If you have never heard about this prolific jazz arranger and guitarist, rest assured that you have heard him sometime in your life. Rio de Janeiro-born Romero Lubambo is an almost ubiquitous presence in the music scene, having recorded and played a sideman with the likes of Gal Costa, Luciana Souza, Mario Adnet, pianist Eliane Elias, jazz singer Diane Reeves and countless other artists.
In addition to that, there is his longtime participation as a co-leader of Trio da Paz, a group he has continuously performed with since he arrived in the United States in the Mid-80s and of course his solo work
The reason he is one of the busiest guitarists in the scene is very simple: he’s that good. Whenever he accompanies a singer, he often steals the show with his skillful solos and his charismatic presence on stage.
He also has a very charming personality. I recall meeting him half a decade ago, and was impressed by his friendliness – a trait not commonly seen in virtuosos like him.
We caught up with Lubambo over a telephone interview, when he talked about his beginnings, his long career and also his dedication to the craft. He is about to release a new CD entitled Rejoice, a compilation of songs recorded for the Japanese market with his wife Pamela Driggs and other friends. The CD is available for purchase on his webpage, www.romerolubambo.com
You are one of the busiest jazz musicians around – you are constantly on the road and in the studio. How do you make it work out?
It’s not easy to accommodate all this work at times, but what is most interesting is how we got there in the first place. I arrived here in the United States 26 years ago, and it was very important to open doors and not to allow them to close behind you.
I started meeting people and always took my work seriously – to have respect to the music, and so eventually you open a whole market in the business. To this day, even after all this time, whenever I go to a studio, prepare an arrangement or perform I do it very seriously.
Now I admit that it’s very difficult to accommodate everyone in my schedule. Sometimes there is work I am interested in doing – sometimes two in the same week – and it’s just impossible, so you end up turning down work that you’d really like to do.
Sometimes it’s even hard to adjust to the sheer volume of work, because when you are preparing to play a new show, sometimes you need to set time apart to study different things, and often there is not enough time for that. However, it’s all music, and in the end it’s enriching to do be able to do all this.
You’ve been here for 26 years – but did you start working in Brazil first or did you develop your career after you relocated to the US?
I started playing professionally before I came. I moved here in 1985, but I started quite early – I began playing clubs in Rio when I was 14. My uncle had groups that played ballrooms there, and I started doing that.
Those were the days… laws in Brazil don’t allow for that anymore
Yeah, but since my uncle was the bandleader, they always found a way. I would perform with his band because there was no problem with that back then (writer’s note: laws have since changed, and minors now have restricted access to playing in professional bands in Brazil)… it was in 1969 that I started to play.
When I began studying mechanical engineering in Rio, and it was complicated to study in college and play, so I kind of stopped doing that for a while, but as soon as I graduated in 1980 I started to really work as a musician, mainly doing instrumental and jazz music. I worked a lot there, and it was very nice because in order to play this kind of music you have to practice a lot, so when I came here I had the chops to do work here.
So you studied engineering, not music… why did that happen?
It’s funny, but in the 50s and 60s, at least in the family I was raised in, it was not considered normal to be a professional musician. I was born in 1955, and back then everyone in my family played music, but none professionally because to be a musician was not considered a serious occupation then.
Since I was a kid I was very interested in the mechanics of motorcycles, airplanes and things like that, so as I grew up I thought about doing engineering as a career – I never thought about going pro as a musician. So I went to college and at the same time I studied classical guitar at the Villa-Lobos music school in Rio de Janeiro – so I had a lot to study then.
It was only after I got my diploma at PUC that my dad said, “Now that you have your degree you can do whatever you want, but try to be the best in what you do, because if you do everything will turn out fine for you.”
So when did you find out that music was actually your path?
I think it was halfway through my engineering studies. I had already been so involved in the music scene, and so many people liked my work, you know? I was doing studio work for Globo in Rio de Janeiro, and I thought, “well, maybe I could make a living with this.” I love music, of course, and I think it’s wonderful to do this.
To tell you the truth, by the time I graduated my career as a musician was far more interesting than anything I could have done – and I hadn’t even started yet – as an engineer. So I followed this path and I am very happy I made that choice.
Or else you would have returned to engineering, right?
