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Echoing Beneath the Fingers

Echoing
      Beneath
      the Fingers

The speech
in its entirety,
in Portuguese:
By Brazzil Magazine

Inside the old Helms Bakery building in Los Angeles lies the city’s best performance
venue, The Jazz Bakery. Major elements of allure include near-perfect acoustics, a gourmet
café, and a policy that allows patrons to select their own seats. Encompassing both an
art gallery and a café, the club’s techno-industrial foyer is a utopia of modernism that
creatively reconciles a daring combination of curving fluid spaces and contrasting
rectilinear grids. It’s an urban free zone of art and music that attracts a broad swath of
hedonists from elderly jazz buffs and Venice Beach bohemians to L.A.’s chic society. It is
also the ideal place to listen to jazz and diffuse the tensions of a hectic day on the
freeway. That top Brazilian musicians prefer the room to others in the area is attested to
by the increasing number of performances at the "Bakery" by notables such as
Dori Caymmi, Badi Assad, Geraldo Azevedo, and Hélio Delmiro.

A few months back the club’s calendar aroused my curiosity when it announced a one week
stint by a trio comprised of drummer Duduka da Fonseca, bassist Nilson Matta (both of Trio
da Paz) and pianist Hélio Alves. I couldn’t miss this group, because a pianist friend of
mine in New York had told me, "Hélio’s a mother-fucking, killing piano player, nice
cat too. Lives here in NYC and has been getting all the great gigs lately, like Joe
Henderson and Airto." Although Alves had worked with Airto and Flora, Paquito
D’Rivera, and Oscar Castro-Neves and had toured with Joe Henderson in support of his Jobim
tribute CD, Double Rainbow; the gig at the "Bakery" marked the
33-year-old pianist’s first club date as a leader and the release of his debut CD, Trios.

Trios displays Hélio’s skill in building on the examples of his idols, while at
the same time seeking his own highly personal means of coming to terms with the dialectics
of the jazz milieu. Because of the flexibility of his concepts and the intense daring of
his execution, Hélio assembled different rhythm sections for the recording, each with a
comparable eagerness to surprise themselves. The players—John Patitucci, Al Foster,
Duduka da Fonseca, Nilson Matta, and Paulo Braga—unite in unmistakable combinations
to delineate the innovative and expressive force of Hélio’s music. Presenting a broad
cross section of tunes ranging from Bud Powell’s "Hallucinations" to João
Bosco’s "Bala com Bala," from Gershwin’s "My Ship" to Jobim’s "O
Grande Amor," and from Hermeto Pascoal’s "Santo Antônio," to three of
Hélio’s original compositions, Trios presents a striking balance of craft and
instinct that can only be experienced by listening—a summary would be
virtually impossible in just a few passages.

Born in São Paulo in 1966, Alves started piano lessons at 6 years old. Initially
attracted to pop standards and classical music through his parents’ influence, Hélio
became absorbed in jazz after hearing a performance by Chick Corea. In the mid-eighties,
he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston where he focused on composition,
performance, and John Coltrane’s harmonic structures. A soft-spoken, but confident young
man who has the look and manner of some benign seducer, Hélio has appeared on numerous
recordings including Joe Henderson’s Big Band (1997), Hendrik Meurkens’s October
Colors (1995), and Cláudio Roditi’s Samba Manhattan Style (1995) and Double
Standards (1997). In May Hélio played the Bern Jazz Festival in Bern, Switzerland,
with Cláudio Roditi, Paquito D’Rivera, Raul de Souza, and the superb Brazilian singer,
Rosa Passos. At the end of July he toured Austria, again with Cláudio and Paquito, and
this coming October he will be going to Germany with Hendrik Meurkens for a two-week tour.

I attended two of Hélio’s shows at the The Jazz Bakery, and both his performances were
technically astonishing, showing great rhythmic, harmonic, and improvisational strengths,
which few, if any, could match. His melodic free form inventiveness and sense of time
stood out like a free spirit seeking to liberate itself from all traditional constraints.
Fierce and modernistic harmonies, and their powerful tensions of independence and control
were in perfect sync and struck a dynamic equilibrium with the exotic infrastructure of
the venue. My friend in New York had been right. I lingered after the second show so we
could talk about the trio, his new CD, and paying dues on the jazz scene.

