Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil (And the Feeling is Mutual)

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New York City Skyline
New York City Skyline

 

It was back in New York City — in the year 1991, as I remembered it — at the office of the stock exchange where I once worked, that I found myself chatting with Mike Boyd, an African-American coworker of mine. We were discussing, among other topics, the relative popularity of Brazilian music with American lovers of jazz, and the fact of his having been a big fan of both genres.

“But Joe,” as Mike pointed out, “Brazilian artists and musicians have been playing on pop and jazz recordings for over 20 years.”

He offered as evidence three percussionists whose respective careers, in some cases, went as far back as the late sixties and early seventies: Airto Moreira, for Chick Corea’s band Return to Forever; Paulinho da Costa, in the Quincy Jones-produced Michael Jackson album Thriller; and Naná Vasconcelos, with Pat Metheny’s ECM works.

“You’re kidding,” I scoffed, unconvinced by this ridiculous assertion. But after our conversation had ended and the day wore on, my curiosity started to get the better of me.

I rushed home that night to thoroughly ransack my living room in a mad attempt to read the credits and album covers on every one of my CDs, cassettes, and long-playing records — the sole purpose of which was to disprove my music-loving friend’s offhanded remark.

To my amazement, I discovered that Mike was right. Gracing the liner notes of my precious music collection, and buried deep within the print type of that microscopic two-and-a-half-point font, were the unmistakable, tongue-tripping Brazilian names of Gilson Peranzzetta, Nico Assumpção, Waltinho Anastácio, Duduka da Fonseca, Claudio Roditi, Cyro Baptista, Leila Pinheiro, Paulo Braga, and so on.

I needed no further convincing.

To state the obvious, no jazz or popular recording artist from the past, or of the present, has been able to completely resist the incredibly sultry sounds of Brazilian samba and her twin sister, bossa nova.

For decades, the recordings and live appearances of bandleaders, soloists, and performers — as varied and talented as singers Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Eydie Gormé, and Dionne Warwick; instrumentalists Charlie Byrd, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi, Joe Henderson, Cliff Korman, Pat Metheny, and Emily Remler; pop vocalists Paul Simon, David Byrne, Al Jarreau, Suzanne Vega, Sting, Eric Clapton, and Sade; down to the slightly less than mainstream outpourings of smooth-jazz artists David Benoit, Bob James, Don and Dave Grusin, Larry Coryell, George Duke, Lee Ritenour, Michael Franks, Basia, Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons, The Manhattan Transfer, and countless others — have featured Brazilian sidemen and session players, or been influenced by Brazil’s most sublime and precious commodity: her music.

Looking back on my own initial shock at this revelation, I should not have been so surprised. After all, my native-born wife Regina had introduced me to the gorgeous melodies of Brazilian jazz, samba, bossa nova, and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or “Brazilian Popular Music”) way back in the mid-1980s when we first got married.

She had opened my eyes to this bright new world of vivacious sounds, sophisticated harmonies, and loping rhythms, sung and played by a dazzling array of original and, in many cases, completely self-taught vocalists and musicians from our mother country, Brazil.

She had also been a regular listener to a now defunct New York-based radio station with the rather intriguing call letters of CD 101.9 (“Cool FM”), which played endless back-to-back smooth and light-jazz favorites, many of them flaunting the syncopated rhythms of bossa nova-tinged tunes.

How was it that American jazz and pop, and especially the soothing sonorities of cool jazz (which had originated on the West Coast in the 1950s), came to influence, and be so influenced by, the music of a country once considered a musical and cultural backwater?

In an online article entitled “Brazil’s Theme Song,” author Steven Byrd related the various influences of American popular music of the 1940s on the future bossa-nova sounds that were to emanate from Rio in the late fifties and early sixties. Byrd charted the gestation period of one of world music’s most famous and best-loved classic pop songs, “A Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), with music by Tom Jobim and lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, as a major example of this influence.

He also stressed the distinctive guitar-playing style of Bahian singer João Gilberto and the intriguing vocals of his then-wife, Astrud, as popularizing elements. To these must be added her plaintive, almost childlike performance of the lyrics, as well as the wonderfully honeyed tones of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.