I would. Like my father said, I had something to fall back on in case the music thing didn’t work out. You know, a lot of people tell me that I have a degree that I don’t use, but to have taken mechanical engineering was very interesting then and still is now, because I believe that I developed a different kind of reasoning in my brain that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I think my way of thinking that I use all the math and physics that I studied – my life has a lot to do with that, even in the music business, so I don’t think that it was a waste of time at all.
What brought you to the US?
I had always had a fascination with the music and the engineering of this country. My mother listened to American music – jazz, orchestras and stuff. And the engineering – American cars in the 50s and 60s were fantastic – that is what we wanted. I mean, man went to the moon in 1969 – this was a country that called me from a young age.
As my music career progressed, I wanted more and more to get to know this country. There were the musicians that I adored – John Scofield, Mike Stern and many others. I wanted to come to New York to see what was happening here. And when I came here I felt like a whole new world opened for me – you could go out and hear cats I had only listened to from a borrowed record in Rio.
And then all of a sudden you are walking down the street and Mike Stern is performing at a club on Christopher street… you get to see the Brecker Brothers… you can see all of them here. So this childhood dream came true and it was a great thing to have made this choice.
It wasn’t easy, though. People think that you can just come here and play a little guitar, but it’s not like that. You have to have a very definitive goal, and you have to work hard and battle against a lot of things, because you are not a native here. You have no family backup or anything that those who are born here do. You have to create it on your own – but it’s a struggle that makes you grow and become stronger.
You mentioned several musicians you like – but who were your strongest influences? I mean there are not many acoustic-driven jazz guys like you out there.
Few people know about this, but when I first started playing and even about five years after that, I played electric guitar. I played acoustic at home, because I have always liked it, but until around 1989, whenever I performed I used an electric guitar – either a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson 335 – but then Herbie Mann – who was a great influence and also a bandleader who I worked with for many years, told me to bring the acoustic to the show, because he thought it would be quite interesting – so since that day, my career changed dramatically, because folks enjoyed this acoustic thing – so I started developing it more.
I often did both, but the acoustic was played with an electric guitar approach, doing improvisations and things like that – and it’s a beautiful instrument. I still play electric – when I perform with (vocalist) Diane Reeves, I always take both guitars, and depending on the set list, I’ll use one or the other. But I’d say that about 80 % of my work today is on acoustic guitar. Last year, I did a show in Brazil two years ago with Mike Stern, and I mostly played electric then. I like mixing things around….
How did your work with Trio da Paz begin?
Now, that is like a parallel story… I started to play with Nilson Matta in Brazil about three years before I relocated to the US, and we became friends. The last year I was in Brazil, I’d play with Nilson every day at a jazz club in Rio called O Viro da Ipiranga.
We planned to travel to New York together, so we sold a few things there and put the money together and we came here together. Here, Nilson already knew Duduka da Fonseca – who is the drummer with the band – so the first contact we had here was with him.
At the time, Duduka lived in Thompson Street in Greenwich Village and he had a basement with drums and amps, so Nilson and I would go to his place every day just for fun. And that was the beginning of Trio da Paz.
We would meet, try new things out for a lark, and things were always very peaceful. We would do gigs together and all, and one year – can’t really remember when – Duduka published an educational book on Brazilian drumming, and we recorded a CD with rhythmical demonstrations, and he invited us to record with him, and then he credited the disc to Trio da Paz – which was the official launch of the trio.
So that is the story – Nilson and I came here together, we used to live in the same apartment, and we work as a group and are great friends to this day.
To finish off – tell me about your new CD, Rejoice…
I did a lot of work in Japan that was released on the JVC label there. We put a lot of energy in those tunes, and we had a lot of friends on them. Cesar Camargo Mariano did a lot of work with me, and so did my wife, (singer) Pamela Driggs who also made a lot of her own work in Japan.
However, these CDs were only released there, and we felt like they were very important for us, and those experiences could never be repeated. Even if I rerecorded them, it would not be the same, because the energy was quite different then – there were a series of things that happened at that time that influenced how the recordings were made.
So we got the rights from the label and made a compilation of what we felt are the best of what we did in Japan. Those recordings of mine and Pamela’s were made from 5-8 years ago. Rejoice is a CD of work that has never been heard here – the record will be mostly marketed on my new webpage and during shows.
Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in The Brasilians.