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Crying High

Mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall was the only American to perform alongside Brazilian greats Paulinho da Viola, Martinho da Vila, Edu Lobo, and Altamiro Carrilho in São Paulo at Chorando Alto 2, a choro summit. Marshall is the leader of Choro Famoso, the foremost choro ensemble in the U.S., and he is intent on taking the Brazilian rhythm to a larger audience in the United States.

Bruce Gilman

Jacob do Bandolim used to say that choro, which literally means cry, had three meanings. First, it was a group of instruments: violão, cavaquinho, pandeiro, flute, and bandolim; second, a ritual within a specific location, the roda-de-choro; and finally, the musical definition: a melody in 2/4 meter, typically a series of variations on a theme in rondo form. The erudite brother of samba, choro is the most sophisticated of Brazil's musical expressions. Every significant Brazilian musician from Nazaré and Pixinguinha to Tom Jobim, from Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso to Guinga, from Egberto Gismonti to Hermeto Pascoal, and from Nara Leão to Nana Caymmi has either written or performed choro. But over the years, choro had acquired some negative stereotypes; it became "chorinho" and was thought of aesthetically as old fashioned.

To reverse this tendency, to remove a stamp that choro never deserved, a handful of top-notch musicians developed the concept of a choro summit, a festival to prove that the scope of choro is broader than many people imagined and to show the public at large that choro is alive, recognized by contemporary musicians, and admired for its rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic possibilities. Their idea was realized between May 30 and June 2, 1996. Chorando Alto One was Brazil's first great choro festival and was sub-titled One Hundred Years of Pixinguinha. It marked the beginning of the centennial celebrations for the genius that advanced choro at the beginning of the century. Enthusiastic responses from the public, the press, and the musical media, exceeded all expectations.

The curtains of the theater of the Sesc Pompéia in São Paulo opened to the second edition of Chorando Alto this year between the 21st and 24th of August with more than 80 musicians sharing the stage. The festival again confirmed that choro is the most resilient among all the Brazilian genres. For over a month the Brazilian media was inundated with news of the preparations, interviews, blow-by-blow coverage, and aftershocks of the event. Chorões (choro musicians) like Paulinho da Viola, Wagner Tiso, Edu Lobo, and Martinho da Vila, whose names are often associated with other genres, headlined every night. On the second night, a daring alliance united Núcleo Contemporâneo (Contemporary Nucleus) with mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall. Listeners were dumbfounded to learn that the group's mandolin player was from Oakland, California.

One week after Mike performed at Chorando Alto 2, I flew up to the Bay Area to hear his group Choro Famoso. Saturday, Choro Famoso played Berkeley at a venue called Freight & Salvage Coffee House, a converted warehouse where the audience is a mix of "new age" university students and the area's aging anarchists. Sunday, the group opened for Gilberto Gil at San Francisco's palatial Masonic Auditorium. This was no chamber music concert. If you wanted to see the stage, you had to be on your feet like everyone else. I understood why the crowd at Chorando Alto was awed, and I knew Mike and I had to talk.

Mike, you were the only North American to perform alongside Brazilian greats Paulinho da Viola, Martinho da Vila, Edu Lobo, and Altamiro Carrilho in São Paulo at Chorando Alto 2. What impressed you most about the festival?

What impressed me most was the variety of styles within the choro tradition. Over the four days there was everything from groups who played in the really old style to contemporary jazz-influenced things to modern classical interpretations to the pop stars paying homage to the great composers. There was a group doing arrangements for five clarinets; another night there was a piece that had been written for eight cellos and piano. Several new pieces were written for the festival. And each night was sold out.

Tell me a little about the festival's organization.

The festival is a four-day event, with three different acts each night, sponsored by the SESC group. This is an organization that collects a tax from the businesses in São Paulo. The tax money is then channeled by SESC in their capacity as an arts organization. They have a beautiful theater that holds about 800 people and absolutely the best sound and lighting equipment you can imagine as well as a top-notch stage crew.

Was there a sense of stylistic continuity in the approach of the younger players?

