For those unfamiliar with the history of world jazz, to say nothing of Brazilian music in toto -- that is, to most of your workaday music fans north of the equator -- it's difficult to explain just how monumental an album Gil and Milton is.
Try to imagine the results if John Lennon and Bob Dylan had gone into the studio in 1966. Imagine that Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, fresh off What's Going On and Innervisions, followed those two crests by releasing a collaborative album for Tamla/Motown. (Caveat: We're further positing, in these hypothetical pairings, that all considerations of ego and self-indulgence have been put to one side, that all involved parties are chemical-free and dealing from their strengths, and that the finished product is therefore clean and perfect and seamless. Try to remember what Christmas felt like when you were 4.)
Clearly, we're dealing with the Best of All Possible Worlds here. And as jazz aficionados will cheerfully inform you, this first collaboration between two of the form's masters comes packed with promise . . . and a breath-holding potential for disappointment, should the project miss.
Long two of Brazil's leading musical ambassadors -- we're talking about solid, innovative recording careers that began in 1967 and 1968, respectively -- Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento have also set the pace of the country's urban and rural musical trajectories for more than three decades. Nascimento's fluid baritone and sexy samba arrangements were steeped in the hip cool of his native Rio de Janeiro. Emerging from the far more rural Salvador, Bahia, Gil expanded the vocabulary of Brazilian folk music as an early style-setter in the Tropicalia movement, which blended folk and pop forms into a unique genre marked by socially aware lyrics and understated (at least by Brazilian standards) accompaniment.
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Having established themselves as gifted performers, arrangers and producers -- and won the acclaim of their peers worldwide -- Gil and Nascimento turn in a collaborative performance that succeeds in all the right places. The worst that may be said about Gil and Milton is that its stylistic execution is occasionally incongruous (see their reggae arrangement of George Harrison's "Something"), but the album never fails, never wavers, and never sounds uncertain.
In many ways, Gil and Milton (the order of names is, rightly, reversed on the album's back cover, negating any subtle hierarchy) is a serviceable introduction, assuming one has yet to explore the rich history of Brazilian pop and jazz. A dozen different styles, a hundred different elements from that tradition are on display here, from the horn-laced "Lar Hospitalar" to the gentle urbanity of "Sebastian" and the clean duet and classical guitar of "Maria." There are traces of Antonio Carlos Jobim's lush orchestral jazz in "Yo Vengo a Ofrecer Mi Corazón"; eclectic Tropicalia composer Jorge Ben receives a nod via a cover of his funky "Xica da Silva." Throughout, Gil and Nascimento are never less than utterly confident in their performances, and -- here's the kicker -- they're clearly, audibly having a great deal of fun.
Naysayers might complain that Gil and Milton is too scattered and too eager in its attempts to represent a combined 60-plus years of musicianship; that it contains a number of abrupt mood shifts in its styles and substances. To grouse about such matters is, finally, to fault Gil and Milton for being too diverse in its comparatively brief space. Short of a multidisc series, however, no single recording project could exhaust (or even reasonably explore) the multitude of innovations this particular collaboration might engender. Absent that venue, Gil and Milton succeeds very well -- eminently well -- on its own terms.