Friday, July 13, 2018

An Olympian Night Life: Rio de Janeiro's Top Ten Clubs for Live Music

by Chris McGowan

Rio de Janeiro has one of the most vibrant musical scenes on the planet, and includes both the incredible street celebration of Carnaval and a multitude of nightclubs for all tastes. Cariocas (natives of Rio) are generally gregarious, love music and aren’t shy about dancing, and the city’s nightlife is dynamic. Many of the hottest music spots are in the historic neighborhood of Lapa, a once neglected area that has been transformed into a musical mecca. Rio is associated with the birth of samba, choro and bossa nova, and its clubs offer lots of other styles as well.

In terms of music, there are many Brazils. Samba is the most famous musical genre and it comes in several varieties. Its infectious rhythms can make anyone get up and dance, yet one can also enjoy it in folksy pagode samba jam sessions with musicians and listeners seated around a table crowded with cold beer. For mellow evenings, there is sophisticated, subtle bossa nova (think Tom Jobim and João Gilberto), the instrumental pleasures of choro (usually played on acoustic guitar, flute and cavaquinho), and a wide spectrum of Brazilian jazz.

Exterior of Carioca da Gema, in Lapa

MPB mixed strong melodies, rich harmonies and eclectic influences beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s and is still going strong (Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso are mainstays). A new generation of female singer-songwiters (Ana Carolina, Bebel Gilberto, Maria Rita and others) are creating much of the best MPB these days and mixing it freely with international pop.

The thundering rhythms of maracatu drums from Recife, the raucous Afro-Brazilian sounds of axé music (Ivete Sangalo, Claudia Leitte), and the playful, electronic beats of tecnobrega (Gaby Amarantos) liven up Brazilian dance floors.

You can go rural and romantic with the sertanejo genre, the local country music that is now the country’s most popular style. Or you might want to get down with funk carioca, raw and provocative dance music from the favelas, or Brazilian rap, Electro or Brazilian rock. Musically, there’s something for everyone. I give descriptions of Brazil’s different styles and leading artists in my books The Brazilian Sound (an introduction) and The Brazilian Music Book (a collection of interviews).

Here is a listing of ten memorable venues in Rio, mostly in Lapa, Centro (downtown) or the Zona Sul (South Zone). Call to confirm what style is playing and when the music starts, or ask the concierge at your hotel to call for you. The O Globo newspaper also has listings. Some clubs close on Sundays and Mondays. Most of these establishments have cover charges, usually the equivalent of U.S.$5 - $20, and expansive menus of great food.

Lapa and Centro have more than their share of crime. Take a taxi or Uber to your club and take one back to your hotel. Don’t wander far from your destination, unless you know your way around and are in a group.

Rio Scenarium
1. The picturesque Rio Scenarium has atmosphere to spare: the beautiful three-story club has exotic antiques, masks and costumes as décor. The live music features samba plus jazz and MPB. One can shake it to samba on the first floor or watch the action from a grand balcony while enjoying a potent caipirinha or cold Brazilian beer. Open Tue-Sat.
Rua do Lavradio 20, Centro (close to Lapa); 3147-9000/9001/9002 (Portuguese/English)
2. The Vinicius Show Bar is an inviting spot devoted to the sublime, mellow sounds of bossa nova and named for poet/lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, who teamed with Tom Jobim on classics such as “A Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema”) and helped inspire and popularize the genre. One might also hear a little MPB or samba on some nights. Open Sun-Sat.
Rua Vinícius de Moraes 39, Ipanema; 2287-1497 / 2523-4757

Carioca da Gema

3. Carioca da Gema arrived in Lapa in 2000 and helped start the revitalization of the dilapidated neighborhood. The small, intimate club boasts beautiful brickwork and a grand hardwood staircase, and hosts some of the top names in samba, as well as musicians from other genres (jazz saxophonist Léo Gandelman often teams with various vocalists). The place is packed on weekends; Monday is an especially good time to visit. Open: Mon-Sat.
Avenida Mem de Sá 79, Lapa; 2221-0043 (Portuguese)

Bip Bip

4. If you blink you might miss the tiny Bip Bip bar, which is located close to Copacabana Beach and is a fun place to catch pagode samba played casually around a table. Greats like vocalist Beth Carvalho sometimes stop by for samba on weekends. You can catch choro on Mondays and Tuesdays, and bossa nova on Wednesday night. Open most nights.
Rua Almirante Gonçalves 50, Copacabana; 2267-9696

5. Fundição Progresso is a larger space where well-known musicians play everything from MPB to rap to reggae to sertanejo.
Rua dos Arcos 24, Lapa; 3212-0800 (Portuguese)

Estudantina Musical

6. Estudantina Musical is a landmark for those who love ballroom dancing to the sounds of samba, forró and other Brazilian styles.
Praça Tiradentes 79, Centro; 2232-1149