Debt Repaid

From these primeval beginnings, Brazilian artists and musicians came to lasting preeminence, and have long since returned the favor and repaid Brazil’s debt to American pop music, by permanently changing the landscape of jazz for future generations to thrill to.

The presence of so many Brazilian musicians in recording studios all over the United States, and around the world, which my friend Mike had once so casually alluded to, may have greatly accounted for the presence as well of the familiar sounds of this singularly infectious style of music found in American jazz; and which has been happily incorporated into the vocabulary of multi-ethnic performing artists from places as far afield as Africa, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Japan.

This influence can be partially attributed to immigration, which first took place during and after the Second World War, with the early appearances of such iconic figures as singer-actress Carmen Miranda, guitarist Laurindo Almeida, Metropolitan Opera star Bidu Sayão, crooner Dick Farney, and poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes. This would become known as the “first wave” of Brazilian artists to hit the American musical and cultural shores.

The next mass migration occurred soon after the worldwide bossa nova craze took off in the early 1960s, made fervent by the championing of the cause by such luminaries as Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, who were later joined by guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Bola Sete, singers Astrud and João Gilberto, and bandleader Sérgio Mendes. This “second wave” also came about just as Brazil had won successive victories in the World Cup Soccer finals of 1958 and 1962, and which coincided with my own family’s moorings into the port of New York around September of 1959.

Maria Bethania, Caetano, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil
Maria Bethania, Caetano, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil

With the further flowering of MPB and the tropicalismo movement of the late sixties and early seventies, artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé (all from the Northeastern state of Bahia), along with Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento, had evolved a highly eclectic and controversial brand of music that, while popular with the public, proved consciously critical of the right-wing military government’s repressive practices.

Along with other leftist-leaning intellectuals, poets, directors, writers, and journalists, many of these fine artists were either jailed or banished in a solemn “third wave,” with Caetano and Gil prominent among the offenders that included movie-maker Carlos Diegues and Brazil’s future president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in their number.

 Mass Defection and Disaffection

The fourth, and possibly largest, flight of immigrants from Brazil began as the country took its first unsteady steps toward democracy in the late eighties to early nineties. It later threatened to totter altogether as the scandal surrounding President Fernando Collor de Mello helped spiral the already sputtering economy further downward in the early nineties.

At the time, the mass defection of so many Brazilians, by both legal and illegal means, to the environs of such tempting locales as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, and Toronto, greatly increased the size of the overseas community of artists and musicians, and for which American jazz has been eternally grateful.

It certainly helped to benefit the dining and restaurant business: the popular lower-Manhattan hotspot S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil), for example, had affiliated itself with jazz chanteuse and pianist Tânia Maria, another Brazilian émigré. It catered exclusively to the now chic and highbrow tastes, both culinary and musical, for all things Brazilian among New York’s dinner-hopping crowd.

In the major cities, however, these makeshift expatriates quickly became a rather motley assortment of street personages more akin to Old World gypsies than to New World pioneers, constantly multiplying and dividing in number and size — vanishing and reappearing with equal dexterity — and traveling freely to-and-from the U.S. and Brazil, seemingly at will and without proper documentation.

I personally ran into many of them while living in New York. Most were invariably from the state of Minas Gerais, the birthplace of composer-guitarist Toninho Horta, and of Milton Nascimento, another popular vocal export and a highly influential artist among knowledgeable jazz buffs (see Wayne Shorter’s 1975 album Native Dancer).

But all these migratory patterns and sociopolitical ramblings are neither satisfactory nor fully convincing explanations for this musical diversity and embrace of Brazilian talent. For another, more mundane exploration of this phenomenon, we must look to one Edson Aparecido da Silva, known professionally by the name “Café.”

Cafe da Silva
Cafe da Silva

Café, a percussionist from the Vila Maria section of São Paulo, has appeared on many American jazz recordings featuring such artists as Herbie Mann, James Last, Sadao Watanabe, Gato Barbieri, Chuck Mangione, Ernie Watts, Paquito D’Rivera, and Stevie Wonder. He first began his musical association with Chesky Records — primarily an audiophile specialty label out of the Big Apple — as a new arrival atop the “fourth wave” of immigrants back in 1985.

