The Sound of Moacir Santos: Brazilian Black Gold Rediscovered

Moacir Santos's CD Off and On It’s taken far too long for musicians – and through them, the world’s audiences – to recognize the substantial creative credentials of the late Brazilian composer Moacir Santos. Despite valiant efforts by Mario Adnet and Zé Nogueira, pioneers in rescuing Santos’s music from obscurity, all his music is underrepresented in current recording catalogs.

In 1997, Jack O’Neil of Blue Jackel Records attempted to license Santos’s Blue Note masters for reissue. Terms were agreed upon, but searching the Blue Note vaults to retrieve the masters proved futile; nothing could be found.

Fortunately, Off and On: The Music of Moacir Santos, a new recording by Mark Levine and his Afro-Caribbean ensemble, the Latin Tinge, contains a dozen compositions by Maestro Moacir and will surely be welcomed by connoisseurs of his music. Following the principle rather than the letter of Santos’s pioneering, the ensemble adheres firmly to his approach.

“The arrangements themselves,” says Levine, “are 95% what Moacir had for his two Blue Note releases, Maestro and Saudade. I gave no instructions other than the basic outlines to my percussionist, Michael Spiro, knowing full well that, although he is highly trained in Brazilian music, he would ‘Cubanize’ everything, as Cuban music is his first love.”

Moacir Santos was born in the remote and arid interior of Pernambuco on July 26, 1926. With no radio or victrola, the rare opportunities he had to hear music were limited either to outdoor band concerts or performances given in the church. Imitating the musicians in the town’s band by improvising on empty tin cans and bamboo flutes was his preferred form of play during his early childhood. And because he was present at all their rehearsals and his inclination for music was so strong, the musicians selected him to watch their instruments between concerts.

When they returned, it appeared that the boy had done more than just “watch,” he had played all of their instruments. Later, Santos studied theory, harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Guerra Peixe, Hans Joachim Koellreutter (whose assistant he became), and Ernst Krenek, who was astounded by how quickly Santos had mastered Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.

During the forties and fifties, Santos worked extensively in clubs and on the radio with jazz bands and orchestras and was referred to as “fera do saxofone” (loosely translated as saxophone monster). In 1954, he was invited to direct the Orquestra da TV Record in São Paulo, and by 1956, Santos had become Ary Barroso’s assistant artistic director for the record label Rozemblit, as well as the conductor of orchestras recording for Copacabana Discos.

In the sixties, his career reached a high point when he was invited to write soundtracks for film, whose plots were written or directed by notables like Jorge Amado, Sacha Gordine, Cacá Diegues, and Ruy Guerra. During this same period he was teaching a growing number of fledging musical luminaries, including Paulo Moura, Roberto Menescal, Nara Leão, Dori Caymmi, Carlos Lyra, Sérgio Mendes, Eumir Deodato, Oscar Castro Neves, Baden Powell, Do Um Romão, João Donato, Maurício Einhorn, Bola Sete, Alaide Costa, Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and the members of the vocal groups Quarteto em Cy and Os Cariocas.

His LP Coisas (Things) was released in 1965 on the Forma label; however, all the charts and arrangements for the recording have been lost. Santos explained at the time that he wanted his works numerically cataloged like classical pieces, but as his music was considered popular and because using the word Opus, (meaning work of art, piece, creation, or composition) would have been inappropriate, he referred to his pieces as coisas. That same year, he wrote his first soundtrack for an American movie, Love in the Pacific, and the following year was nominated to The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

In 1967, Santos moved to the United States permanently; there he taught, worked with Henry Mancini, and met Horace Silver who urged the Blue Note label to record Santos’s music. From quite humble beginnings and learning to play intuitively, Santos ripened into a gifted multi-instrumentalist, composer, conductor, arranger, professor, and celebrated renovator of Brazilian Popular Music, only to fall silent after the 1979 release of his album, interestingly titled, Opus 3 No 1.

Composer and pianist Mark Levine was introduced to Moacir Santos by a jazz trumpeter who played with Mongo Santamaria. Santos invited Levine to a rehearsal, then hired him for a tour. “We made one short road trip to Lake Tahoe and Reno,” says Levine. “Reno was a disaster. They were expecting Brazil ’66, and got all this strange, as the guy there put it, ‘jungle music.’ We were fired after two nights.”

Next, Levine was hired to record Saudade, one of three classic albums Santos made for Blue Note. About the session, Levine remembers, “It was a pretty relaxed, but intense session. All the musicians knew we were recording something special. I also remember that producer Duke Pearson took a completely hands-off approach. I don’t remember him making a single suggestion the entire two-day recording.”

Off and On is an extension of those beginnings. “This project started as a result of a Moacir Santos tribute concert that Mark booked at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California,” says woodwind phenom Mary Fettig. “As he was preparing charts for the concert, he decided he wanted a standing group to play Moacir’s music. Once the group was established, Mark was certain it was time to record.”

Levine adds, “The Latin Tinge was an outgrowth of a previous band, Que Calor, which was too big to work with any kind of regularity; also I wanted a band that I could write for.” Que Calor had been a collaborated effort with some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians, including Ron Stallings, a talented woodwind player who died of cancer earlier this year and to whom Off and On is dedicated.

