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Brazzil - Music - September 2003

Improta Pushing Brazilian Jazz's Envelope

Gabriel Improta's music may owe something to Baden Powell's
world, but he sets his own indisputably virtuosic guidelines.
His music is full of revolving colors, emotional curves, and
surprises. Improta's easygoing approach, however, conceals
his enormous command of the contemporary classical medium.

Bruce Gilman


Gabriel Improta personifies a marvelous kind of musical schizophrenia, expressing in both composition and performance, distinct, immediately recognizable talents that will be of crucial importance on the Brazilian music scene in the coming decades. His influential debut recording balances between passion and beauty, demanding total submission.

Whether playing single-line solos that combine inner strength with a delicacy in approach, or essaying chordal work with an enviable awareness of dynamics, Gabriel Improta is a sensitive, lyrical musician with a warm, sonorous tone who sounds like a full rhythm section in accompaniment. His writing distinguishes itself by bringing listeners into an intensely personal vision and expressive range that stretches the Brazilian jazz genre to new parameters without breaking its thread. Improta's focus is instrumental music, but he concedes that the music business in Brazil is very complicated and that instrumentalists often linger for years without ever finding a passage from amateur to professional.

Professionalism, however, came naturally to Gabriel, a savvy enough traveler in musical circles to know that the key to long-term survival is flexibility. By his early twenties he had already performed with Ithamara Koorax, Carol Saboya, Carlos Malta, and Dona Ivone Lara. "When we recorded my CD Pimenta," says woodwind wizard Carlos Malta, "in spite of his young age, Gabriel showed sophistication and maturity. He was outstanding in the studio, demanding the most of his performance. Gabriel's guitar playing may have its fundamental roots in Baden Powell and Hélio Delmiro, but his compositions reveal a musician who creates challenges all his own."

At the Federal University in Rio de Janeiro (Uni-Rio) Gabriel composed pieces, all remarkable documents in their own unassuming way, that digress from convention and push traditional boundaries. "Cantos," his musical poem for voice(s) and Pro-Tools, reflects a musical world populated by the ideas of men as diverse as John Coltrane, John Cage, and poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, whose prerecorded voices—each with its own priceless spoken/poetic timbral difference—alternate in brief sound paintings to create a precarious polyrhythmic balance. Within this rather eccentric instrumentation, one is cognizant of a dense wave of texture-conscious details and of the rhythmic and coloristic harmonic complexities that influence and compel the music's urgency.

"Momento" for flute and Pro-Tools, Improta's culminating work for his Bachelor's degree in composition, was composed for contrast and mood. It is an atmospheric design, absolutely original and engaging. Instrumental color, via the flautist's multiphonics, is manipulated to evoke fascinating soundscapes of light and dark, shadow and substance, and small, nugget-like motives are subjected to the most daring and scrutinizing treatment, building steadily to a climax before returning gracefully to the opening mood. With its visually appealing score whose vivid splashes of color indicate categorically specific sequencer channels, "Momento" is a compelling piece of musical architecture.

Improta's easygoing approach, however, conceals his enormous command of the contemporary classical medium. "I remember the day I was giving a workshop at the Federal University here in Rio de Janeiro," says guitar virtuoso Marco Pereira. "The primary focus was arranging and composing for guitar in Brazilian styles, and I had asked the participants to write a piece and be prepared to present it before the class. Gabriel was the first to show what he had written. After his piece, no one else wanted to share anything! He has a special feeling for arranging, harmonizing, and composing, and that is a gift."

During his time at Uni-Rio, Gabriel jammed occasionally with some friends at a restaurant in Lapa called Salsa e Cebolinha. It was a live, burning experience that promised to burn even brighter. The group sweat it out over tunes in front of an involved audience while driving each other to new levels of creativity. One night an enthusiastic patron came up to the stage, and introducing himself as a producer, praised their musicianship and explained that he wanted them to come to his studio and record their compositions. Figuring the guy had had a little too much to drink and was giving them a "line," the band members had a good laugh and continued their set. The guy, Rádio MEC's producer Reinaldo Leitão, was completely serious.

