The young female clerks of Gabriella's, Rio de Janeiro's most famous chain of open-air record markets, dance in the store aisles to both American jazz and traditional Brazilian music. No question, there are a lot worse ways to shop for music than watching these dark-haired Cariocas twist and jabber in Portuguese about musicians with the fervor of a soap-opera fan.
In jazz, Brazilian music is, in its own way, one grand soap opera. The plot thus far: The gorgeous singer-songwriter that is Brazilian jazz has spent the last 50 years in an alternately loving and abusive relationship with jazz from America.
Hopefully, that on-again, off-again love affair will soon turn fruitful now that Brazilian music is taking the world by storm. Just as reggae had its day in the Seventies and African music became the toast of the Eighties, Brazilian music and musicians have taken over the Nineties. More melodic than reggae and more rhythmically vital than most African styles, Brazilian music seems destined to become the quintessential world sound. Since Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints touched off the avalanche in 1990, European and American record labels have rushed in to record anything Brazilian. But not all of what's coming out of Rio, at least on the jazz front, is worth listening to. Some of what's "new" in Brazilian jazz is really a sad nostalgia trip bent on reclaiming lost bossa nova glories. And hard as Brazilian jazz players might try, there are certain styles of American jazz that just don't meld with Brazilian sounds. Three of the most recent dysfunctional pairings match Brazilian music with avant-garde, Dixieland and Kenny G.-style jazz-pop.
A group of recently released CDs unintentionally chronicles the highs and lows of Brazilian jazz. All four discs feature the Brazilian guitar, which, next to native percussion instruments, is the country's cheap-and-light jazz instrument of choice.
A good place to start is the beautiful fret work of Nonato Luiz on Gosto de Brasil. Here you can listen to what Brazilian folk music was like before it had been touched by jazz influences. American folkies learn three chords and are able to play 3,000 folk tunes. Brazilian folk music, however, is much more complex. Luiz, backed by percussionist Djalma Corra and bassist Luiz Alves, tackles the difficult writing of Luiz Gonzaga, a rural accordionist from northeast Brazil who was popular in the 1940s. Gonzaga's intricate melodies were so seductive he once musically intervened in a feud between two Brazilian families, establishing peace on the heels of a murder.
The trio's homage to Gonzaga, "Suite Nordestina," has guitarist Nonato Luiz flawlessly spinning lines that sound a lot more like classical music than they do the Brazilian equivalent of a Pete Seeger song. Even the trio's own compositions, especially "Baiao Cigano," veer through tremendously difficult guitar phrasing. If it's romance you're looking for, the songs on Gosto de Brasil are sentimental enough to make rocks weep. Gonzaga was not alone in carrying the torch of traditional Brazilian music. He and countless other native composers and singers held their own during WWII. American audiences, in fact, ate up the tropical sexuality of that era's steamy Rio rumbas. Brazilian composer Ary Barroso wrote for Walt Disney movies and actress-singer-dancer Carmen Miranda brought carnival samba dances first to radio and then, after the war, to round-tubed General Electric television sets. In whatever form Brazilian music was imported, the guitar set the stage.
No wonder classically trained jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd was in awe when he and saxophonist Stan Getz visited Rio in the early Sixties, arriving as the musical component of a State Department tour. Byrd and Getz were met by all the 15-fingered guitarists who had been carefully studying them, Chet Baker and all the rest of the cool, West Coast jazzmen who'd surfaced in near-tropical California between 1945 and 1960.
Cool jazz and Brazilian folk music immediately developed a passionate relationship. At the time, both were in need of a new spark. California jazz in the late Fifties and early Sixties was James Dean-hip but inching toward snoozeville with its increasingly heady writing and arranging. And the lady of Brazilian music had for some years been in need of a new virility, one that could take her out further than folk music. This intercontinental marriage blossomed. Jazz provided cool-but-weird harmonies. Brazil responded with the gift of native rhythms that were more infectious than any found in L.A.'s jazz hangouts. Ultimately, cool jazz and Brazilian folk music had a baby, and they named it bossa nova. The new music caught the attention of the pop charts in both Brazil and the U.S. Stan Getz recorded the most popular albums of his career with Brazilian guitarists-composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, the Lennon and McCartney of their country. Charlie Byrd also recorded their material. And both Getz and Byrd covered material by the third glow-in-the-dark musical hero of bossa nova, Luiz Bonf.
Fifty albums later, Bonf is still around. On The Bonf Magic, the 71-year-old guitarist-songwriter remains nostalgic for his Sixties heyday. Newcomers to bossa nova sounds will hear its intrinsic, delicate romanticism in Bonf's version of the American standard "April in Paris." But old-timers will be less impressed in finding his umpteenth remake of "Manha de Carnaval," written for the Academy Award-winning foreign film Black Orpheus. Throughout, though, The Bonf Magic relies entirely too much on the same old tricks.