7. Trapiche Gamboa is housed in a lovely old building and has great live samba for dancing (and occasionally choro). Open Tue-Sat.
Rua Sacadura Cabral 155, Praca Mauá; 2516-0868 (Portuguese)

8.In Clube dos Democráticos, samba fills the dance floor most nights.
founded many decades ago as a Carnaval appreciation society. Wednesday nights explore the frisky northeastern forró style. Wed-Sat from 11pm.
Rua do Riachuelo 91, Lapa; 2252-4611 (Portuguese)

Lapa 40 Graus

9. Lapa 40 Graus is a three-story club with all types of music: samba, choro, forró and sertanejo. Live music Wed-Sun.
Rua do Riachuelo 97; 3970-1338, 3970-1334 (Portuguese/English)

10. Astrophysicists who love to party or just those who like exotic nightspots should check out 00 (Zero Zero), an upscale spot housed inside Gavea’s planetarium. There’s a lounge, a dance floor and a mezzanine level where you can enjoy sushi. Live musicians and DJs play everything from samba to MPB to electro to reggae and jazz. Sunday is a gay afternoon/night. Open: Tue-Sun.
Planetário da Gavea, Avenida Padre Leonel Franca 240, Gavea; 2540-8041.

Also worth checking out:
Leviano (Lapa): electro, samba, jazz.
Saúde): no cover; samba.
Casarão Ameno Resedá
(Catete): electic. And check out the DJs here:
Casa da Matriz (Botafogo): DJs: wide mix of music.
Fosfobox (Copacabana): DJs: wide mix of music.

For more information on Brazilian music, see my books The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil (an introduction) and The Brazilian Music Book (a collection of interviews).

(originally published August 2, 2016 in The Huffington Post and updated in July, 2018).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lenine Brings His Musical Bridge to Central Park

by Chris McGowan
 (published July 18, 2014 in The Huffington Post)

The Maurício de Nassau bridge in Recife is a replica of a bridge in Amsterdam and a reminder of when Holland ruled northeastern Brazil in the early 17th century. It is also the inspiration for “The Bridge” concert series featuring Brazilian singer-songwriter Lenine and Holland’s Martin Fondse Orchestra. After having toured Europe and the Americas, the show will arrive at Central Park’s Summerstage Festival in New York on July 19th.

For Lenine, crossing the bridge is a metaphor for leaving one’s proverbial island, connecting with others, and broadening one’s horizons, which he explored in the song “The Bridge” on his album O Dia Em Que Faremos Contato (The Day We Make Contact). Lenine’s songs span various musical islands and are difficult to categorize. He is at the vanguard of Brazilian rock and pop and is also an heir to the great eclectic tradition of post-bossa nova artists like Gilberto Gil, Djavan and Milton Nascimento, who established their careers in the 1960s and ‘70s. For Brazilian music fans that aren’t fond of the sertanejo, funk carioca and romantic samba that currently dominate the pop charts in that country, Lenine’s music is a welcome continuation of the work of the “MPB” generation of songwriters like Gil and Nascimento who like to blend strong melodies with rich harmonies, unexpected fusions and poetic lyrics.

Lenine’s polyglot songs seamlessly weave together rock, digital effects and the rhythms, instruments and poetic inflections of his hometown Recife. He shifts between being a lyrical, reflective troubadour and a rocker who vigorously plucks and strums an acoustic guitar, seeking a “dirty sound” full of overtones and syncopation. With the guitar, Lenine has invented a rousing funky beat that defies boundaries. Sometimes, Lenine veers into mangue beat territory with aggressive songs that mix electronic effects with strains of northeastern genres like maracatu and embolada. He may mix samples and filters with gentler folk styles. And he can evoke Peter Gabriel with soulful vocals, driving rhythms and big bass lines reminiscent of Tony Levin’s work. While Lenine carries Recife within him, he is a musical gypsy, at home in the Northeast, in Rio de Janeiro, and in foreign lands.

All the while, his lyrics are full of humanitarian sentiments and a romantic futurism informed by authors like Ray Bradbury. His words reference both contemporary reality in Brazil and images from science fiction. Lenine is a prolific songwriter whose work has been recorded by many leading Brazilian artists, a performer who frequently appears on others’ recordings, and an in-demand arranger and producer. His own albums, which he toils on for long periods, appear about every two to four years. He is a musician’s musician in Brazil and considers himself a craftsman. He is as popular in France as in Brazil and has appeared at WOMAD and many other festivals in Europe. And he has won five Latin Grammy awards.

Oswaldo Lenine Macedo Pimental was born in 1959 and grew up in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, which is noted for many musical and cultural traditions. He was named in honor of Vladimir Lenin as his father José Geraldo Pimentel was a devoted communist who idolized the Russian revolutionary leader. José liked to stay at home listening to music rather than attending Catholic mass with his wife, and Lenine hung out with his father on Sundays and listened to Brazilian music, jazz and classical. He also absorbed Recife’s own diverse local music and—during his adolescence — heavy doses of Led Zeppelin and prog rock, Frank Zappa, and the talented musicians connected to Milton Nascimento nicknamed the Clube da Esquina (Corner Club) — and he was on his way to becoming the singular musician that he is today.