Choro players have throughout the century been the musicians' musicians. It's still that way today in Brazil. It's just that the definition of choro has gotten so much broader. The line now between jazz, classical, and choro is getting a bit blurry. But that's the beauty of the music, that as an art form it can handle so many different offshoots and still have this basic root.

Some feel choro is the scholarly genre of Brazilian music, an acquired taste. I've even read somewhere that Wagner Tiso feels that only Brazilians can play choro. What's your take on ideas like these?

To me choro is not scholarly in some kind of unapproachable way. It has that beautiful combination of intellect and emotion that I look for in any kind of music. Like American jazz, it combines the intricacies of the Western classical harmonic and melodic traditions with the intense drive and complexities of African drumming. What could be better? To me it's a completely natural thing. As far as having to be Brazilian…You know, I played Pixinguinha's tune "1X0" with Tiso at the festival, and he seemed to be really digging it. If you study this music and its history from its inception, you find many musicians coming together from many different places. Each player bringing something unique to the table. This is what has created all of the truly great musical styles of the last one hundred years. I think it's a question of exposure and openness. Music is a living art form. It is one way today and will be something else tomorrow. Even the young people in Brazil today are doing something different with choro. They know that no matter how hard they try, they can never sound like Jacob or Pixinguinha. But it's the love and appreciation that they bring to the art form that's important. Their musical personality is what keeps the music alive and moving into the future.

Did you get a sense that choro is alive, well, and growing in Brazil?

I would have to say that choro music is alive and well in Brazil. What a vibrancy to this event! In the audience you had such a cross section of people, all ages, which was really nice to see. The festival validated, once again, the rich and varied music of Brazil and the role choro has played in the musical history of the country.

How did you get involved with a festival in a different hemisphere?

I was invited by the group Núcleo Contemporâneo. It's a group of four musicians who formed a record label and music center for concerts and workshops. The group (Teco Cardoso, saxophone and flute; Toninho Ferragutti, accordion; Benjamim Taubkin, piano; and Mané Silveira, trombone) is responsible for the rejuvenation of choro in São Paulo. I actually met the pianist, Benjamim, when I was in São Paulo in 1995 with the Turtle Island String Quartet. He was a fan of some of my earlier work: Grisman, Montreux, and Modern Mandos. We were instant friends, even beyond connecting musically, before I heard him play. Later when I realized that he was the keyboard player on Zizi Possi's Valsa Brasileira, I was screaming, "That's you man? You are incredible!! " Just soul down to the bone.

How were you received by the Brazilian players at Chorando Alto?

They were absolutely great. I guess for them it was just really weird to see this American guy who had studied this music and was really playing it. The entire experience has been hard to believe. I went to Brazil for the first time in 1995 and was really inspired by this entire genre of music. I went crazy studying choro and learned about its different styles and eras. But to be invited to play with some of these musicians who I consider to be some of the greatest in Brazil, musicians whom I've been admiring for so long, it was like a dream. And with the guys in Núcleo Contemporâneo, the music felt completely natural from the first note we played. Benjamim, our piano player and music director, was always kidding me saying, "How can you play like that and not speak Portuguese?"

Are you planning a return to Brazil soon?

Yes! Chorando Alto has invited me back next year for the third annual festival. It's the 80th birthday celebration of Jacob (do Bandolim). You can imagine how excited I am. Also, the label Núcleo Contemporâneo is going to release my CD there.

Will there be a CD from the Chorando Alto 2?

Each night of the festival was taped, and there were three acts each night, so there will be a twelve track promotional CD at some point, one track from each group. Whether it will be commercially available in the near future, who knows?

How did you discover choro?

