A ‘Brazilian’ at Heart – For Jazz Artist Herbie Mann, Brazil Was Home Too

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Herbie Mann (amazon.com)

The first decade of the new millennium saw the passing of many great jazz, blues, pop, classical, and operatic artists. But the most disturbing for me personally was the death on June 30, 2003, at age 73, of jazz giant Herbie Mann.

Herbert Jay Solomon was born on April 16, 1930, in the Northeast section of the United States (Brooklyn, New York), and died in the Southwestern portion of it (Pecos, New Mexico) — but his real home was most probably the planet Earth.

A superb flutist, Mann was one of the pioneers in bringing that silvery instrument out of the stuffiness of the concert pit and into the smoky spotlight of countless jazz joints, nightclubs, and cafés around the world.

He was originally a clarinetist who later took up the tenor saxophone, before finally pressing his lips to the elongated eloquence of the flute; it was a literal love at first drawn breath. His playing ultimately achieved a remarkable airiness and bounce that would greatly contribute to the making of the flute into an essential focus of the modern jazz ensemble.

Mann’s extensive career took him on a restless, globetrotting quest for newer and ever more exotic musical herbs. A true ethnologist, Herbie was forever honing his beloved craft — but always in the service of his flavorful creations and their multi-ethnic origins.

In 1961, he paid his first visit to Brazil, which led to a lifelong association with that country’s unique harmonies and infectious toe-tapping rhythms. Mann became one of the earliest American jazz performers to discover and record the novelty known as bossa nova, still in its infancy. The album he made at the time was entitled Do The Bossa Nova With Herbie Mann, and featured unknown guitarist Baden Powell, the young Sérgio Mendes, and a novice composer named Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Mann continued to experiment with a multiplicity of musical forms and styles, incorporating bebop, pop, rock, jazz, fusion, reggae, disco, R&B, Latin, African, Oriental, and Middle Eastern influences into his performance grooves. In his later years, he even looked to his own Eastern European cultural roots for inspiration, but inevitably returned to his first loves, Brazil and bop, for his musical grounding.

That Magic Flute

My main remembrance of this side of Herbie Mann was his 1990 album Caminho de Casa (“The Road Home”) for Chesky Records. On it, Mann played works by a veritable buffet of Brazilian songwriters: pianist and arranger Nelson Ayres; vocalist and guitarist Dori Caymmi; singer-composer Ivan Lins; songwriters Roberto and Erasmo Carlos; ex-Novo Baiano, Moraes Moreira; perennial jazz favorite Milton Nascimento; and Mann’s own composition, “Yesterday’s Kisses,” tossed into the salada for added spice.

Caminho de Casa (cheskyrecords.com)

His band-mates for the recording sessions included several artists that comprised his Jasil Brazz combo at the time, among them Paul Socolow on bass, Mark Soskin and Eduardo (Edward) Simon on piano, Ricky Sebastian on drums, Romero Lubambo on acoustic guitar, and the wonderful Café on percussion.

For me, the album’s success is due in large part to the air of delicacy and lightness that is sustained throughout the program. There isn’t a heavy-handed moment on it, and even Socolow’s growling electric bass lines are tamed in the general low-key approach to things. The spare use of percussion and other distracting effects are kept to a minimum, credit for which must be given to the individual arrangements as well as to Café’s solid studio experience.

Mann gets things moving right from the opening track with the jaunty title tune by Nelson Ayres. His flitting flute work along with Romero’s plucky guitar licks constantly challenge and support one another in a fabulous game of one-up-man-ship. Eduardo, on piano, picks up the thread at key moments by doubling with the flute on the main theme. It’s a perfect blend of two disparate elements, with the melody soaring upwards into the studio stratosphere and staying with the listener long after the song’s end.

