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“Down in Brazil,” with American Jazz-Pop Vocalist Michael Franks

Michael Franks and FloraPoor Michael Franks. He gets no respect, no respect at all from jazz purists. Although most critics have grievously placed him in the same New Adult Contemporary, bush-league music category as that of L.A. keyboardist David Benoit – that is, of artists who’ve been plying their trade for years without either public acclaim or mass countenance – Franks doesn’t look like a Rodney Dangerfield, nor does he act or sound anything like the late stand-up comedian.

Despite decades of slaving away in the pop-music business – in itself, nothing to laugh about, that’s for certain – his biggest obstacle to lasting success has always been his inability to please those same critics, if indeed that’s anything to lose sleep over.

As Rolling Stone staff writer Paul Evans so cleverly concluded about him, “The attitude his music is intended to provoke is invariably: ‘Dim the lights, get out the Chardonnay, cuddle up.'”

But for the many Brazilian musicians and performers who’ve worked closely with Franks over the years, it’s another story entirely.

Still, the oddest aspect of Michael’s 30-year-plus singing and composing career is the West Coast native’s apparent lack of hits (his “Popsicle Toes” from 1976’s The Art of Tea aside) or multi-platinum-selling records to crown off his consistently earnest achievements.

The main difficulty, in a nutshell, remains his unattainability as a crossover specialist, a singer secure enough in his song-filled artfulness at closing the ever-expanding gulf between the jazz and pop spheres so prevalent in the U.S. during his performance heyday.

Not that Franks worries one bit about his nondescript status among peers. It’s just that the low-key approach he’s brought to his music, manifested in the refined manner with which he’s formulated his spare yet insightful lyrics – abetted, to no end, by that Comparative English Literature degree he earned at UCLA in the seventies – hasn’t exactly bowled over what’s left of the uncommitted, and likely never will.

Surely Michael’s laidback vocal temperament could be the hindrance, being that his basic singing style – closely resembling that of American pop crooner Kenny Rankin – has been allied more to sophisticated Brazilian-jazz contexts than to pop-music puffoonery.

One could even say that his voice is a warmed-over version of folk-rock’s best friend James Taylor, but without the singer-songwriter’s deviated-septum vocal production.

Coincidentally, before Taylor moved over to Columbia (now part of Sony) Records, he and Franks were Warner Bros. label-mates in the mid- to late seventies, as was smooth-jazz pioneer Al Jarreau, another underappreciated resident of the Redwood State.

In actuality, Michael Franks is the nearest Americans have ever come to having that old Bahian bossa nova stylist, the famously cantankerous maestro João Gilberto, in our own backyard – minus that eccentric singer’s onstage peculiarities, of course.

It would not be an exaggeration, then, to insist that Franks, in his inimitable fashion, is a continuation of the romantic spirit typified by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim – considered by Michael to be one of his prime movers – alongside the still-imposing shades of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the great George and Ira Gershwin.

But whatever issues he has pending with reviewers, they have had no ill-effects with steadfast fans who happen to be in the musical “know.”

Take, for instance, former Steely Dan band-member turned record-producer Walter Becker, who paid the ultimate compliment to Franks’ compositional skills in the September 1990 issue of Jazziz:

“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire. His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort.

“At the same time, there’s a lot there. They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does that I really admire.”

That directness and simplicity was amply illustrated from the get-go with his trend-setting Art of Tea offering, particularly with such song titles as “Eggplant,” “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do,” “Mr. Blue,” “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad,” and “Sometimes I Just Forget To Smile.”

Even better still, and an early career milestone in the catalog of his cumulative works, was the 1977 Tommy LiPuma-produced outing Sleeping Gypsy, the first in a series of studio efforts to enlist a variety of Brazilian session players; in this case, Hélio Delmiro on guitar, João Donato on piano, and João Palma on drums – all of them associated with music-master Tom Jobim.

Along with the now-classic “The Lady Wants to Know,” a modern-day jazz standard if ever there was one (“Daddy’s just like Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / The Lady’s just like heaven…when she smiles”), were two numbers originally conceived of in steamy Rio de Janeiro: “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” a moving evocation of Jobim himself, and “Down in Brazil.”

“I wrote (these) in my room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel,” claimed Michael. “I went to Rio to record at the suggestion of Jobim, who had been very kind in his praise for The Art of Tea. It’s no secret he was one of my major heroes and influences.”