The old Symphonic Studio at Rádio MEC is huge and was constructed with magnificent acoustics. Jacó do Bandolim and Villa-Lobos recorded often in the same studio that gave birth to the group Sincronia Carioca. With free studio access and a flexible recording schedule, the band spent two months fine-tuning arrangements, rehearsing, and recording. Their sound, admirably integrated, comes across with fierce emotional commitment and the unmistakable imprint of a special guest performer, arranger, and composer—Hermeto Pascoal. The project was, in musicians' parlance, an act of love, that is, without monetary reward. Compensation came only when poet/lyricist Aldir Blanc wrote a column in the newspaper O Dia praising their self-titled CD as the best of the century.

Upon completion of his studies at Uni-Rio, Gabriel sent two scores—one for string orchestra and one for woodwind ensemble—to Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES) along with his application for a scholarship in composition, which he hoped would allow him to continue extensive studies in the United States.* Subsequently, Improta was performing in Cuba at the Guitarra de La Habana International Festival when he received an e-mail requesting his immediate return for a week of testing before a jury of CAPES directors and composers. Says Improta, "My uncle Ion, one of my strongest influences, always told me that I would study in the United States and had even offered to pay my tuition."

As the Improta family is replete with outstanding musicians, it would have been difficult for Gabriel to follow any other path. "I've known Gabriel for five years," says Carlos Malta, "and can affirm that his musical thread descends directly and genetically from a family that has tattooed in his soul both the sublimity of classical works and the creativity and innovation required in jazz and popular music." Before describing additional events connected with Gabriel Improta's career it would be well to digress a bit and share the Improta family background, since he is the descendant of one of Brazilian music's most illustrious dynasties.

Ion Muniz, his uncle, is a controversial, but exceptionally talented woodwind player who has performed with, among other luminaries, Hermeto Pascoal, João Donato, Joyce, and the Claus Ogerman Orchestra. He has recorded with Edison Machado, Victor Assis Brasil, and had recorded with Egberto Gismonti until their verbal clash during a recording session. Muniz lived in New York for ten years and worked with his own groups before moving to Finland where he became a Sibelius Academy teacher. Um Eterno Amor, a CD of his original compositions, has just been released in Brazil.

Singer/songwriter Joyce recalls Ion Muniz, "I met him in the late 60's, when we were both teens. He was about my age, 18 or 19 years old, and already a hell of a player. Later in 1970 we worked together in Mexico for a few months with the Luís Eça band Sagrada Família (Sacred Family). Everybody was a bit crazy at that time, experimenting, discovering. Some of us grew more mature after that, some did not . . . Ion returned to Rio, playing around for a few more years, then moved to New York. That's when I met him again, and he recorded with me on the album I was doing with Claus Ogerman in 1977. His flute solo on my tune "Pega Leve" was absolutely brilliant and one of the few solos from that session that Claus kept intact later when he put the orchestra on top of the rhythm section. We worked together a few more times here in Brazil, and I always had the impression he was a misguided genius, someone who, had his troubled soul allowed, could have had a wonderful career."

Ivy Improta, Gabriel's grandmother, was a child prodigy who Villa-Lobos brought to Rio de Janeiro from the interior São Paulo for studies with Tomás Teran.** She worked with Villa-Lobos throughout her career and became recognized as the classical pianist who toured extensively, unveiling Brazilian classical music both solo and with orchestras. Tomás Teran introduced her to Eurico Nogueira França, a pianist, teacher of music history, and music journalist for Correio da Manhã, Jornal do Brasil, and O Estado de S. Paulo. He was a close friend of Villa-Lobos, and together they worked to establish the Academia Brasileira de Música (Brazilian Music Academy). When Ivy was 20 years old, they were married; their best man was Villa-Lobos.