BrazzilGreat chemistry! You guys were so relaxed. Were you
enjoying yourselves?

Hélio -Yeah, it’s always a lot of fun to play with Duduka and Nilson. We’re good
friends, and I’m so glad that they’re here. This is a big deal for me. It’s my first major
gig as a leader, so I’ve been approaching it as if it were my very first gig. Of course,
I’ve done little things, small gigs in New York. And whenever Romero (Lubambo) is not
available, I do a lot of things with Duduka and Nilson as Trio da Paz. But this is my
first major gig, and having friends of mine here playing with me really makes me much more
comfortable. It’s so cool having them here. You know, schedule-wise and everything, it
worked out. I’m honored they came.

Brazzil—I wouldn’t call touring and recording with Joe Henderson small
gigs.

Hélio—I learned a lot just hearing Joe sound great every night. I mean no
matter what, he would always do his thing and always sound great. Even if there were
technical problems or the sound wasn’t good, when everyone was tired because we’d been
traveling all day or when things were just not going that well on stage, like sound-wise
or whatever, he would still give 200 percent. And he always sounded beautiful… Every
night! No matter what. There could be a war going on behind him, and he would still sound
burning. A bomb could explode next to him, and he would still be playing those beautiful
lines. I mean nothing phased the guy. Total concentration. And just that alone taught me
that there are no excuses. There are no excuses. Sometimes you go play a gig and afterward
the guys are saying, "Oh man, the sound wasn’t good," or "The guy in the
third row was wearing a red shirt." (laughs) You know what I mean? Musicians find
excuses, and you really can’t. Joe was burning every night. And beside that, he was just
so cool to us. He was an excellent leader in the sense that he would let us play.

BrazzilStretch out a little bit?

Hélio—Totally! We were all equals on stage. He would just let us blow. Nilson
played bass in that band, but on the record (Double Rainbow) there were actually two
bands. The Brazilian group was Nico Assumpção on bass and Paula Braga (drums) and Oscar
Castro-Neves (guitar) and Eliane Elias (piano). And then he had an American group with
Herbie Hancock (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Jack DeJohnette (drums), which was
beautiful. I mean, it was so happening.

BrazzilYou have a similar situation on Trios, with
basically two rhythm sections. And I was wondering whether your trio concept changes when
you move from a Brazilian to a North American rhythm section.

Hélio—It is definitely different, but I try to play the same way, just play
my own thing and adapt to both. Of course, I’ve played with the Brazilian rhythm section
so much more, but you know, I like doing both. I love Brazilian music, and I love jazz.
Basically, I want to do Brazilian music within a jazz approach. I want to open things up
more and mix the Brazilian and jazz information, because sometimes Brazilian musicians
have a tendency to do too much of one thing or another, too much groove or too much of
that specifically Brazilian thing. It’s kind of hard to leave that, to get away from it.
But it’s good to be able to free things up and go back and forth, just like what players
do in jazz.

BrazzilGreat players like Herbie.

Hélio—Exactly. He can play anything. Even the Keith Jarrett trio, the way
they approach straight ahead tunes is a different kind of information, with different
ideas. I like that freedom.

BrazzilThat freedom certainly came across in the show tonight,
especially with arrangements like "O Grande Amor." It was more than Duduka just
double timing. It was almost like everybody was in the same orbit but doing something
completely different. What was happening in that arrangement?

Hélio—It’s similar to what I did on the recording. I’m looking for something
different with that tune, you know? I don’t want to play it like just another bossa
nova. Of course, it is a bossa nova, but the approach I’m taking is more of a
free form kind of thing. I’m looking for alternate ideas, different spaces, following
them, and then going back into the groove. I’m trying to go back and forth between being a
Brazilian and being sort of transcendental like Keith Jarrett. I like it very loose, in
the sense of not having a specific groove, and then all of a sudden going back to the
groove. It’s refreshing that way, you know? Sometimes when people play a bossa nova
they get stuck. They get into the "Oh man, we’ve got to play a bossa nova"
head space. And it’s the same thing with straight ahead. It’s like, "Oh man, we’ve
got to play straight ahead."