“Antonio’s Song” starts out in nearly the same tempo and rhythm-pattern as “The Lady Wants to Know” – it must have been a deliberate choice on Michael’s part to begin in this way – but for the easy-on-the-ears string accompaniment arranged by veteran Claus Ogerman, who worked on many of Jobim’s albums for Verve, as well as the timeless Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing on Reprise a decade prior.

The image of a decadent Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City) contrasted with that of Rio’s sunniest songwriting native-son – peerlessly captured by Michael in the first few bars – set the prevailing tone and mood:

Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die

That opening phrase (“Antonio lives life’s frevo”) is a masterstroke of understated lyricism: upon first hearing, it will ever-so-slightly pass by the untrained ear – unless one is intimately aware of the inner meaning of this Brazilian-Portuguese term: an exceedingly agitated Northeastern dance-rhythm, native to both Recife and Bahia, frevo is typically played during the pre-Lenten season.

As a metaphor for the Carioca composer, it shrewdly encompasses Jobim’s hectic artistic lifestyle in a brief eight-syllable summation.

While not the bold social statement often associated with the best of U2 – or early Sting, for that matter – the song nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of tension amid the tropical breezes; as if Franks instinctively sensed the adoration his newfound friend felt for his favorite abode, despite all the harshness and strife he may have encountered there firsthand.

As well, the singer’s laconic, almost vibrato-less delivery of his lines, as matter-of-fact as only he was capable of producing back then – sort of a smooth-jazz offshoot of German Sprechstimme – adds to the objective formality of the piece: more so than the actual words, Michael’s non-judgmental aloofness leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the foibles of “Sin City” Rio:

We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.

The last line, “Like Light into the Rainbow,” clearly echoes the essential English lyrics (supplied by American essayist Gene Lees) of one of Jobim’s bounciest Brazilian melodies, “Double Rainbow” (“Chovendo na Roseira”), also known by the less-familiar title of “Children’s Games,” recorded by Tom with Elis Regina, in Los Angeles, in 1974:

Look at the double rainbow
The rain is silver in the sunlight

The closing track on Gypsy, “Down in Brazil,” is dedicated (for one) to the beauteous charms of Brazilian women, and is relayed high-up in Michael’s reediest tonal range:

Down in Brazil
They never heard of win or lose
If you can’t feel
That all those café olé girls
In high-heel shoes
Will really cure your blues
It seems they all just aim to please
Those women sway like wind
In the banana trees
When you know you’re
Down in old Brazil

At the fadeout, the oft-repeated verses of “Down in old Brazil” reminds one, too, of music legend Frank Sinatra’s sly sendoff on the time-worn Ary Barroso-Bob Russell theme, “Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil”), found in the first, and best, of ole Blue Eyes’ various Billy May collaborations, notably Come Fly With Me for Capitol (1957).

Yet what are we to make of Franks’ brand of music making? Is it less-than-mainstream jazz, or just plain middle-of-the-road pop styling?

“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” comments Becker.

“Part of the problem has been that traditionally, in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the ‘moon-June-spoon,’ Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”

In light of this estimation, Franks’ positive working relationship with Brazil’s native-born artists and unabated love for its marvelous music conveniently spilled over into his subsequent long-play output, significantly in the 1978 release Burchfield Nines, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato; in Tiger in the Rain (1979), with the cut “Jardim Botânico” (“Botanical Garden”), featuring Flora Purim and Claudio Roditi; in Passionfruit (1983), with Astrud Gilberto and Naná Vasconcelos, on “Amazon”; and in Dragonfly Summer (1993), spotlighting key contributions by Paulinho da Costa and Toninho Horta.

But the work to end all works, his pièce de résistance – the sine qua non of tribute albums – was the career-defining Abandoned Garden project from 1995, recorded in loving memory of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Described as the “jazziest” of Michael’s extended forays, the CD features rhythm tracks laid-down for him by paulistana pianist Eliane Elias – a current, and past, Jobim acolyte – along with a contemporary all-star lineup of acknowledged light-jazz favorites, among them Michael and Randy Brecker (Eliane’s husband), Mark Egan, Art Farmer, Russell Ferrante, Bob James, Bashiri Johnson, Chuck Loeb, Bob Mintzer, Joshua Redman, and David Sanborn.