The elegant, expressive, and massively skillful pianist Tomás Improta, Gabriel's father, has played with a wide range of popular music icons (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Doces Bárbaros) and brought phenomenal technical control and musical imagination to the basic jazz vein of his output. After a decade with Veloso's band, he left to pursue a solo career and establish Centro de Artes Rio (Cenario), the prestigious music school in Botafogo. He has conducted voluminous research on the pentatonic scale system and written extensively about music theory.

Gabriel grew up listening to jazz, and his fondness for the genre was engendered by his father's example, which consequently prompted him to petition CAPES for a scholarship to schools distinguished for their jazz programs. Says Improta, "Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California (M.I.) became my choice by default. It had nothing to do with cost and everything with bureaucracy. CAPES was willing to pay for my tuition, a living space, health insurance, even the air fare, but wouldn't permit me to graduate with their scholarship from Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, not even from New York City College. They would only accept M.I., and I wasn't so sure about attending a `pop' music school."

Rock `n' roll and pop styles are deemed second class genres in Rio; however, students at Musicians Institute examine them dogmatically. "Oh, I couldn't believe it," says Improta. "It was a bad situation. There was one class that prepared students to play in a pop show. You had to play rock `n' roll music that was completely written out. I didn't want to play rock `n' roll, so I asked the teacher if he had any jazz charts for us. Man, I hated that class. The scenes in Rio and L. A. are diametrically opposed. I don't think one is any better than the other, but people in Los Angeles put a lot more energy into pop and film music. Musicians there are preoccupied with technology. In Rio we have more of a cultural movement in which people, and not only musicians, prefer music connected with our Brazilian roots."

At Uni-Rio, students are offered a traditional, more European style of education. Although their ear training and theory programs are much stronger and more advanced than those at Musicians Institute, they have few computers, the keyboards are old, and only one Pro-tools system exists. By graduation, Uni-Rio students often lack the essential qualifications necessary to earn their livelihoods in the music business. Conversely, students at M.I. study in real-world contexts. The recording technology is state-of-the-art, accelerating both opportunities and information exchange; prior to graduation, many M.I. students are already gainfully employed.

Once in Los Angeles, Improta enjoyed an awe-inspiring kind of notoriety, impressing many people, jazz musicians in particular, with his ability to be at home in almost any setting and acquiring a reputation for being one of the most amiable musicians on the scene. His uncanny ability to take anybody's music and not only transform it into his own peculiar vehicle, but underline and accentuate every possible melodic and rhythmic idea in it, often with a clearly astringent edge, made everything he played seem like it was written especially for him.

"It's almost impossible to play straight-ahead jazz in Rio," says Improta. "Few people are interested in it, and most of them are musicians. I love jazz, but I had to mix it with traditional Brazilian music to play it there. Maybe this is not so much a Brazilian, but a worldwide trend, a sort of cultural nationalism or backlash to all that `globalization.' I totally agree with Oswald de Andrade who, writing about cultural cannibalism, explained how cannibals ate valorous persons to acquire their desirable traits, and how that can also be done on a cultural level. In its foundation, Brazil is a mixed country; that is its strength. We have already consumed characteristics from many other cultures and, despite that, have remained Brazilian. Absorbing influences from other countries to make our music richer, is a positive form of nationalism and much more embracing and intelligent than a defensive nationalism that advocates only traditional Brazilian genres, which, after all, are blends of many influences. Maybe that sounds odd, but it is a major controversy."

During his two-week winter break from Musicians Institute, Improta returned to Brazil to record É o Violão do Brasil! And it is a rare pleasure in these days of so many pretentiously important recordings to find one that was obviously recorded to prove nothing other than the repertoire is uncommonly evocative and the musicians involved—Carlos Malta, Robertinho Silva, Duduka da Fonseca, Marco Pereira, and Thomás Improta, among others—play at the very highest caliber. One of the disc's most absorbing aspects is hearing the impact of personality upon personality. Throughout the disc, these sympathetic companions, all superior musicians, amplify Improta's musical persona and display a palpable camaraderie.