Record producer and part owner of the label, David Chesky, is a multi-talented bandleader, jazz pianist, and classical composer in his own right, as well as a confirmed Brazilianist. He enlisted the aid of some lesser known but experienced Brazilian performers (Ana Caram, Romero Lubambo, Badi Assad) to counter-balance the engagement of older, more established pros (Luiz Bonfá, Leny Andrade) in his all-digital music productions.

Chesky’s own album of original compositions, Club de Sol (1989), is a particular favorite of mine, and is highlighted by his superb piano playing and by Café’s distinctive vocal and percussive effects on several of the tracks.

The Love Connection

Both my wife and I had the immense pleasure of meeting Café at the Brasilia Restaurant, in midtown Manhattan, in the spring of 1988. It was basically a friendly get-together of teacher and students from my Portuguese language class at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village.

Upon greeting him, I was immediately struck by Café’s pleasant demeanor — typical of many Brazilians — and easy smile, which completely lit up his coffee-colored countenance, hence his descriptive sobriquet. He wasn’t tall by American standards, but was as solidly built as the Gávea rock in Rio, and as sturdy as a Brastemp refrigerator (a native-Brazilian brand).

He was visiting a fellow student at the time, a doctor by profession, who lived on Roosevelt Island, an exclusive and nearly inaccessible enclave wedged between the boroughs of Manhattan and Queens.

It was apparent from our brief conversation that Café had abundant personal charm, which he used to overcome his rudimentary grasp of English. “Americans are so… antipathetic,” he explained, as he plopped increasingly generous portions of feijoada (a black bean stew made with dried meat and pork) onto a spacious dinner plate. He was trying to describe the general aloofness of most New Yorkers by using the Portuguese word antipático in lieu of “unfriendly,” the more common English term for it.

“Not so,” I argued, as the discussion really started to heat up.

While we were talking, his doctor friend — a blue-eyed, strawberry blonde — sat there and beamed at him, fascinated by his bungled yet inoffensive transgressions against the English language. The obviously smitten American professional appeared to be totally captivated by this happy-go-lucky, wire-haired Afro-Brazilian musician seated to her left.

It was then that it finally struck me, the reason why so many jazz practitioners enjoyed playing and performing Brazil’s marvelous music: they simply happened to love Brazilians. But I needed to put this theory to the test.

I thought back to some captivating artistic and romantic pairings of the recent past: American trumpeter Randy Brecker with jazz keyboardist Eliane Elias; actor-director Robert Redford with sexy screen siren Sônia Braga; movie director Bruno Barreto and his actress wife Amy Irving; jazz-funk guitarist Lee Ritenour with his Brazilian spouse Carmen Santos; and other amorous associations too numerous to mention, including my own.

I remembered, too, that back in his salad days as an entertainer, Sérgio Mendes and his Brasil ’66 ensemble recorded and performed a Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “The Look of Love”, which proved to be one of the group’s most requested numbers. Maestro Mendes was far more successful in his musical career in the States with his then-revolutionary strategy of lacing a Brazilian beat or two into the seams of American pop standards — a musical union of sorts — than he would ever have been had he stayed in his native land.

I guess my theory could be true after all, I reasoned. This love affair that American jazz and pop musicians have had, continue to have, and — dare I predict it — will continue to have for Brazilian harmonies, rhythms, and musical textures, despite the difficulties they may encounter with their respective languages from time to time, clearly reflects the real, palpable, and overpowering affection they must feel for the unaffected and ingenuous qualities of the Brazilian people themselves.

It would seem to be the all-important missing ingredient I had been searching for all along, if not the all-powerful magnetic allure — a literal marriage of convenience, and of mutual benefit.

One could probably justify anything to oneself, I correctly fathomed, if given enough time and thought. But yet I could not help to recall that in his massive historical novel War and Peace, Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote that to love life is to love God.

Christ the Redeemer (downloadwallpapers.com)

Since many Brazilians truly believe the old adage that Deus é brasileiro (“God is Brazilian”), it should naturally follow, then, that to love life is to love Brazilians — and, by extension, their music, language, and culture.

If only most things in life and art were that simple, or logical. ☼

Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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    […] when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz […]

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