BrazzilI hear that "back and forth" thing a lot on Trios,
especially on Bud Powell’s "Hallucinations." It’s more like samba than bebop.

Hélio—Exactly. It is samba. Again, there are spots where it’s very locked in
and then some others where it’s very loose. I like having those open spaces and then going
back into the groove. I like having both ideas happening, not one thing or the other.
Paulo (Braga) plays on that track, and you know, he is "the man." He worked with
Jobim for many years and so many other great artists. He’s a master Brazilian drummer, but
he lives in New York now. We worked a lot together with Joe Henderson. It’s interesting in
a way because his approach is so different from Duduka’s. They come from different
schools. Duduka definitely comes from the Edson Machado school, that samba-jazz school of
Raul de Souza, and those guys. Paulo, on the other hand, worked a lot as a studio musician
in Brazil and had to play so many different styles that his take is a little bit
different. Both of them will meet the same thing differently. And I love them both because
of that difference.

BrazzilIt’s kind of interesting that Al Foster also plays drums
on Trios, because he played on Joe Henderson’s tribute CD to Miles (So Near, So
Far) and both Foster and Henderson played with Miles.

Hélio—You know, that’s my favorite Joe Henderson album. He sounds so hip on
it. And I love what Al Foster did on it. It’s so happening.

BrazzilYou’ve probably heard the story that during the sessions
Foster had a picture of Miles propped up in front of his drum set.

Hélio—I have heard that story. That’s so happening! All those guys—Scofield
and Dave Holland. It’s such a hip album. I always liked Al Foster’s playing with Miles
too, and I knew that if I ever had the chance, I would love recording with him.

BrazzilRudy Van Gelder is the recording engineer who created the
famous "Blue Note sound." How did he get involved with the project?

Hélio—The producer from the Reservoir label works with him all the time. And
I had actually recorded at the Van Gelder Studio with Cláudio (Roditi) for Reservoir.
And, you know, it’s the same Van Gelder studio in New Jersey where Chick Corea, Herbie
(Hancock), and Jobim recorded. It’s the studio where all those famous Blue Note recordings
from the sixties were made. Al Foster kept saying, "Oh, I was here in 1965 playing
with ah…" And Van Gelder’s saying, "Jobim was sitting right there when
I…" And I’m thinking, "Man! He was there!" Van Gelder has seen it all.
Coltrane recorded there. Joe Henderson was there a lot. All those guys, everybody. Van
Gelder recorded all the greats, so recording in that studio was really meaningful for me.

BrazzilCan you tell me a little about your composition
"Song for Cláudio"?

Hélio—I wrote that tune for Cláudio Roditi, the trumpet player who was so
helpful to me when I first arrived in New York. My first gig in New York was with
Cláudio. It’s a mid-tempo tune where I used some of the techniques that I learned from
Charlie Banacos, and Duduka sounds incredible on it. When I wrote it, I was thinking
mostly about the kind of settings Cláudio likes to play in. He’s been like my godfather
in the United States.

BrazzilHow did you wind up coming to New York?

Hélio—Right around the time I was getting more into jazz and playing less
classical, I was in this high school band. And there was this festival, like a high school
band competition, and Xu Viana— a really great guy and a very well-known bass
player who played a lot in clubs in São Paulo, and I think even had a big band there for
a while—was one of the judges. I was really interested in learning more about
harmony and jazz, because I didn’t know much about it. Well, I met Xu and started studying
harmony with him. It was Xu who mentioned Berklee (College of Music), so he was definitely
the guy responsible for my move to New York. He had their catalog; Berklee has a beautiful
catalog. When I looked at the pictures of those guys rehearsing and performing there… I
was 15 years old and I went nuts. I was like, "Wow! I have to go there!"

BrazzilIs there much of a jazz scene in São Paulo today?

Hélio—Night life in São Paulo is very big. It’s happening. It’s not like New
York, but it has that same vibe. Lots of great restaurants and night clubs. Not a lot of
jazz clubs, but there are a couple, and a few of the younger players are starting to get
some recognition. But New York is still the definite center. Everybody in the world is
there. I was talking to John Patitucci the other day about this. John had been living in
L.A. for many years, and he told me, "You know, I wanted to play. I wanted to play
jazz!" And no offense, L.A. is a great town and everything, but New York is still the
center of the music world. There’s no question about that. John was doing a lot of studio
work and making good money in Los Angeles, but as far as playing jazz… That’s why he
moved back to New York.

