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May 2003

Jazz Can't Resist Brazil

For decades, the recordings and live appearances of famous
and less celebrated American singers, bandleaders,
soloists and performers have featured Brazilian sidemen
and session players or been influenced by Brazil's
most sublime and precious commodity: her music.

Joe Lopes

It was back in 1991, in New York City, as I remember it, in the office of the stock exchange where I used to work, that I found myself chatting with Mike, an African-American colleague of mine. We were discussing among other topics the relative popularity of Brazilian music with American lovers of jazz, and the fact of his being a big fan of both genres.

"But Joe," Mike pointed out to me, "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 observation, but after our conversation had ended and the day wore on, my curiosity started to get a hold of me.

I rushed home that night and thoroughly ransacked my living room in a mad attempt to read the credits and album covers on every one of my CDs, cassettes, and records, with the sole purpose of ultimately disproving my music-loving friend's offhand remark.

But to my utter 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 8-point font, were the unmistakable, tongue tripping Brazilian names of Gilson Perranzzeta, Nico Assumpção, Waltinho Anastácio, Duduka Da Fonseca, Claudio Roditi, Dori Caymmi, Leila Pinheiro, Paulo Braga, and so on.

I needed no further convincing.

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

For decades, the recordings and live appearances of singers, bandleaders, soloists and performers as varied and talented as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Joe Henderson, Pat Metheny, Paul Simon, David Byrne, Al Jarreau, Sting, Eric Clapton, and Sade, right down to the slightly less than mainstream outpourings of David Benoit, Bob James, Don and Dave Grusin, Larry Coryell, George Duke, Lee Ritenour, Michael Franks, Basia, Spyro Gyra, The Rippingtons, 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 now on my own initial shock at this revelation, I really shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, my wife had introduced me to the sensuous charms and gorgeous melodies of Brazilian jazz, samba, bossa nova and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or Brazilian pop music) way back in the mid-eighties, when we were first married.

She had opened my eager eyes to this bright new world of vivacious sounds, harmonies and rhythms, sung and played by a dazzling array of original and, in many cases, completely self-taught vocalists and instrumentalists 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 cool and light jazz favorites, many of them flaunting the syncopated sonorities of bossa nova-tinged tunes.

How was it that American jazz and pop, and especially the soothing sounds of cool jazz, which had originated on the West Coast in the fifties, came to influence—and be so influenced by—the music of a country that was once considered a musical and cultural backwater when compared to the modern music industry of discretionary cash-rich America?

In a previous Brazzil article (www.brazzil.com/p122mar03.htm), writer Steven Byrd related the various influences of American popular music of the 1940s on the future bossa nova sounds that were to emanate from Brazil in the late fifties and early sixties.

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

Debt Repaid

From these simple, 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 by permanently changing the landscape of jazz for future generations to enjoy and thrill to.

The presence of many Brazilian musicians in recording studios all over the U.S. and around the world, which my friend Mike had so casually alluded to, may have greatly accounted for the presence as well of the familiar sounds of this singularly infectious style of music to be found in American jazz, and which has now been happily incorporated into the vocabulary of multi-ethnic jazz and pop artists from places as far a field 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 de Almeida, and poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes. This would be known as the first wave of artists to hit the American musical and cultural shores.

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

With the further flowering of MPB and the tropicalismo movement of the late sixties and early seventies, artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, his sister Maria Bethânia, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa (all from the northeastern state of Bahia) had evolved a highly eclectic brand of music that, while popular with the public, proved consciously critical of the rightwing military-backed government and its repressive censorship policies.

Along with other leftist-leaning intellectuals, poets, writers and journalists, many of these artists were either jailed or banished in a solemn third wave, with Caetano and Gil prominent among the offenders, and included even Brazil's future president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in their number.

Mass Defection

The fourth and possibly largest flight of immigrants from Brazil began as the country took its first unsteady steps toward democracy in the mid-eighties, but which 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.

Undoubtedly, the mass defection of so many Brazilians at the time, by both legal and illegal means, to the environs of such tempting locales as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, and Toronto, greatly increased the size of the overseas community of Brazilian artists and musicians.

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

In the major cities, however, these makeshift expatriates quickly became a rather motley and disorganized 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 United States 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 former birthplace of jazz guitarist/composer Toninho Horta, and of Milton Nascimento, another popular Brazilian vocal export and a highly influential artist among knowledgeable jazz buffs (see Wayne Shorter's 1975 album Native Dancer).

But all of these migratory patterns and political musings are neither very 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 da Silva, known by his professional name as Café.

Café is a Brazilian percussionist who has appeared on many American jazz recordings, but first began his long musical association with Chesky Records, primarily an audiophile specialty label out of New York, as a new arrival atop the fourth wave of immigration back in the mid-1980s.

Record producer and part owner of the label David Chesky is a multi-talented bandleader, solo pianist and composer in his own right, as well as a confirmed Brazilianist. He has enlisted some lesser-known but experienced Brazilian performers (Ana Caram, Romero Lubambo, Badi Assad) to counter-balance his 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.

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 soubriquet. He wasn't tall by American standards, but was as solidly built as the Gávea rock in Rio, and as sturdy as a Brastemp (a native-Brazilian brand) refrigerator.

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

It was quite apparent from our conversation that Café had abundant personal charisma, which he used to overcome his rudimentary grasp of English.

"Americans are so… antipathetic," he exclaimed, as he plopped increasingly generous helpings of feijoada (a black bean stew made with dried meat and pork) onto his 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 girlfriend, 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 charmed by this happy-go-lucky, wire-haired Afro-Brazilian musician seated to her right.

It was then that it finally struck me, the reason why so many jazz artists enjoyed playing and performing Brazil's music: they simply happened to love Brazilians.

But I needed to put this theory to the test.

I thought back to some interesting artistic and romantic couplings of the recent past: American trumpeter Randy Brecker with jazz pianist Eliane Elias; actor/director Robert Redford with sexy screen siren Sônia Braga; jazz-funk guitarist Lee Ritenour with his Brazilian spouse; 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 Brasil '66 recorded and performed a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song called "The Look of Love", which proved to be one of the group's most requested numbers. 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 be 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, clearly reflects the real, palpable, and overpowering affection they must feel for the open, unaffected, and ingenuous qualities of the Brazilian people themselves. It would seem to be the important missing element I had been searching for, 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 couldn't help to recall that in his massive historical tome War and Peace, Russian author Leo Tolstoy once wrote that to love life is to love God.

Since many Brazilians truly believe the old adage that "Deus é brasileiro" (God is Brazilian), it should logically 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 logical, or simple.

Joe Lopes, an American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. He returned to the U.S. in January 2001, and now resides in Raleigh, North Carolina with his family. He is an avid collector and lover of all types of music, as well as an insatiable film buff. You can email your comments to the author at JosmarLopes@msn.com

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