I first heard Jacob in 1981 or '82 when I was touring with David Grisman. We had some tapes of his early recordings. I thought that Jacob was this anomaly in Brazil. A mandolin player playing this type of music? What a strange thing. And even though I had heard the music, I wasn't clear about which instruments were making which sounds. The percussion? I had never seen a pandeiro before. The guitar at times sounded like a bass? What was this? I've always felt that it is important to really go into a style and look at it from many angles, so it really wasn't until I went to Brazil that I realized the instrumentation and how it all functioned. When I got to Brazil and saw all these groups and understood the concept of the group interaction and how all the instruments functioned together, I got really excited. I saw and heard the music in the clubs and on the streets, and I really got hit with the bug. This was such an old tradition that included the family of plucked string instruments, the cavaquinho, the six and seven string guitars, and the mandolin was so much a part of the style. Many of these melodies had grown out of the mandolin. Wow, that was it for me! From then on I was a goner. To be a mandolin player all of these years and then find a musical form whose melodies grew out of the instrument was just incredible. I mean it was like finding the long lost brother that you had never met.

You've performed a broad spectrum of music, from classical to jazz to bluegrass. Have you found any similarities with choro and these other styles?

There are similarities between the early swing bands and the early choro groups at the turn of the century. I also see a parallel with American jazz and with Brazilian pop styles as they moved through the century. Ernesto Nazaré and Chiquinha Gonzaga had this sort of elegant quality. They played tunes with slower tempos than the groups from the twenties. Pixinguinha with Os Oito Batutas and Carmen Miranda with some early string bands backing her up made some really horrible recordings in terms of the sound quality, but man the music comes through! I mean the spirit and groove that these cats played with is just incredible. It's so close to the spirit of the early string swing bands in America. As you move into the forties and fifties with big bands becoming popular, you see that choro definitely started moving in that direction. I think that the two countries have always had a tremendous influence on each other.

What about parallels with great jazz players like Bird, Trane, and Pastorius?

There has always been this same virtuoso element with choro musicians like cavaquinho player Valdir Azevedo, saxophonist Abel Ferreira, and flutist Altamiro Carrilho. These guys all changed the face of the music by virtue of their stunning technique. They were so expressive in their approach to phrasing and rubato. That phrasing thing is some really deep stuff. It's almost a bit corny at times, but if you can get past that and remember what era these guys grew up in, then you can really appreciate what's happening in the music. That generation was probably listening to Perry Como and Frank Sinatra right along with us Americans. Now there is a younger generation of Chorões. Over the past 20 years, people like Raphael Rabello, Paulo Sergio Santos, Henrique Cazes, Paulo Moura, and groups like Nó Em Pingo D'Água (Knot In A Drop of Water) and Aquarela Carioca have been influenced by all kinds of jazz, pop, and world music. These players grew up hearing the Beatles, James Taylor, and Weather Report. But when we talk about musicians who have changed the course of music and the way subsequent players approach it, I always turn to the greatest composer in Brazil today, Hermeto Pascoal. Where do we begin with Hermeto?

Speaking of Hermeto, you've had the good fortune of working with one of the members of his band.

Yes, and I really must thank Jovino Santos Neto. At about the same time that I went to Brazil for the first time, Jovino moved up to Seattle. We became instant friends, and I set up workshops for Jovino here. We talked a lot on the phone. When he came here, we played all day and all night. He brought a lot of Hermeto's charts with him as well as his own. He really helped me understand this music on a much deeper level. I felt so lucky to have this person who could teach me something about Brazilian music. Jovino is an incredible spirit. What he got from hanging out with Hermeto for so long was this incredible love for music, this passion for just learning and growing and writing music, just generally being involved with music as completely as a person can be. I can't thank Jovino enough for helping me dig a little deeper into this art form.

Mike, you're widely known for your work with David Grisman, Montreux, and the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Can you give me a little background about these groups and your involvement with them?

I moved out to the Bay Area in 1979 to join the David Grisman Quintet. David and all of the guys in the group had a tremendous influence on me. If you look at what all of the guys who came through that group went on to do, it's pretty amazing. It was like graduate school. Darol Anger and I left David's group to form the Montreux band. We made several records for the Windham Hill label and toured around the world with Michael Manring, Barbara Higbie, and Andy Narell. That was a great chance to explore our own compositions and get away from "Dawg" music (David Grisman's sound). While we were in the group Montreux, Darol and I each started our own string quartets. Darol started the Turtle Island String Quartet, and I started the Modern Mandolin Quartet. The MMQ gave me a chance to really delve into the realm of classical music. It did wonders for my sight reading and really opened up my ears to good ensemble playing. It also gave me so much insight into the great composers of the Western classical music tradition.

