's breathless voice and Bertrami's Fender Rhodes, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" illuminates the creative intimacy between these two musicians, as vocalist and keyboardist seem to each effortlessly know where the other will be.

What would Koorax say to jazz fans who think there's too much pop on Got to Be Real? "I didn't count if I was singing two or three or five 'pop' songs. I always choose songs that I like to sing and that I feel I can add something personal to," Koorax explains. "I don't care if they are jazz tunes, Great American Songbook standards, bossa anthems, pop hits, R & B songs, I really don't care. Brazilian Butterfly was an album of traditional Brazilian folk songs and got rave reviews in the jazz community as well as in the electronica and dance-music areas."

Jazz historian Ira Gitler once wrote about Ithamara Koorax: "Her range and technique are remarkable, but you don't necessarily take time out to marvel at her technique until later on because you are too absorbed in her musical message. Her powerful singing speaks for itself with celestial elegance."

All About Jazz: You've done a lot of different types of albums, but even so, Got to Be Real is still a departure and a very different album for you. Does Got to Be Real sound different from your previous albums to you?

Ithamara Koorax: Each and every album in my 15-CD discography sounds different to me. I never tried or wanted to repeat myself. I always tried to, at first, please me and then please the listener. One of the best things written about me came from Fred Bouchard, when reviewing Brazilian Butterfly for DownBeat: "Koorax is delightfully unpredictable in her music." That was a big compliment for me.

And now that the business of recorded music has been ruined—I mean, now you don't have to feel the pressure from record companies because they are gone, they are past, and now 99 percent of the jazz artists produce and manufacture their own products without any interference—I feel more free than ever.

My first US album, Serenade in Blue, released in 2000 by Milestone, a very prestigious label with whom I was proud to be associated till 2003, was subtitled My Favorite Songs when released in Asia, Europe and Brazil. But, actually, all my albums should be subtitled My Favorite Songs because the songs I choose are always my favorite ones, at least during the period I was recording the album, or they belong to my big list of favorite songs, since I have a repertoire of 200-plus songs that I love to sing in my live performances. The songs from Got To Be Real, for example, have been in my heart for many, many years. I have been singing some of them since the beginning of my professional career in Brazil 22 years ago.

Others go even back to my childhood, because I used to dance to songs like "Never Can Say Goodbye," "Got To Be Real" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" when I was in my teens, in parties at my school. It was a long and very pleasant process to find my personal way to sing them but at the same time let them keep their identity. I haven't destroyed the songs, they remain songs of love and happiness, but you don't need to shout about love and happiness. You can whisper words of love. They become more sensual to me. The song's impact is not diminished—it's even stronger. You don't need to scream, "I love you." There are other ways to say "I love you." Oh, that could be a good subtitle to this new CD—Other Ways To Say I Love You!

Some of my previous CDs were recorded during long periods of time, especially Red River (King, 1995), Serenade in Blue, Love Dance and Brazilian Butterfly. It took me two to three years to complete each of them because I had to deal with the schedules of people like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Claus Ogerman, Jay Berliner, Deodato, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Raul De Souza and so on, to the point that Love Dance was recorded in five different countries: Brazil, USA, England, Germany and Monaco! But I'm glad I kept the spontaneity in all of them in terms of my vocal interpretations, because I rarely overdub. I hate to overdub vocals. On Got To Be Real, Autumn in New York, Bim Bom, O Grande Amor and many other albums, I recorded live in the studio, alongside the musicians. Percussion parts and some synth solos were overdubbed on Got To Be Real but not my voice.

This new CD is also my first one with my road trio, the group that toured all over the world with me from 2005 to 2011. These wonderful guys were supposed to make the Got To Be Real tour, of course, but my keyboardist for the past 22 years, Jose Roberto Bertrami, passed away last July 8. I'm still devastated by this terrible loss, and I'm auditioning some new guys to replace him. But it will be very difficult because he was a true genius—Brazil's best keyboardist ever, the founder of Azymuth, Brazil's top jazz group ever. He also recorded with Sarah Vaughan, Mark Murphy, Airto, Flora Purim. And we were very close, real friends. He played in most of my albums and concerts, so you can imagine how I'm feeling. Bassist Jorge Pescara has played with me since 2001, and drummer Haroldo Jobim joined the trio in 2005 when Dom Um Romao died.

AAJ: Why do this album, and why do it right now?

IK: I wanted to document the music that I was doing with my road band for the past seven years. Albums like Bim Bom, which was released in 2009 as the first Joao Gilberto Songbook ever recorded, and the two sessions recorded in Europe with the Peter Scharli Trio—Obrigado Dom Um Romao, a 2008 tribute to the legendary drummer/percussionist who recorded with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and was a member of Weather Report, and O Grande Amor—were conceptual albums, you know what I mean?

Got To Be Real documents a very happy and creative time in my career. Love Dance is beautiful, and I love it, but it was like a torch-song project. Autumn in New York was my standards album, my journey into the Great American Songbook. Got To Be Real mixes everything—jazz standards, pop songs, disco hits, bossa tunes—but all these elements are unified by the sonority we achieved and by the great job that Arnaldo DeSouteiro did arranging and producing the album. Actually, he arranged the songs for my live concerts and made just a few adjustments for these recording sessions. His idea of slowing down the tempo on the disco hits was awesome! He did an especially terrific job on the title track because he transferred the bass line [from the original Cheryl Lynn recording] to the keyboards and transferred the horn riffs to the bass!

Similar things happened on "Never Can Say Goodbye," and one day, during a concert at a jazz festival in Seoul, I added the quote of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" in the very ending, after the band had already stopped. I was so moved, felt so much joy, that this melody just came from my soul to my throat. The audience loved it, and since then I have incorporated that Bach quote to the song. Curiously, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" was also one of Elis Regina's favorite songs, and she recorded it on a live album [Show Elis & Miele in 1970] when Bertrami was her keyboardist and arranger. So it was Bertrami's suggestion that we should do this song, too, and then DeSouteiro said we should try it as a duo in a very loose way. Another first take.
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