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.