I understand that you recently decided to leave Modern Mandolin Quartet. Why?

A group like the Modern Mandos really demands that you give it a lot of time and energy. The music demands it. I felt that the group would do better without me always being gone, doing all of these other musical projects that I'm so interested in at this point. Who knows, maybe we'll hook up again someday.

Your group, Choro Famoso, received a tremendous response from the crowd at the Masonic Auditorium when you opened the show for Gilberto Gil. Were you surprised by this?

I really was. I really didn't know what to expect, honestly. I thought that maybe people would be still trying to find their seats and just milling around and talking or something. I thank Thalia Lubin for such a professional concert presentation.

Masonic is a scary room. It's enormous! And the set Choro Famoso played was demanding. Still, the entire group seemed to be enjoying themselves and performed with a kind of reckless abandon, everyone taking lots of chances. Did you feel as comfortable as you looked?

Yeah, we just felt great and very at home with the crowd right from the start. I have found that if the listening situation is right, then people will generally be open to it.

Andy Connel blew me away. He sounds like Albert Ayler meets Claude Debussy. His use of multi-phonics in his solos took choro into a new dimension.

Andy has gone about as far off of the deep end into choro as anybody that I have met. He even wrote a Masters thesis at the University of Michigan on choro and has transcribed more tunes from recordings than you can imagine. He is working on a doctorate now at UCLA. The guy really understands the style.

Tell me about the band.

All of the guys have that combination of great swinging rhythm and the ability to learn arrangements quickly and react improvisationally to the music at the moment. Carlos Oliveiro on guitar is from Recife and is the heart and soul of the group. He really has the groove for this style. Michael Spiro on pandeiro and percussion is solid as a rock. Have you heard his CD, Bata Ketu? And Andy on clarinet and soprano sax. They're all really wonderful cats. I'm really fortunate to have them on my team.

You're convinced there is a future for choro in the United States?

Every time the group has performed a concert, people have loved it. The usual comment from non-Brazilians is, "Wow, what beautiful melodies, I can't believe that I've never heard this music before." The comment from Brazilians is usually, "It's so great to hear this music up here!" That seems like a nice combination for building a grassroots following and growing from there.

Any plans to foster that growth?

I've got so many ideas for this music in the States. I'm doing some shows with Andy Narell (piano/steel pan). We just did a show opening for Bela Fleck last month and his crowd was really into the music. I'd also love to help bring some Brazilian musicians up here some time soon. I'll be working on that. It's just a question of putting one foot in front of the other and taking small steps at first.

Do you have anyone particular in mind?

Benjamim, the pianist on Zizi Possi's record, who organized the group I played with at Chorando Alto and who is one of the partners in the Núcleo Contemporâneo label. I really connected with him, musically and as a friend. I am also crazy about the percussionist Guello. This guy is too much to talk about. I got to play with him for a week this past trip to Brazil. Try to imagine what I must have been feeling! The clarinet/sax player Nailor "Proveta" Azevedo is really something. And Toninho Ferragutti the accordionist is an amazing composer. I'd love to form a little group with these guys and do some touring around here. And, of course, there are the great players that I haven't played with that I would just be inspired to see and hear: Paulo Moura, Marcos Suzano, Henrique Cazes, the group Nó em Pingo D'Água, or one of the older groups like Isaías e Seus Chorões. Ultimately I could see putting together a little mini show that would have three or four groups. It would be great to show the whole breadth of this style in one evening. I'm sure that the U.S. audiences would love it!

When you're not preparing for the next big show, whose music do you like to listen to?

I love it all. I would say that everything that I have heard has had some effect on me musically. You name it, I'm probably into it. As long as it speaks from the heart and feels like somebody is doing something with their hands or voice that is very personal. Music has to touch me at my emotional core. That's why I'm drawn to folk music from all over the world. It has a history that lead to its creation and that visceral feeling of people doing something together. Mind you, that doesn't leave out some incredible pop music.