The aforementioned O Dia Que Faremos Contato (1997) was a major step in Lenine’s evolution and earned him a Prémio Sharp award in Brazil for best New MPB Artist. He also won the award for Best MPB Song for “A Ponte” (The Bridge), written with Lula Queiroga, which sets his poetry against swirls of electronic noise, contains samples of repentistas Caju and Castanha, and features a stormy chorus (“Nagô, Nagô...”) backed by distorted power chords on electric guitar. By contrast, “O Marco Marciano” (The Martian Landmark) is a contemplative tune in which Lenine doubles his falsetto eerily over a ten-string viola (a type of steel-string guitar that is a mainstay of cantoria and música caipira). The lyrics evoke Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles, as Lenine sings of a “history of Mars buried by the ephemeral dust from storms” and a “Martian landmark with a person’s face, with the ruins of streets and cities” visible from the moons Phobos and Deimos. Throughout the album, Lenine mixes rock and pop with strains of coco, embolada, maracatu, aboio and various audio effects.

Julieta Venegas and Lenine

Na Pressão (Under Pressure) in 1999, produced by Tom Capone and Lenine, was another strong effort, selected by André Domingues in his book Os 100 Melhores CDs da MPB (The 100 Best MPB CDs). Naná Vasconcelos, a venerable figure in modern jazz who is also from Recife, supplies most of the percussion on the album. On the title track, his talking drum, bombo turco and caxixi back Lenine’s ten-string viola, which creates a northeastern mood that turns edgy and dramatic. The reflective “Paciência” (Patience) is one of Lenine’s most beautiful songs, and “Relampiando” (Lightning Striking) is a touching piece of social criticism. “Jack Soul Brasileiro” is a rhythmic tour de force, a primer in syncopation that fuses various elements. A few seconds of maracatu rural drumming open the song, and then Lenine strums his trademark funky groove on guitar and adds incredibly rhythmic singing that summons the tongue twisting wordplay of embolada. A version with a fuller arrangement is available on his Acústico MTV album.

Lenine (left) and Cristina Braga (right)

Falange Canibal in 2001, continued Lenine’s fusion of the acoustic and the electronic, and won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Brazilian Contemporary Pop Album. Falange Canibal had more guest artists than any of his previous albums, including composer-keyboardist Eumir Deodato, members of the O Rappa and Skank bands, Frejat (of Barão Vermelho), singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, trombonist Steve Turre, and drummer Will Calhoun and guitarist Vernon Reid from Living Colour. Lenine’s subsequent albums, such as Lenine InCité, Lenine Acústico MTV, and Labiata have won further awards. Yet such success did not lead Lenine to become a more commercial artist. Rather, in 2011, he released Chão (Ground), a beautiful, mellow, minimal album that has no percussion and incorporates ambient sounds from birdcalls to teakettles to typewriters to footsteps on gravel to heartbeats. Certainly, Lenine is taking Brazilian popular music across his metaphorical “bridge” to new horizons.

Martin Fondse (left) and Lenine (right).

Band leader Martin Fondse, who leads the orchestra appearing with Lenine, is a Dutch pianist and composer who has won awards for his orchestral work and film scores. His work mixes jazz and many other musical styles, and he has collaborated with Peter Erskine, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Vernon Reid and Pat Metheny, among others.

There is an extended profile of Lenine and interview with him in my book The Brazilian Music Book: Brazil’s Singers, Songwriters, and Musicians Tell the Story of Bossa Nova, MPB, and Brazilian Jazz and Pop.

Gaby Amarantos: The Muse of Tecnobrega Boosts Brazil's Latest Musical Export

by Chris McGowan
(published November 9, 2011 in The Huffington Post)

 Singer Gaby Amarantos and DJ João Brasil’s tecnobrega version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Águas de Março” (Waters of March) is either an innovative interpretation for the dance floor or a desecration of one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Or both. The recording can be heard on YouTube and downloaded from numerous online stores or sites. It is an example of the dance-oriented tecnobrega style, which emerged in the last decade in Belém, the capital of Pará state in the Amazon, and is the latest Brazilian music export to enliven European clubs. It also carries the “mashup” touch of DJ João Brasil, who is from Rio and now resides in London.

Gaby with TecnoShow

Gaby (or “Gabi”) is the current “queen of tecnobrega,” being the style’s most prominent female star, and a new ambassador for her state’s regional music. She has led the band TecnoShow since 2002 and appeared on nationally popular Brazilian television shows like Domingão do Faustão. The full-figured vocalist was born in 1980 and grew up in Jurunas, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Bélem. Amarantos wears sexy, outlandish outfits that are surreal in a low-budget Lady Gaga way. Usually, she performs with a supporting cast of similarly clad dancers.