BrazzilJazz players in L.A. say that if you go to New York, even
if you don’t play, you’ll come back a better player.

Hélio—Oh yeah, it’s a fact. Everything is practically walking distance and
everything is there. And there are so many clubs where you can just hang out and hear the
world’s best players.

BrazzilHow would you compare the scene in L.A. to New York’s?

Hélio—It’s very different. The thing is that in L.A., you have to buy your
ticket ahead of time and allow enough time to get to where you’re going—especially
if you’re going to eat somewhere else. You leave your house, get into the car, drive to
the club, find a place to park, and stand in line, just to hear a particular artist. I
mean literally, you have to plan. You have to know exactly what you’re going to do and
when. In New York, you could just be walking down the street and see some club you want to
go into, and go in. Clubs in New York get a lot more walk-in people, walk-in crowds. And
there are crowds anyway, no matter what. But here in L.A., going to hear some music is
more like a specific event, so it’s tougher in a way. The musicians and clubs here have to
make huge promotions so that people know way ahead of time and can make plans.

BrazzilWill the younger jazz musicians in Brazil have to come to
New York in order to have performing careers?

Hélio—Well, as far as the players living in Brazil… It’s tough anywhere,
but in Brazil it’s tougher for jazz guys to make money. Often they end up having to do
lots of different things, commercial music, maybe accompanying singers, which is a great
thing too, but your chops… You can’t help it. If you’re not playing (jazz) all the time,
your chops won’t be as good. Accompanying singers is great, but it’s a different thing.
You’re not really using your jazz chops and getting all those opportunities to solo. And
that’s what a lot of guys in Brazil have to do. They play with, I don’t know, like Ivan
Lins or they get gigs here and there. It would be nice to be doing both, to be playing
some of those accompanying gigs and also making money playing jazz so you could keep your
jazz chops up. It is really tough.

BrazzilWould you say that Berklee was the turning point for you?

Hélio—Oh, definitely! I went there when I was eighteen.

BrazzilSome people go there, and they don’t survive. It’s just
too much work. They go back home because they can’t handle it
.

Hélio—That was exactly how I was feeling. I was wondering whether I could
handle it and if I could hang in there with those crazy people who practice twelve hours a
day. I was concerned about getting sick, getting sick of music, because in Boston there
was nothing else for me to do. I went there in January and it was snowing. Really, the
only thing I could do was practice.

BrazzilWell, you’re burning, man. I can’t get over your chops.
You never let up! When some guys play fast, it just sounds like they’re playing
glissandos, like a blur, but you distinctly bring out every note. Does this come from your
work at Berklee or more from your classical training?

Hélio—Yeah, it’s a lot from the classical. Definitely, because I played a lot
of classical as a kid. Until I was 14 or 15 years old, I was playing classical. I started
when I was 6 years old and played until I was 15. I wasn’t that serious about it, but I
played a lot of classical. That’s where it comes from.

BrazzilDo you maintain any sort of regular practice routine now,
or is it just playing, composing, and arranging?

Hélio—No, I always work my technique every day, some scales and stuff. You
know, it’s a prevention for any sort of tendinitis—knock on wood. Thank God
I’ve never had any problems. A lot of guys have got tendinitis in their arms. When you
play piano there is tension in your arms. You know, even your shoulders. But if you
practice every day very slowly… I start in the morning and play very, very slowly. If
you heard me practicing, you’d think I was a 5-year-old. After about forty-five minutes to
an hour I start speeding up. But the slow stuff is what helps the most. It builds up
strength. The muscles build up, so when you go to the fast stuff, you’re more precise.

BrazzilAnother one of your original compositions on Trios
is dedicated to Charlie Banacos. Can you tell me a little about the tune and your studies
with him?

Hélio—"Tribute to Charlie" is a bossa, but it’s a tune where
I have incorporated more of the techniques that I studied with Charlie. One of the really
interesting exercises I practiced with Charlie was the use of four note combinations in
every possible variation over the changes to Coltrane’s "Giant Steps." I would
work out those four note combinations and changes in every key.