Your CD Brasil Duets has received a lot of praise from fans of Brazilian music and from choro aficionados. Will Choro Famoso record a CD in the near future?

Definitely. I plan to go into the studio some time next year with the group.

Any possibility of including a track or two of Choro Famoso live on the disc?

I'd love to record the whole thing live if I could.

Brasil Duets contains some refreshing arrangements of classic choro tunes. As the leader of North America's foremost choro ensemble, are you concerned about authentic performance practice?

While I love the older styles of choro and have chosen to play much of the older repertoire on my CD and with my group, I also realize that I am an American guy approaching this music from a certain distance. After all, I didn't grow up in Rio or São Paulo going to jam sessions as a kid and learning the music from my family. I will definitely have my own voice in the way that I play these tunes. For me, that is the beauty of it. I think that many musicians today get caught up in the idea of right and wrong with regard to musical styles. While there is definitely a difference between a musician who has done his homework and one who has not, I believe that for choro to survive, it has to be an art form that is alive and in a state of change at all times. It's really no different than American jazz today. In the U.S. there are purists who have chosen to play in the style of a certain era, in the style of the classic Miles Davis groups of the late sixties for example. Others only play swing from the forties or thirties. While this is a wonderful thing, it is definitely not the path that I have chosen. I love this music called choro. I love the performers that I have just mentioned. But I will never be able to sound exactly like them. Within the context of this style, I have my own voice. I only hope that my work has a positive effect on the music and its future.


*Mike Marshall has contributed his talents as featured soloist to myriad recordings released under other artists' names that do not appear here.

Modern Mandolin Quartet (MMQ)Mike Marshall and Darol Anger (MD)w/Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck (BEM)

Psychograss (Psyc)

Montreux (Mont)

David Grisman Quintet (Dawg)

Midnight Clear Acorn Records 1997

Uncommon Ritual Sony Classical 1997 (BEM)

Brasil Duets Earth Beat! Records 1996

Like Minds Sugar Hill 1996 (Psyc)

Psychograss Windham Hill 1994 (Psyc)

Pan American Journeys Windham Hill 1993 (MMQ)

Nutcracker Suite Windham Hill 1990 (MMQ)

Intermezzo Windham Hill 1989 (MMQ)

Let Them Say Windham Hill 1988 (Mont)

Modern Mandolin Quartet Windham Hill 1987 (MMQ)

Sign Language Windham Hill 1986 (Mont)

Chiaroscuro Windham Hill 1985 (MD)

Live at Montreux Windham Hill 1984 (Mont)

Gator Strut Rounder 1984

Dawg Jazz -Dog Grass Warner Bros. 1983 (Dawg)

The Duo Rounder 1983 (MD)

Mondo Mando Warner Bros. 1982 (Dawg)

Acoustic Christmas Rounder 1981 (Dawg)

Grappelli Grisman/Live Warner Bros. 1981 (Dawg)

Quintet 80 Warner Bros. 1980 (Dawg)

Hot Dawg Horizon/A&M 1979 (Dawg)

Film scores:

Berenstain Bears (CD Rom) 1996

Sibling Rivalries (film) 1993

The Longest Row (documentary) 1985

Country (film) 1984


"In the Universe of Music, some galaxies shine bright and far due to their blend of colors and profusion of stars and planets. Mike Marshall has ventured far, crossing the entire planetary system known as Brazilian music. In doing so, he was able to show to all those with an open mind that music is indeed One Universe. His profound musical gift is revealed in his interpretations of the choros. Mike knows how to employ his sharp technique to convey emotion and beauty. I feel privileged to be his brother of sound and tone. Being a fantastic cook, he can add the right spices to his interpretations to please the most refined musical palates. Mike's music is a convergence of several currents, and since the music of Brazil is in itself a fusion of many different cultures and styles, he can easily glide into it. Having shared some intense musical moments with him, I can only say that I want more. Parabéns, amigo!"

Jovino Santos Neto

Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He leads the Brazilian jazz ensemble Axé and plays cuíca for escola de samba MILA. You can reach him through his E-mail:

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