Jobim’s “Águas de Março” was first recorded in 1972 and is a Brazilian and global standard. The late jazz critic Leonard Feather termed it “one of the 10 most beautiful songs of the century.” Jobim and Elis Regina recorded it with an unforgettable duet on Elis & Tom (1974), often cited in polls as the most popular Brazilian album of all time. Gaby’s interpretation of “Águas de Março” is brassy and sometimes strident, and there is none of the sensitivity present in the great performances of the song. Producer DJ João Brasil’s accompaniment is stripped down, with a synthesizer that sounds like a toy keyboard (which it probably was). The samba/bossa beat is gone, replaced by tecnobrega’s simple, snappy rhythm, delivered via drum machine. Jobim’s great harmonies are mostly missing in action. “Águas de Março” is such a national classic that the tecnobrega version is almost as outrageous as when Jimi Hendrix tore up the “Star Spangled Banner” on the electric guitar at Woodstock. Defenders of the song will most likely fit it into Brazil’s Tropicalista tradition of cannibalizing musical standards and styles, and mixing erudite and popular, the high and the low brow.

Tecnobrega emerged early in the new century and is popular in the north and northeast of Brazil. Its birthplace of Belém has always been a musical world unto itself, a steamy, equatorial port city located almost 2,000 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro. Belém and nearby Marajó Island are the home of carimbó, a lively Afro-Brazilian song-and-dance form that dates back over 100 years. And lambada and its instrumental version, guitarrada, appeared there in the late 1970s. Tecnobrega’s name comes from a fusion of tecno (techno music) and brega, which means “tacky” and also refers to cheesy romantic music. In Belém, brega was embraced and eventually evolved into a style called “brega pop,” of which Banda Calypso was the most successful exponent. Tecnobrega resulted from a fusion of brega pop with electronic music. Some songs have highly accelerated tempos, reaching 170 beats per minute. DJ João Brasil has given “Águas de Março” a spare, minimalist production compared to many tecnobrega tunes, which can be bombastic. The style originally reached European dance floors in late 2009 when English DJ Lewis Robinson took tecnobrega recordings to BatMacumba club events in London’s Notting Hill.

Tecnobrega is noteworthy for having created a new musical business model, one that has gotten rid entirely of record companies and radio stations. Tecnobrega artists take advantage of cheap available technology, often using personal computers as home studios. Composers freely allow the DJs or producers to copy the music and sell it on CDs that cost as little as $1.50 apiece. The “pirates” become distributors, and the artists gain exposure (but usually zero royalties) through the distribution of their work to the public. The DJs work at huge festas de aparelhagem (sound system parties), which move from location to location, and they can turn unknown songs into instant hits. The shows can include smoke machines, laser displays and giant video screens. There are an estimated 4,000 such events per month, or more, in greater Belém.

Hitherto anonymous artists become well known overnight and can put together bands that may consist of just a keyboardist and vocalist, and go to play at the sound system events and in clubs. Musicians make their money from live performances, not from recordings, except those they sell themselves at shows. Recorded music has become a smaller share of an artist’s income in the rest of the world as well, but in Belém the transition has been greatly accelerated. The new model is so successful in Pará that tecnobrega artists release several hundred albums per year.

Whatever one thinks of tecnobrega, it is part of the ongoing fusion of electronic dance music with Brazilian styles that has also resulted in the creation of funk carioca, Brazilian hip hop, and tecnoforró. Many in Brazil find tecnobrega unmusical and unlistenable, yet many others there and overseas are dancing to it. How would Jobim have reacted to Gaby’s interpretation of “Águas de Março”? I don’t think he would have liked tecnobrega. But I’m pretty sure he would have been amused by Amarantos and pleased with the incredible diffusion of his compositions, so many decades later.

Check out these related YouTube links: Gaby Amarantos and DJ João Brasil, “Águas de Março”, Tom Jobim & Elis Regina (live), “Águas de Março” and Banda Tecno Show with Gaby Amarantos, “Principe Negro.”

My book, The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil, written with Ricardo Pessanha, is available now in print and digital editions. It discusses the music of Belém, lambada, guitarrada and tecnobrega at greater length, along with other Brazilian music genres.

Naná Vasconcelos: Storytelling with Percussion


by Chris McGowan 
(published on March 16, 2016 in The Huffington Post)

Naná Vasconcelos, a Brazilian percussionist who left his mark on global music, passed away on March 9 at the age of 71 in Recife. Vasconcelos gained critical acclaim for his work with Egberto Gismonti, Codona, and the Pat Metheny Group. He won the Downbeat magazine Critics Poll in the category of percussion from 1983 to 1991 and was a tremendously influential figure in jazz and Brazilian music.