Levine took great care in his choice of companions, selecting players whose work complemented the sound and prerequisites of the music: indefatigable energy, stylistic versatility, and technical proficiency. Combining Afro-Cuban dance forms with instrumental jazz while maintaining the individuality of soloists’ voices, the Latin Tinge achieves a complex rhythmic thrust, centered on bass player John Wiitala, percussionist Michael Spiro, and drummer Paul van Wageningen, who keep buoyant anything soloists Fettig and Levine care to try out. Their mastery of Santos’s folkloric and Afro-Brazilian influenced harmonies and rhythms is never less than consummate.

Played with Afro-Cuban spicing, these interpretations have their own character – bold yet unexaggerated. Listen to the opening of “Nanã,” a samba-jazz played here as a son montuno enhanced boogalu, and you’ll literally feel the movement and be carried along with it. “Early Morning Love,” usually played as a baião, is given a bossa nova/cha-cha treatment, and “Off and On,” a tune customarily featuring the Mojo groove developed by Santos, which some mistakenly consider a form of maracatu, is played here as a funk-propelled Afro-Cuban feel in 6/8. Says Levine, “I’m constantly struck by the universality of 6/8, found in most cultures of the world and virtually every African one from Morocco to Madagascar, and the almost complete absence of it in North American music.”

“April Child” characterizes the universality of Santos’s music: African with a lot of Brazilian spice. Originally played as a mojo-samba, the tune is played here as a maracatu laced with a semi-songo percussive pattern and is rich in rhythmic complexity. Levine’s solo combines intriguing harmonies with a simple, yet insinuating rhythmic groove that swings with understated power and panache. Optimistic and spirit-lifting, “Suk-Cha” is a bossa/cha-cha whose melodic, harmonic, and tonal contours are derived from the original, but with Fettig’s bass clarinet doubling the opening and closing bass lines and her multi-tracked flute taking the place of the original bassoon part.

The sound which dominates “Kathy,” played with an Afro-Cuban feel in 5/4, is Fettig’s soprano sax, its raw, open-air voice stimulating and exciting the music. “Jequié” is a bolero/ballad with flute lines that are sinuous, full of subtle shifts of emphasis, and beautifully judged cadences. On the baião “Tomorrow is Mine,” Fettig’s soprano sax pacing is unusually acute, and her rhythmic interest a long way above average. Add to this a sincere interest in swinging and fashioning out some grittily attractive melodic improvisation, and you get an impressive presence. Fettig’s sound on all her horns is superbly caught and a joy to hear.

“Haply Happy,” played as a Cuban rumba and leaving no doubt that it could ever have sounded as substantial with an ordinary drummer and percussionist, is a mixture of dramatic off-center rhythmical shifts and oblique accentuations. Of all the tracks, it is the most Cuban. On “What’s My Name,” the group flirts with freedom, but maintains a firm grasp on ensemble principles, the reliable rhythm section keeping everything on an even keel. Levine stands out due to his unerring choice of chord voicings and his wonderfully weighted hands, but no one is below par, and the group works beautifully as a complete unit.

Attention is riveted from first note to last on “Luanne.” Here the group delights in this samba’s rhythmic vitality and bite, thanks largely to Paul van Wageningen’s perceptive drumming. He and bass player John Wiitala combine effortlessly to push and stretch the soloists on “A Saudade Mata a Gente,” a bossa/cha-cha with a rumba double-time section. But what impresses most is hearing Levine, a pianist who allows lines to breath, whose piquancy is as much a matter of knowing what to omit as what to play, and Fettig, playing with moving commitment, laying bare her blisteringly hot virtuosity and adroit ensemble voice.

Levine and Fettig’s solos throughout the disc are infectious, the melodic invention, always consistently inspired, the harmonic flavor, often pungent, bringing the ear constant diversity and stimulation. Rarely, if ever, have there been performances where soloist and ensemble connect with such unerring intuition, where the music is treated so naturally and all done with the most engaging reckless abandon. Everything in the molding of their phrases comes from within – you just can’t program sensitivity of this kind.

A seminal figure in the world of music, Moacir Santos is richly deserving of a focused tribute such as this. His music, having passed through several phases, ranging from folkloric to atonal, calls for a highly virtuosic group of performers who can convincingly run the whole gamut; Mark Levine and the Latin Tinge seem on present evidence to be excellently qualified for the task. They really know this music and revel in it – in the best sense of the word. Incisive rhythm and folk-music influences are rarely absent from Santos’s music and they abound on this CD. All the compositions are his, and the sound is archetypal Santos, whose good-natured presence can be felt throughout.

Levine says, “I love Moacir’s music and have wanted to record a tribute album for 40 years. Moacir’s work is practically unknown in the United States; my foremost goal is to raise awareness of his music. It’s a shame that I didn’t get to it while the Maestro was still alive.”

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an online international publication based in Los Angeles, for more than a decade. During that time he has  written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal. 

He is the recipient of three government grants that 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:


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