Two of the disc’s many highlights, “Cinema” (co-written with Jobim) and “Bird of Paradise” (music by Alagoan singer Djavan/English lyrics by Michael Franks), reveal a thoroughly evolved mastery of the lyrical style, as infectiously and flavorfully literate as anything in the overall De Moraes-Jobim canon.

Some of the other songs on the set, including “This Must Be Paradise,” “Like Water, Like Wind,” “A Fool’s Errand,” “Hourglass,” “Eighteen Aprils,” and “Somehow Our Love Survives” – originally on former Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s 1989 album Spellbound (Warner), where it was performed by Al Jarreau – revolved around the major themes of love-found, love-lost, and love-regained.

Interestingly, the main title-tune, “Abandoned Garden,” came at the tail end of the almost hour-long session. With its slow, dirge-like musings, this mildly morose homage to Tom more than compensated for any rhythmic shortcomings by becoming a fitting formal close to the famed Jobim-Franks partnership:

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound
Of your voice, your piano, your flute, you are found,
And the music within you continues to flow
Sadly, lost Antonio.
You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;
On the highway of time will I meet you again?
If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show
For the lost Antonio?
For the lost Antonio?

High hopes tinged with sadness: that was the message Michael tried to convey in all his best work.

And along those same lines, everyone from Shirley Bassey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ana Caram, Natalie Cole and Laura Fygi to Diana Krall, Patti Labelle, Peggy Lee, Melissa Manchester, Carmen McRae, The Yellowjackets and Ringo Starr has happily complied in covering his highly sought-after song output.

Shut out of FM-radio due to rapidly diminished airplay, Michael’s only completely original release thereafter, the 2003 Christmas-themed Watching the Snow, with seasoned players Romero Lubambo and Café among the talents, was sold “privately” to fans on his website via the Sleeping Gypsy label – an obvious (and sentimental) allusion to the first of his many Brazilian-inspired productions.

If, as they say, you can never go home again, Michael can at last rest assured of having earned the love and respect of his infinitely loyal audience-base – not the least of which can be counted one deeply devoted fan: Brazil’s dearly-departed and best-loved composer, Jobim.

Take that, jazz purists, if you can!

Songs Written by Michael Franks

“Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow)”

Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die
But sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the Music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
Antonio loves the desert
Antonio prays for rain
Antonio knows that Pleasure
Is the child of Pain
And lost in La Califusa
When most of my hope was gone
Antonio’s samba led me
To the Amazon
We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.

“Down in Brazil”

Down in Brazil
It takes a day to walk a mile
Time just stands still
And when the people you meet
Look at you, they smile
They still believe in style
They sooth you with their sambas
Till you really know you’re
Down in old Brazil
You can tell you’re down in old Brazil
Down in Brazil
They never heard of win or lose
If you can’t feel
That all those café olé girls
In high-heel shoes
Will really cure your blues
It seems they all just aim to please
Those women sway like wind
In the banana trees
Then you know you’re
Down in old Brazil
-Instrumental Interlude-
Down in Brazil
They know a million ways to play
You start to feel
And when you’re happy
It’s the same as when you pray
You think you’ll get away
Then you know you never will
Not when you’ve been
Down in old Brazil
Not when you are down in old Brazil
(Fade to End)
Down in old Brazil
Down in old Brazil
Down in old Brazil
Down in old Brazil

“Abandoned Garden”

In your abandoned garden, sunlight still prevails:
The jasmine climbs the trellis fragrantly, the
jacaranda ultravioletly sways.
The blossom each of them by your hand planted,
Will, even if I tell them of your sudden
Disappearance from us,
Not believe the tale.

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound
Of your voice, your piano, your flute, you are found,
And the music within you continues to flow
Sadly, lost Antonio.

You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;
On the highway of time will I meet you again?
If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show
For the lost Antonio?
For the lost Antonio?

In your abandoned garden, beauty is unchanged:
The hummingbird still hovers for the scent the
frangipane so seductively displays.
Camellias, each of them by your hand planted,
The sadness of your sudden disappearance still
unknown to them,
Await the kiss of rain.

Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound
Of your voice, your piano, your flute, you are found,
And the music within you continues to flow
Sadly, lost Antonio.

You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;
On the highway of time will I meet you again?
If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show
For the lost Antonio?
For the lost Antonio?

A naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, Joe Lopes was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.

Copyright © 2006 by Josmar F. Lopes

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