Vasconcelos was a master of the berimbau, a musical bow from Bahia with a single metal string and a resonating gourd, which he turned into a unique solo voice. His peer Airto Moreira called him “the best berimbau player in the world.”

He was also adept with most other Brazilian percussion instruments, which he combined with layered vocals, handclaps and body percussion. He created irresistible rhythmic waves or engaged in spirited dialogues with other musicians. Sometimes he created dense atmospheres of sound, in which rustles, rattles and rumbles moved with captivating rhythms or clashed in unearthly cacophony.

“He went beyond keeping time and creating just a mood, his thing was deep—he created a sense of place and time in music. When you heard him play, you understood something more about the music. He dove into the story of each song and gave you a reason to stay on. Very few percussionists can do that,” comments Grammy award-winning jazz vocalist Luciana Souza.

Vasconcelos’s collaborations with leading figures from free jazz and fusion put him at the forefront of the world’s percussionists. Naná generated such a distinctive voice with his percussion that he was able to hold his own in duos and trios with musical heavyweights. He teamed with Egberto Gismonti on Dança da Cabeças and Duas Vozes, with Don Cherry and Collin Walcott for three Codona albums, with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays on As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, with Jan Garbarek and John Abercrombie on Eventyr, and with Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock on Miltons.

Juvenal de Holanda Vasconcelos (Naná was his nickname) was born on August 2, 1944 in the coastal city of Recife, which is home to a rich musical heritage that includes genres like maracatu and frevo. As a youth, he learned to play the drums of maracatu as well as most other Brazilian percussion instruments, and became adept with the berimbau, an instrument associated with the martial art capoeira.

In the late ‘60s, he toured with Gilberto Gil and was part of Quarteto Livre with northeastern singer-songwriter Geraldo Azevedo. For a time he was part of the seminal Som Imaginário band, which mixed Brazilian music, jazz and rock and backed Milton Nascimento. His playing caught the attention of saxophonist Gato Barbieri, with whom he started touring. He subsequently spent a few years in Paris and while there worked with disturbed children in a psychiatric hospital, using music as a form of creative therapy. His experiences there would inform his work: Vasconcelos saw how music could transform and improve people’s lives. During this era, he found time to record his first solo album, Africadeus (1973).

 Naná Vasconcelos and Milton Nascimento

Towards the end of the decade, he toured and recorded with Egberto Gismonti on albums such as Dança das Cabeças (Dance of the Minds) in 1977, which was released in eighteen countries and sold more than two hundred thousand copies according to the ECM label, an impressive sum for nonvocal experimental music.

Collin Walcott, Don Cherry, Naná

In 1979 he formed Codona with trumpeter Don Cherry and percussionist Collin Walcott. The trio released three highly regarded albums for ECM that mixed free jazz and cross-cultural improvisation.

 Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, Naná

Vasconcelos expanded his audience greatly when he played percussion and sang with the Pat Metheny Group, beginning with Metheny and Mays’ 1981 As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. “He was a total joy to work with,” keyboardist Mays told me in an interview for my book The Brazilian Sound. “One of the things that I most enjoyed about playing with Naná was that he was interested in working with me as a synthesizer player to come up with combination textures that neither of us could do alone. He took things a step further, using his voice together with his instrument and with my instruments. Naná broadened our soundscape, and he added charisma, another focal point of attention on stage.”

On his website, Pat Metheny adds, “In addition to being one of the best percussionists in music, Naná was an amazing, wonderful person. Everywhere he went (berimbau always nestled on his shoulder) he made friends and brought an infectious joy to the people around him. His laugh was contagious and his ability to bring happiness to any situation spilled over to the bandstand.”

Naná (top left) with Pat Metheny (center)

Vasconcelos also appeared on Metheny’s Offramp and Travels, before moving on to other projects. Along with releasing his own albums, Vasconcelos enhanced the works of many artists, in and out of Brazil. One noteworthy example is Lenine’s Na Pressão (1999), on which Naná played shakers, a talking drum and other instruments on the album’s dramatic title track. He also recorded with Brazilian musicians Marisa Monte, Caetano Veloso, Alceu Valença, Eliane Elias, Joyce, Toninho Horta, Luiz Bonfá, Badi Assad and Mônica Salmaso, along with those mentioned above and many others.

Egberto Gismonti and Naná Vasconcelos

In addition, Vasconcelos recorded and/or performed with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Ralph Towner, Paul Simon, B. B. King, the Talking Heads, Leon Thomas, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jon Hassell, Harry Belafonte, Claus Ogerman, Ginger Baker, Jack DeJohnette, Carly Simon, and the Yellowjackets.

Nana’s many fine solo works, such as Saudades for ECM (1979), Bush Dance (1986), Rain Dance (1989), Storytelling (1995) and Chegada (2005) are like sound encyclopedias, beautiful elaborations of rhythmic and textural possibilities. His album Sinfonia and Batuques won a Latin Grammy award in 2011 for Best Native Brazilian Roots Album.