"Subtle Samba" eerily sounds exactly like the kind of music Bonf was recording in the early Sixties. But today, the music has lost its fire. It's no longer spicy enough to bring even the warmest blood to a boil. Bonf shows that he's found no new ways of adding life to a once-perfect musical marriage. If Bonf can't rekindle the heat of jazz and Brazil doing the bossa nova nasty, little surprise that lesser musicians are trying and failing.
A few Brazilian jazz musicians have found ways to wring new juices from this old style. Guitarist-composers Djavan, Milton Nascimento and Pat Metheny (who considers Brazil his home) have remained true to the inspiration found in classics like "Chega de Saudade" and "The Girl From Ipanema." Like blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan did with Hendrix, they've pulled it off by respectfully keeping the old style current.
Sadly, though, many other big-name players are dragging the two countries toward Divorce Court by losing that matchless cool-jazz/Brazilian-folk elixir. Everything started to go wrong in the late Sixties and Seventies. Bossa nova didn't seem so hip anymore. The country's musical laureates were battling divorces as well as drug and alcohol problems. Worse, Brazil found itself battling dictatorship. The ruling military state found many of the gentle bossa nova stars to be politically incorrect, and jailed them. Brazil's music scene looked to the U.S. for new directions. It found its answer in the electric guitars of hippie bands and in-yer-face protest lyrics of the anti-Vietnam War bunch. Those influences gave birth to the tropicalismo movement, the Brazilian equivalent of our psychedelic era. Unfortunately, it also killed everything that was soft and subtle in bossa nova.
The dictators eventually fell off their flagpoles. But the cool-jazz/Brazilian-folk-music embrace was broken. The musical rule of tropicalismo was that anything goes. This resulted in a handful of great recordings, but a truckload of embarrassing recordings by Brazilians trying to be a jazzy Jefferson Airplane. Hard as it is to believe, the Eumir Deodato of 1973's jazz fusion "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is a Brazilian artist who once played Brazilian music. And Sergio Mendes, who has recently returned to form, spent 25 garish years trying to be Brazil's answer to the Carpenters. Although vital, new voices are returning, Brazilian jazz has never regained the perfect match of styles that made the bossa nova work. Today, many of the couplings between American jazz and Brazilian music are embarrassing failures. Saxophonist Ivo Perelman, for example, has recently made very awkward attempts at joining his country's rhythms with American avant-garde jazz. The results sound a bit like samba-induced spaz attacks. Saxophonist-clarinetist Paulo Moura hasn't done much better with Dois Irmaos, a recent duet album done with guitarist Raphael Rabello. Moura sounds like Dixieland music with his constant soaring on the clarinet, an instrument that sounds about as Brazilian as bagpipes. The quirky "Chorando Baixinho" could be mistaken for a ragtime Scott Joplin piece if not for the solid guitar work of Rabello, one of the best players in Rio today. Without his jazz-laced Brazilian folk style, the disc could very well have come from the New Orleans Hilton. Worst of all, though, are the Brazilian jazzers who've decided to ape the saccharine sounds of Najee, Kenny G. and the other bastard brothers of cool jazz. Lacking the interesting twists and unique musical statements that Stan Getz and his cool school once offered, these new American imports are hardly good elevator music, let alone sounds worth imitating.
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One of the biggest-name Brazilian converts to this disposable jazz form is Dori Caymmi. The son of Sixties-era bossa nova star Dorival Caymmi, Dori began his career by looking to American jazz piano giant Bill Evans for inspiration. But recently, he's settled for collaboration with the reigning jazz brothers from hell, Dave and Don Grusin, who both add their limp playing and composing to Caymmi's Kicking Cans. The Grusin twosome drag Caymmi dangerously close to the jaws of musical death. The margarine-smooth arrangements and wordless vocals of tunes like "Northeast" and "Migration" are nearly as trance-inducing as everything else in the Grusins' catalogue. Three more violins and one more layer of studio echo and Caymmi will have allowed Dave and Don to completely bury his father's legacy in fluff.
Caymmi is certainly not the only Brazilian or American who tends to stir jazz and Brazilian music into a tasteless musical goo. Southern lightweights like composer Ivan Lins and guitarist Ricardo Silviera (who plays on Kicking Cans) have their counterparts in the tepid, fake-Brazilian output of American guitarists Lee Ritenour and Earl Klugh. You'll find more of Brazil in the coffee they must have drunk to stay awake in the studio.
Apart from Gosto de Brasil's prejazz folk music and the overshadowed fret work of Raphael Rabello on Dois Irmaos, these discs show Brazil slowly erasing herself from the music, sounding either entirely too sold American or cornball nostalgic.
This crop of Brazilian discs certainly won't inspire the Gabriella girls to shake a finger, much less their hips. When they want to get down, they turn to young Brazilian lionesses like Marisa Monte and Leila Pinheiro, forward-looking artists who are not about to be ruled by anything American or give up their home in Brazil.