The tunes, while designed to give the musicians the most room to stretch out, also document the leader's multiple talents, which makes perfect sense when one considers that all were written or arranged by Improta. The opener, Edu Lobo's "Corrupião," with an arrangement fueled by Egberto Gismonti's inspiration, is a white-hot baião that spontaneously combusts into a compelling tapestry of technique, passion, and plain old excitement. Carlos Malta's unfailingly incisive sound, always searing, clarifies why none of his imitators have ever quite matched the same degree of spirit and verve he brings to the job. Propelled by an infectiously exciting rhythm section, the tune's harmonic and kinetic energy would undoubtedly delight the composer.

"Baião de LA," one of the disc's most rhythmically adventurous compositions, is anything but typical. Improta wrote it while living in Los Angeles, hence the title, which actually bears a triple meaning: "Baião from Los Angeles," "Baião from There," and "Baião in the Key of A." Following a strict AABA form, the piece begins as a maracatu, segues into a short rubato, which leads into a Bach-like suite atop the baião rhythm. The improvisatory section fuses baião with an "L.A. pop" feel. Says Improta, "I was thinking about adding some synthesized percussion, but both Marco (Pereira) and Marcelo Bernardes, a musician who plays clarinet with Chico Buarque and for whom I have great respect, were completely against the idea, feeling there was no justification, that baião is best with traditional percussion instruments."

One of Cuba's most important composers, and for the guitar one of the world's most impressive, Leo Brouwer, was influenced by Yoruban culture when he wrote El Decameron Negro for classical guitar solo. "Balada de la Doncella Enamorada" is an arrangement of its prelude, reformatted into a jazz trio, and although imbued with Improta's own personality, captures the spiritual ambience of the original. Ney Conceição, giving a magnificent display of both supportive and scrupulously accurate bass playing, brings a rhythmic vitality and textural earthiness to the group sound.

It's refreshing to hear a guitar player who allows lines to breathe, and whose piquancy is as much a matter of knowing what to omit as what to play. On "Valsa de Janeiro," a graceful duo resonating tasteful restraint and quiet melodic charm, Marco Pereira's use of space as a means of articulation is exemplified, and solo elements are matched by a beautifully balanced counterpoint. Says Pereira, "There was a lot of work to do at the recording sessions, and so an untitled waltz kept waiting in my desk drawer. The day before we decided to record, I started working on it, and the more I practiced, the more I sensed something was missing. So I dared to write something new, which Gabriel loved and adopted as a second section. We wrote the arrangement together at the studio just before the session, then Gabriel gave this beautiful waltz its name." The piece exudes the happy spirit of collaboration.

Written as an entry for the Praça da Carioca Music Festival and in reverence of his father's passion for the music of McCoy Tyner, "Choro para McCoy" was the only instrumental composition in an event dominated by sertaneja music and "pop" singing, à la Roberto Carlos, but it advanced through the various preliminary rounds to eventually take both third place and the Acclamation Prize, an award selected by a popular vote of the audience. At an early morning recording session, Thomás Improta wrote the five voice arrangement in the style of McCoy Tyner, and Carlos Malta suggested playing all five on bass instruments. "Both my father and Malta were overexcited," Improta recalled, "so my father immediately agreed."

Malta plays all five voices of the first and second chorus on bass flute, doubling the higher parts an octave lower. On the third chorus, which was initially to be divided among the entire saxophone family: sopranos on top, alto and tenor in the middle voices and baritone on the lowest plane, he plays, then doubles all five voices on baritone sax. "I suggested using soprano sax for the highest voice," says Improta, "and he did, only to make me happy. So there are ten baritones and one soprano sax in that section. It's an entire orchestra!" Enriching this mixture, his father solos in a manner that recalls the work of Tyner, its plasticity of phrasing, the supple ease of note placement, and the variety of note choices echoing the imagination and excitement that Tyner combined so effortlessly at his peak. "So my lesson," says Improta, "was analogous to Oriental philosophy: Sometimes it's better to let things just happen by themselves—especially in the presence of genius."