Vasconcelos returned every year to Recife to take part in Carnaval celebrations and lead a large group of maracatu drummers and singers, one of his many projects that supported Afro-Brazilian culture. When he died, these and other local musicians paid musical tribute to him in a procession through the streets of Recife, on the way to where he was buried.

Brazilian keyboardist, composer and music educator Antonio Adolfo reflects, “He grew tremendously when he traveled and lived outside Brazil. He developed a tremendous technique mixed with all his cultural background—presenting the berimbau to the world along with all his work with percussion in general—and became one of the most important percussionists of all time.”


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Luciana Souza: A Bossa Nova Baby Makes Her Mark in the Jazz Realm

by Chris McGowan
(published January 4, 2014 in The Huffington Post)

In 2013, Luciana Souza gained a place among the world’s top contemporary jazz singers by earning not one but two Grammy nominations, for The Book of Chet (for Best Jazz Vocal Album) and Duos III (Best Latin Jazz Album). The 47-year-old Brazilian vocalist now has a total of six Grammy nominations, a distinction that has gone largely unrecognized in her native country. She has also appeared on Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning River: The Joni Letters and works by Bobby McFerrin, John Patitucci, Till Brönner and Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, to name a few, and performed with several symphony orchestras. Souza sings with a quiet intensity and — in The Book of Chet and Duos III — favors spare, stripped-down arrangements. Her voice is clear and perfectly in tune, with a beautiful tone, and her phrasing is often daring, even startling. She’s a vocalist who once said “each phrase for me has a certain gestalt” and she invites you to savor both the notes and the spaces between them. Souza is spectacular in a João Gilberto kind of way — you have to listen attentively to appreciate all the nuances.

Souza’s artistic influences include Gilberto (who invented bossa nova’s guitar beat and introduced a low-key vocal style) and singers like Chet Baker, Carmen McRae and Joni Mitchell. She’s a child of bossa nova and jazz in more ways than one. Souza was born in São Paulo to songwriter parents (Walter Santos and Tereza Souza) who were part of the bossa nova scene in their city and later founded Som da Gente, a small independent record label dedicated to Brazilian jazz and instrumental music, which included the great composer and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal on its roster. At home she was surrounded by the music of her parents and their musician friends. “Music was everything, music was the bread maker, music was the dream, music was hopeful; it was humor, it was the language that was spoken at the house. My father being a guitar player, he never left his guitar; he was constantly playing. It was happy, it was fun,” Souza recalls.
Walter wrote commercial jingles to pay the rent, and he started using little Luciana in the recordings when she was just three years old. She says, "I think they detected early on that I could sing in tune and I was musical and I had a facility for learning melodies and learning language. So they encouraged me and the recording studio was like the living room to me. It was an extension of everything we did. We sang at home, we sang in the studio. They would teach me a melody, and I just loved it."

At age 18, Souza moved to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music. There, she developed her talents as a singer as well as her abilities as an educator — she eventually joined Berklee’s faculty and after that taught at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Since 1992, she has released 11 albums, and won her first four Grammy nominations with Brazilian Duos (2003), North and South (2004), Duos II (2006) and Tide (2010). 

She has interpreted Brazilian standards, recast songs by great American songwriters as bossa nova (The New Bossa Nova) and boldly devoted entire albums to musical interpretations of poets (The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs and Neruda). Along with way she married bassist-producer Larry Klein, with whom she has a young son; they moved to Los Angeles in 2006. He produced both The Book of Chet and Duos III. Souza has now been living in the U.S. for nearly thirty years, and is glad about her choice. “I came here — to Berklee, to Boston, to New York, and L.A. — because this is the music I want to make. I want to be in the environment, I want to be with the musicians, I want to speak this language; I need to be here.” She adds, “As much as I miss Brazil, I find that here I can really be myself.”

Her two recent Grammy-nominated albums reflect Souza’s musical vision and her versatility. The Book of Chet is an homage to jazz trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker (1929-1988), who was a major influence on many bossa nova musicians, and includes songs recorded by him such as “The Thrill is Gone,” “Oh You Crazy Moon,” “The Very Thought Of You,” “You Go To My Head” and “Forgetful.” The song choices were an attempt to capture the breadth of his career, rather than to compile his biggest successes.
“I was obsessed with him when I was in graduate school at the New England Conservatory,” Souza comments about Baker. She says: "And then twenty years later I came across one of [his] biographies and then his autobiography and Let’s Get Lost [the 1988 documentary about Baker]. And it came back to me — why did I love him so much? And I got all the records out. His voice moves me so deeply...the way he sings...It’s so pure, so direct, so unadorned. To me, there’s an incredible, quiet, calm sadness. He’s like a kindred spirit, musically and vocally."

