Helio Alves: The Wizard of the Brazilian Keys

Brazilian Helio AlvesHelio Alves is not the kind of pianist that you can pigeonhole into any specific jazz genre. You can see him accompanying legends like Joyce or Rosa Passos at a large room and the next thing you know he is playing with his various instrumental projects in a smaller jazz club, where fans listen to every detail of the music while thinking when they can pick up their drinks and have a sip.

A graduate of Berklee College in Boston (where luminaries like Esperanza Spalding, Amanda Ruzza, Lionel Loueke and countless others also studied), Alves has an international career that has taken him to stages around the globe both as a leader, co-leader and a sideman with none other than jazz legend Joe Henderson, who was a huge fan of Brazilian music. He is a versatile player that is comfortable in pretty much any genre.

We caught up with him via an e-mail interview in Portuguese, when he spoke about his career, influences and also let us in on future and current projects.

You have a long history in the Brazilian jazz community in the US. What brought you here in the first place?

I came here for the first time to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston.  At the time, it was very hard to study jazz in Brazil. There I met the great trumpeter Claudio Roditi, who encouraged me to settle in New York.

Differently from many Brazilian jazz players here in the US, you often back singers like Joyce and Rosa Passos while having a career in instrumental music. How do you bridge both worlds?

I love working with Joyce and Rosa Passos, who are two fantastic singers and songwriters. I also work a lot with Maucha Adnet, another exceptional vocalist.  Backing up a singer demands a certain sensibility that is quite different than playing instrumentals, but with such singers there is almost no difference, really.

You toured with saxophonist Joe Henderson around the time he released his final album Double Rainbow, a tribute to the music of Jobim. How was it to work with him?

It was amazing to work with the great Joe Henderson, specially playing the music of maestro Antonio Carlos Jobim. At the time, Henderson was pretty much everywhere, and was always top of the bill at the most important jazz festivals in the world. We toured a lot, and I also had the opportunity, alongside (bassist) Nilson Matta and (drummer) Paulo Braga, to participate in the Joe Henderson Big Band. I worked with him for two years and I have always been proud to play my country’s music with one of the greatest saxophonists and composers in the history of jazz.

Who are your greatest influences as a musician?

There are so many, it’s hard to say. But I could name Herbie Hancock, Mccoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Milton Nascimento, João Donato and Cesar Camargo Mariano as those who have inspired me the most.

Duduka da Fonseca and you regularly do an annual residence at Dizzy’s club in honor of Jobim. How was that project born, and are there plans to make a live recording of that?

That project was born from a joint CD that Duduka and I did called Songs From The Last Century”. It was a trio CD that included us, bassist Eddie Gomez and guest players Phil Woods, Maucha Adnet, Oscar Castro Neves and Paulo Jobim.  We did the first year at Dizzy’s with Paulo Jobim, and after that we returned with Chico Pinheiro, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo and Anat Cohen. There are no specific plans of doing a live record at present, but surely that is down the road.

Among your different projects as leader or co-leader, is there any specific one that you are most proud of? I ask because every musician I’ve interviewed always has one.

I enjoy working with Duduka da Fonseca, especially our project at Dizzy’s and the Brazilian Trio. As for my recordings as I leader, I really like It’s Clear, a CD I did Romero Lubambo, Scott Colley and Ernesto Simpson. I’m also very fond of my latest release “Musica” with Antonio Sanchez, Reuben Rogers, Romero Lubambo and Claudio Roditi.

How do you feel about the Brazilian jazz scene now as compared to, say, two decades ago? Is it better than it was then?

I’d say that the Brazilian scene is better than it was back then. Both American musicians and audiences have a better understanding of Brazilian music these days. I feel that music has gone global, and there is a better acceptance of different styles today.

If you were to advise a young musician today, what would you say?

Learn as much as you can. Musicians today need to be very versatile.

Differently from guitarists or bassists, pianists often have to rely on the house instrument. Do you have any stories to tell about that in a positive or negative way?

I must say that I have been very lucky. When I tour around Italy and Germany, the pianos are almost always excellent. In Russia and Ukraine that also happens. In other countries, there are always some surprises.

Finally, can you tell us what you have in store for the future?

I have just released a CD with the Brazilian Trio (alongside Nilson Matta and Duduka da Fonseca). We came back from a tour in Italy last July, and we are working on another one during the summer of 2013. I will be releasing a joint CD with Maucha Adnet.  I am still working with Joyce, and we are performing at Dizzy’s in September. I also have an upcoming project Alex Kautz, Rogerio Boccato and Peter Slavov. I am also working on a new solo CD with the great Airto Moreira as a special guest – that will be my second CD to be released by JLP (Jazz Legacy Records).

For information on Helio’s releases and tours, visit http://www.helioalvesmusic.com/

Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com. Reprinted from the Brasilians.

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