"Samba da Quarta-feira de Cinzas" (Ash Wednesday's Samba) is a slow samba in homage to Maestro Baden Powell that begins with an intriguing rebalancing of Powell's "Retrato Brasileiro." It is a track that showcases Improta as a sympathetic quartet member and a natural improviser who builds his solos with careful attention to their overall symmetry, totally devoid of superfluous embellishment or pretense. He is given the perfect sympathetic platform by his partners—Robertinho Silva, percussion; Ney Conceição, bass; and Rodrigo Lessa, bandolim—who are so intuitive in their listening that they are with him in every nuance, each an individual both in sound and ideas, giving Improta the broadest and most exciting palette to work from, and Improta revels in the support he is getting.

"Tez" is a solo guitar reduction of a string orchestra piece Gabriel wrote when he was studying composition at the Federal University. The word tez means complexion in Portuguese, but here also hints at the pluralization of the letter "T," an allusion to Improta's father (Tomás), his teacher (Ricardo Tacuchian), and Tacuchian's nine tone compositional procedure, Sistema -T. Both Tacuchian's system and "Tez" are grounded on the post-modernist Theory of Conjuncts, which stresses a fusion, or better, a coexistence of compositional procedures like serialism, pan-diatonicism, and atonalism. Following the practice of many composers, Improta personalized the system to include jazz scales—diminished, whole tone, and pentatonic. "Tez" is an extraordinary demonstration of Improta's intellectual and emotional response to a challenging musical language.

Inspired by Tom Jobim`s composition "Radamés e Pelé" (titled for the soccer star and composer Radamés Gnattali), Improta's jazz-samba "Delmiro e Aninha" was written for two personal passions—Hélio Delmiro's guitar playing and his girlfriend, Aninha. Upon hearing the tune, Aldir Blanc authored lyrics that narrate a soccer game between teams of renowned guitar players—Joe Pass, Hélio Delmiro, Laurindo Almeida, Raphael Rabello, Guinga, Dilermando Reis, Baden Powell, Garoto, Dino 7 Cordas, and Bola Sete. Improta solos with warmth and invention, concentrating on and allowing the notes that matter to stand alone with plenty of room around them, thanks largely to the sensitive piano backing from one of the least demonstrative, but most effective keyboard players in Brazil, his father, who provides the ideal cushion for his son and also spins out another memorable solo. Musical communication between father and son is total, definitely a two-way street.

On the final track, the Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim composition "O Morro Não Tem Vez" (Favela), Improta metrically shifts the traditional introduction and interlude into 7/4. There is an impassioned excitement to his electric guitar solo. Its enormous potency—bordering on ferocity—combines complete authority with harmonic clarity. Duduka da Fonseca's rapport, achieving a telepathic elegance, is instantly apparent, and Barrosinho, formerly the leader of Banda Black Rio and a player possessed of phenomenal bravura technique as well as a beautiful brass tone, blows with boldness, his short, but volatile solo soaring to the trumpet's outer reaches.

Gabriel Improta's debut as a leader may have put him in very fast company, but he stands up and takes full advantage of such strong support. Moreover, his colleagues are outspokenly among those who firmly believe that Improta, a major voice poised tranquilly at the water's edge, has the potential to become one of the leading artists of his generation. Says Marco Pereira, "This CD will be, no doubt about it, a reference for generations of guitar players in Brazil and abroad. Gabriel is writing an important page in the history of Brazilian instrumental music, especially for our guitar."