The next two pieces, at a decidedly slower tempo, are no less emotionally charged. The electricity generated by that first number continues on into Dori Caymmi’s lovely “Gabriela’s Song,” at once delicate and mild, lyrical and light, a summertime breeze that stays bewitchingly in the flute’s earthy lower register, which stresses both the instrument’s sonorous and sensuous sides.

“Aparecida,” Ivan Lins and Maurício Tapajós’ song about a woman who disappears during Brazil’s military-dictatorship years, has its own moment in the sun. It’s a beautifully languid piece, employing a lilting bossa nova beat, a soft sinuous statement offset by Mark’s tumbling piano cascades that make the keys of that instrument sound more like a slow and steady waterfall. You imagine yourself on a leisurely stroll along the Copacabana coastline, with Café’s delicately tapped congas echoing each of your sand-filled footsteps and Ricky’s drum kit and hi-hat providing a perfect counterpoint to this delightful tropical sojourn.

This is followed by an equally charming piece by Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, “Seu corpo” (“Your Body”), which originally came with some evocatively sensual lyrics and is even more laid-back than the previous number. Mann’s flute predominates here by virtue of its hypnotic vibrancy.

The temperature is raised a few degrees with the rhythmically propelled samba-and-choro workings of “Pão e poesia” (“Bread and Poetry”) by Moraes Moreira and Fausto Nilo. The flute takes off on its own wave of celebratory sound, and gives the listener the impression of being an active participant in a Rio Carnival parade, while giving equal time to the piano as it voices its lines in a flowing and expansive variation on the main idea.

Mann’s gorgeous work, “Yesterday’s Kisses”, brings us back to bossa territory, where the prevailing mood is that of a warm and humid summer night; of wiping away the perspiration from your lover’s sweaty brow. The work is enlivened throughout by the bass’s mewling love call, answered in turn by both piano and flute, purring playfully in languorous obeisance to it.

Milton Nascimento and José Renato’s classic “Anima” is given an unusual treatment by Mann and Venezuelan pianist Simon, both of who pull the main melody around in deliberate stop-and-go fashion — very different from the version, recorded in 1991, by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman on his equally memorable Brasil album for RCA Victor, which also happened to feature percussionist Café.

At almost a full nine minutes, “Anima” is the longest number on the album and, perforce, takes its time to make its poetic presence felt. The original song’s lyrics about the soul reaching out in search for something beyond this temporal existence emphatically reflects Mann’s own long-range career goals; it can stand as his personal life statement.

The final two tracks, “Choro das águas” (“Cry of the Waters”) by Lins and his frequent collaborator Victor Martins, and “Doa a quem doer” (“No Matter Who It Hurts”), also by Lins, wrap up the proceedings quite nicely.

Guitar and piano start the forward propulsion in “Choro,” as the flute enters in ever-so-hesitating a fashion, then pulls back with several long-limned phrases. One can fully appreciate the marvelous atmosphere of the recording venue, the famous RCA Studio A in New York City — you can even hear Mann dexterously fingering his favored instrument, captured for all time by the minimalist microphone technique.

Romero’s rock-steady guitar strumming returns as playful as ever; but this time, it drags itself into momentary fits and starts, hemming and hawing as it goes, while the flute slowly emerges, pleading for obvious forgiveness for some past fault. The guitar eventually defers to it for the long-held final word, which becomes a literal sigh of breathless anticipation of some future assignation.

The closing number, “Doa,” adds one last samba note to the celebration, as we’re taken back to the Carnival parade and its colorful cacophony of street sounds, a fitting formal conclusion to our Brazilian excursion.

I listened to this splendid album in tribute to the artist, Herbie Mann, who was without a doubt the “main man” of world music.

He has, indeed, found the proverbial road back to his heavenly home, but here on terra firma — and especially on this recording — Mann was truly at ease with Brazilian music, Brazilian artists, and his “adopted” Brazilian homeland, one he often returned to in his wayward wanderings. And Caminho de Casa, or “The Road Home,” is no better testament to his musical memory – a fitting tribute to a marvelously talented performer. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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