BrazzilWhen you say the "Giant Steps" changes, you
mean moving harmonically in major thirds?

Hélio—Movement in thirds, yeah. It moves to different keys, from one key to
the next every four bars. And it keeps moving in thirds, yeah. And the interesting thing
about it is that it’s almost like a mathematic formula, like a computer thing. Seems kind
of mechanical, but once you put it all together, it sounds great because you have all the
possible combinations of just those few notes. And when you throw in a few other ideas,
you come up with some great surprises. I haven’t actually based any of my compositions
strictly on that progression, but I’ve written a lot of tunes using formulas like that.
I’d move the chords in thirds, kind of like "Giant Steps," and go into different
keys while the melody moved only in seconds—only in seconds and the chords
only in thirds.

Or sometimes I’d move chords in whole steps or half steps and use only minor or major
chords. If you limit yourself, you can uncover fresh, new ideas. Those are Charlie Banacos
concepts, and they’re cool. When you sit down to write a tune and have a blank sheet of
paper in front of you, the possibilities are so great that sometimes you get stuck. By
limiting your possibilities, all of a sudden, ideas open up. Sounds weird when you start,
but then you’re like, "Oh man, yeah! I can only move this way and that way." You
come up with solutions that are pretty interesting and that can go from simple to complex.

BrazzilSpeaking of complex, that was a killer version of
Milton’s "Vera Cruz." It’s a shame that it’s not included on Trios.

Hélio—Yeah, I love that tune. We played that a lot with Airto and Flora.

BrazzilWhen did you work with Airto?

Hélio—I played with him a lot last year. We did a tour in Europe and played
at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. It was just a quintet with a sax player. But we also played
the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in 1997 and the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1998.
Airto and Flora are such great musicians and such a big part of music history, you know?
Even back with Hermeto, and with Chick Corea on the Return to Forever albums—Airto
playing drums and Flora singing tunes like "500 Miles (High)." That stuff was
key for me when I first started. Those albums are probably one of the reasons that I’m
playing now. I heard that stuff and I was like, "Man!"

BrazzilI couldn’t believe Nilson’s playing tonight, doubling the
melody on Hermeto’s "O Ovo," the harmonics and the double stops—jeeez!
I’ve never heard anyone else cover that tune, let alone play the melody on contrabass. I
don’t even think there is a recording of it except for that old one by Quarteto Novo.

Hélio—Actually, I think you’re right. I’ve only heard it on that one
recording. It is a great tune, and Nilson plays it beautifully. He also plays beautifully
on Hermeto’s "Santo Antônio" on Trios. That’s an interesting tune
because I actually played it with Hermeto at Berklee. He came to do a clinic and they
needed a band to play with him. So I played piano and Hermeto played flute and this other
keyboard. I was having so much fun, I forgot to give back the chart. That’s how I learned
the tune (laughs). It was only afterward that I got the album. Hermeto does it much slower
than we do on Trios, and, of course, he brings in some very colorful voices and
sounds from the Northeast of Brazil.

BrazzilAre you planning to write arrangements for a larger
ensemble on the next CD?

Hélio—I have been studying arranging with Mike Longo, an excellent piano
player who used to work with Dizzy (Gillespie). He was the musical director for Dizzy’s
big band during the seventies, and he’s a fantastic arranger who writes really well for
big band. Working with Mike has got me more and more excited about arranging. So who
knows? Maybe some day I’ll have some horns.

BrazzilHélio, thanks for staying so late and sharing so much.

Hélio—Thank you for coming.

Selected Discography:

Artist Title Label Date
Hélio Alves Trios Reservoir 1998
Cláudio Roditi Double Standards Reservoir 1997
Joe Henderson Big Band Verve/PolyGram 1996
Hendrik Meurkens October Colors Concord Picante 1995
Cláudio Roditi Manhattan Style Reservoir 1995
Worth checking out:
Trio da Paz Partido Out Malandro 1998

Trios is available at Virgin, Borders, and Tower Records or from
Hélio directly at: halves@aol.com 
You can also obtain Trios from Reservoir Music: rsrjazz@worldnet.att.net

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: cuica@interworld.net 

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