One reason for Improta's stellar reputation among his fellow musicians, besides his relaxed attitude, is not the fact that he is able to play and stretch out on anything, but that he can turn even the most cliché-ridden tune into an adventure. The audience feels how much he enjoys playing, and his pleasure is contagious. A master of subtle accompaniment and interplay, Improta supports with a strong rhythmic undertow that gives his playing a churning insistence. He is currently touring with Francis Hime and has been invited to record in Rio with the New Orleans brass band Night Crawlers, and further, to select the other musicians for the session.

Improta's music may owe something to Baden Powell's world, but he sets his own indisputably virtuosic guidelines. He is a man whose compositions are full of unexpected details, revolving colors, emotional curves, and surprises. Says Pereira, "In our first encounter, Gabriel presented the repertoire to be recorded, and I had the first positive impact of his geniality and the originality of this great musician. Throughout the recording sessions, that first positive impression, little by little, imposed itself as an unquestionable truth. At each step I was confronted with a musical work containing the best characteristics: extremely coherent and original musical ideas allied to perfect technique, always resulting in music of quality, brilliant rhythmic articulation, and, above all, Gabriel's rare capacity and maturity for improvisation."

É o Violão do Brasil! is more than an impressive example of Improta's playing and compositional abilities. It shows—as he explores voicings and moods—a spatialized sound with different levels of intensity and a pulsating depth of expression. This is music realized with a cast of daringly inventive players who play with flair and imagination, and whose creative processes have a clear and tangible base. There are moments of introspection, but plenty that demonstrate extroverted musical sinew. By the simple, if uncommon, process of being himself, Gabriel Improta has developed into a musician with a style that is lyrical and warm, yet displays fire and drive without sounding driven or harsh—a force caressed by serenity.

Delmiro e Aninha
(Gabriel Improta e Aldir Blanc)

O Joe Pass não passou
Olha o sorriso da Anin
Com Dilermando no gol
Delmiro fez que sim
O Baden Powell falou
Bota o Garoto no team
O Bola Sete atacou
Delmiro sim, sim, sim
Rafa das 7 pintou
Com o Dino pra armar
O Guinga penetrou
Aninha disse olha lá
Então Delmiro lançou
Um som que nunca se viu
Laurindo abraçou Bonfá
É o violão do Brasil

Delmiro e Aninha

Joe Pass didn't pass (the ball)
Look at Anin's smile
With Dilermando as goalkeeper
Delmiro nodded
Baden Powell said
Put Garoto on the team
Bola Sete attacked
Delmiro yes, yes, yes
Rafa das 7 showed up with Dino to organize (the game)
Guinga attacked
Aninha shouted, "Look there."
Then Delmiro gave a long pass
With a sound that had never been heard before
Laurindo hugged Bonfá
That's the Brazilian Guitar

Selected Discography:
Artist(s)  Title  Label  Date
Gabriel Improta  É o Violăo do Brasil!  Kalimba  2003
Tomás Improta  Dorival  Rádio MEC/Rob Digital  2003
Sincronia Carioca  Sincronia Carioca  Rádio MEC/Rob Digital  2002
Barrozinho  O Sopro do Espírito  Kalimba  2001
Carol Saboya  Sessăo Passatempo  Eldorado  2000
Carlos Malta  Pimenta  500 Anos de Som  2000
Daniel Gonzaga  Os Passos na Paralela  Velas  1998
Tomás Improta  Certas Mulheres  Rob Digital  1998

Web sites of interest: http://www.radiomec.com.br


* CAPES is an acronym for Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Coordination of Improvement of University Level Personnel), a Brazilian foundation that confers scholarships, finances research for master's and doctorate programs, and helps the Federal Government establish a policy for post-graduation courses abroad. Their web site is (www.capes.gov.br).

** Tomás Teran was also the teacher of Antônio Carlos Jobim and a close friend of both Villa-Lobos and Andrés Segovia.


Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil magazine, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He is the recipient of three government grants that have allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil. His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish. You can reach him through his e-mail: cuica@interworld.net




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