On The Book of Chet, “The Thrill Is Gone” (not to be confused with the B.B. King song of the same name) is particularly haunting, with Souza’s rather somber vocals over hypnotic repeating figures on bass and guitar, while “The Very Thought of You,” with Souza’s luscious rendering, is another of the album’s many high points.
 Luciana Souza and her husband Larry Klein
The Book of Chet and Duos III were released the same day and both were direct live recordings with few instruments. However, while the former album is consistently understated and introspective, with slow tempos that push the envelope, Duos III ranges across a variety of genres, including bossa nova, baião, some lively sambas (like “Tim Tim Por Tim Tim” and “Doralice,” both with impressive scatting) and the wordless singing of “Dona Lu,” written for Souza by Pereira.
On Duos III, the third in a series, Souza performs duets with three renowned Brazilian guitarists — Romero Lubambo, Marco Pereira and Toninho Horta — as she interprets Brazilian compositions, most of them standards, from composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim (four selections), Haroldo Barbosa, Dorival Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Djavan, Dominguinhos and Cartola, as well as Pereira and Horta.
Souza likes the combination of voice and guitar “because it’s how I grew up and because of my dad doing that.” She adds: "The guitar doesn’t sustain and the sound decays and dies; it allows for silence. The guitar can be very percussive, very melodic, and very harmonic, obviously. All these different possibilities in terms of orchestration can happen with just one instrument. So it is my favorite instrument but also it comes from the Brazilian tradition. A lot of these songs were written on guitar, we can do them in the original keys, and it just colors the music in a certain way, gives it the right color, the right timbre."

She adds, “and the people that I play with are very able and agile and most of them really have this sensibility in terms of improvisation.” Each of the three guitarists has a quite different approach, technically and artistically. “You take the same exact guitar and give it to Romero or Marco or Toninho, for example, and they sound completely different. Marco is almost an intellectual with the guitar; he’s a romantic, so he brings that kind of heavy heart, but is full of technique and thought” while “Romero is all fire, all rhythm, completely improvisatory.”
Regarding Toninho Horta, she comments that in “the lineage of Brazilian music, Toninho gets a chapter as a songwriter, as a lyricist, as a guitarist. He’s innovative in every way. His sense of harmony is unlike that of any other Brazilian — the most refined, advanced and modern thing in Brazilian music that I know of.” She teams with Horta, known to many Americans for his work with both Milton Nascimento and Pat Metheny, on four songs, including his own “Pedro da Lua” and “Beijo Partido.”
Duos III and The Book of Chet were recorded after a nearly three-year break while Souza focused on being a new mother. “At this point in my life it was very important to put out those two records because I hadn’t made a record [in a while] and it just made sense to come out very quiet and very strong.” About her six total Grammy nominations, Souza says, “It feels good. It talks about all the possibilities for small artists. Only one [album] was done for a major record label [Verve], and five others for independents. It’s sort of an homage to my parents, because they were an independent record company.”

Brazilian Harpist Cristina Braga Explores Samba, Jazz and Love

by Chris McGowan
(published November 21, 2013 in The Huffington Post)

The first recordings of samba occurred nearly one hundred years ago and of bossa nova more than fifty years ago. Neither genre has ever been associated with the harp, but lately the venerable stringed instrument has expanded its presence in Brazilian popular music thanks to Cristina Braga, who is the first harpist with the Teatro Municipal symphonic orchestra in Rio de Janeiro and a crossover artist who freely roams between classical music, samba, bossa nova and even rock and roll. Along with recording sixteen albums, the 47-year-old Braga has performed or recorded with Brazilian music luminaries Gal Costa, Marisa Monte, Ana Carolina, Zeca Baleiro and Lenine, with the rock band Titãs, and on the United Kingdom of Ipanema DVD with bossa icon Roberto Menescal and Andy Summers (The Police).

Braga’s new album Samba, Jazz and Love (Enja Records, 2013) features her vibrant, virtuoso harp playing and sultry, breathy vocals in impeccable renderings of samba and bossa classics. The flugelhorn and vibraphone, two other instruments seldom heard in those genres, are also part of the mix, performed by Jessé Sadoc (who also plays trumpet) and Arthur Dutra, respectively. The album was produced by Braga’s husband Ricardo Medeiros, a double bassist whose dynamic bass lines underpin the overall sound. And Joca Moraes adds just the right rhythmic embellishments of alfaiadrums (commonly used in maracatu) and the pandeiro (Brazilian tamborine).

 The original concept of the album was very simple. Braga comments, “We wanted to make samba, jazz and love (laughs). We wanted to do something more spontaneous. The instruments were recorded in twelve hours.” Bossa nova, which is an offshoot of samba, supplied part of the repertoire and there are four songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim alone. Medeiros adds, "We thought of doing something about samba. The album has various sambas and songs that talk about samba: ‘Só Danço Samba’ (I Only Dance Samba) by Jobim, ‘Desde Que o Samba É Samba’ (Since Samba Is Samba) by Caetano Veloso, and ‘Samba e Amor’ (Samba and Love, by Chico Buarque). We do these sambas in our own way, with different instruments. And with the harp, which isn’t used in popular music as a principal instrument."

The harp creates a different musical universe for the samba and bossa standards on the album, adapting bossa’s familiar plucked guitar chords and expanding the tonal palette and harmonic range. “I think the way the harp is played transforms the music. It becomes different, with the harmonics made by the harp and by the way Cristina plays as a harpist. To not imitate another instrument, but to really be another instrument,” says Medeiros. “For example, the chords of the harp can be really large. With the harp it’s very natural to do a chord with five octaves, something that few instruments can do.” 

 Cristina Braga and Ricardo Medeiros

Medeiros continues, “The harp can make a very big sound. A lot of harmonics appear. Many times we go to the studio to mix and the sound technician tries to take things out to make a clean sound. And we say, ‘No, the harp is like this. You can leave it full.’ Another thing is that the improvisations and the language of the harp are different. Many people who hear the improvisations that Cristina does think, ‘Wow, how great, that’s something really different.’ "

When Braga first played samba, it felt strange to play it on the harp. “I didn’t play samba, not at all. To me, samba with a harp seemed like chantilly [whipped cream]. I was playing my harp like a guitar. Ricardo turned to me, ‘But Cristina, you play harp. Why imitate the guitar?’, " she recalls.

Braga’s harp playing gives a new twist to these standards, as does the interplay of her instrument with Dutra’s vibraphone on many numbers, such as a dreamy, delicate version of Robert Menescal’s “O Barquinho” (The Little Boat) and a flawless rendition of Jobim’s “Desafinado” (Off-Key). “When this new album came about, I had this idea in my head of playing the harp with the vibraphone, with the trumpet, of mixing instruments that have a lot of harmonics,” says Braga. “Desafinado” is a classic that launched bossa nova worldwide via Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s recording on Jazz Samba in 1962.

Medeiros notes that the song has "a very difficult harmony, principally on the harp, where there’s a lot of modulation. And it’s difficult to sing also, but it’s a fascinating song. When we thought about doing this album, we wanted to do something with ‘Desafinado.’ We fell more and more in love with the song, when we transferred the harmony to the harp, when we made the arrangement for the group. All the research was fascinating; it was a great process.The band, all of whom are fine musicians, get to stretch out with more extended soloing in a haunting, compelling instrumental version of the lesser known gem “Triste de Quem,” composed by Moacir Santos and Vinícius de Moraes (bossa nova’s most important lyricist), and recorded in 1963 by Elizeth Cardoso.

The album opens with “Love Parfait,” a new tune composed by Medeiros and lyricist Bernardo Vilhena that evokes a nostalgic Parisian ambiance. "In the beginning, I was trying to do something very simple, a simple melody with a dense harmony. I did the first part twenty years, when I was living in London and my son was born. I had an inspiration and thought that it was a perfect love. I worked with Bernardo on the second part, and his idea of doing a section in French was the key. It became a song that suggests a French café, antiquity."

One of the most compelling songs is Jobim’s lilting “Chovendo na Roseira” (sometimes titled “Children’s Games” in English), an instrumental version highlighted by Sadoc’s honeyed trumpet soloing, Dutra’s hypnotic vibraphone playing and Braga’s lively harp work, which ranges from ethereal to slightly edgy. “The first time I heard Jobim was on an album with “Chovendo na Roseira,” which I thought was really beautiful,” recalls Braga. Samba Jazz & Love also includes Jobim’s “Canta Mais” (Sing More), Candéia’s “Preciso Me Encontrar” (I Need to Find Myself) and the album’s only English tune, “Rio Paraiso” (Paradise River) by Alberto Rosenblit and Paulinho Tapajós. 

Cristina Braga, Dado Villa-Lobos, Ricardo Medeiros

Braga often surprises the listener with her rhythmic approach on the harp to many songs, as in the overtly jazzy, energetic “Só Danço Samba”; another example (not on this album) is her powerful "A Floresta Amazônica." She observes, “Even today, if people think about a concert with harp, they think it’s going to be a classical thing, a beautiful, very sweet thing. And when we start playing the more rhythmic things, people go, “Huh? You can also do this with the harp?”

“I try to do something different, something harpistic, something Brazilian,” concludes Braga. “The harp is an instrument that has a long history. I think it’s great that it has the form of the map of Brazil.”

For many years, Braga also taught harp at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and in 2003 she founded one of the most intriguing musical festivals in the world, the Festival Vale do Cafe. The ten-day event takes place in the historic, verdant “Coffee Valley” located over the mountains and about two hours from Rio. Instrumental music of many types (including classical, choro, regional and jazz) and traditional folkloric music and dance are performed in the valley’s small towns and in grand settings at 19th century coffee plantations.