Bringing a traditional style of music into the 21st century is no easy task, yet virtuoso saxophonist and arranger Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque, better known as Maestro Spok, has done just that on his US debut, Ninho de Vespa (Wasp’s Nest). Spok has assembled a 17 piece orchestra, performing what is arguably Brazil’s most creative music – frevo – and infusing it with the improvisational spirit of jazz. Just as The Buena Vista Social Club served to shine a light on the legacy of the great players of Cuban music, Ninho de Vespa‘s guest performers include many of the legendary musicians from Pernambuco, the birthplace of frevo.
Ninho de Vespa will be released on October 28, 2014, on Motema Music, as the Orquestra kicks off a multi-city tour that includes stops in Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Iowa City and Lemoni, Iowa, and St. Louis.
Much more than a style of music, frevo’s combination of music, dance with the uniquely Brazilian hybrid of martial arts and dance known as capoeira represents the wealth of imagination and originality that is at the heart of Brazilian culture. Its vivid, frenetic and vigorous rhythm stems from the amalgam of several music genres such as march, Brazilian quadrilha, polka and pieces from the classical repertoire, all of which can be found among Ninho de Vespa’s 13 tracks, which include compositions from leading lights of Brazilian music, including Dori Caymmi, Jovino Santos Neto, Hamilton de Holanda.
“The fact that these songs were mostly unknown was definitely a factor that made us choose them, but it’s also true that there just aren’t that many frevos in the repertoires of Dori, Jovino and Hamilton,” says Spok. “ ‘Ninho de Vespa’, by Dori Caymmi and Paul Cesar Pinheiro, was released in the early 1990s and is representational of what we want to promote in Brazil – to have composers from several states and of different origins, and not only from Pernambuco, composing frevos. This is why we chose songs from composers that were not from Pernambuco: Hamilton and Jovino are from Rio de Janeiro and Nelson Ayres is from Sao Paolo.”
Spokfrevo Orquestra formally emerged as a group in 2003, but its roots go back at least another decade. Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque, aka Maestro Spok, is the band’s saxophonist, arranger and musical director, fronting a true big band with saxophone, trumpet, trombone, rhythm sections, bass and guitar. In the northeastern state of Pernambuco, from which frevo emerged over 100 years ago, the genre was performed mainly at street festivals. Spokfrevo Orquestra adds a new dimension to frevo, moving it from its supporting role to that of a leading actor, shedding light on its original texture and complex playing techniques while remaining faithful to its more traditional origins; succinctly, the group breaks patterns and reinvents tradition without subverting it.
Spok provides a bit of historical background to Spokfrevo Orquestra’s evolution of the style. “Originally, in Recife, frevo was essentially music for dancing, played by orchestras in clubs in the months that preceded Carnival, and on the streets during Carnival itself. People usually didn’t pay as much attention to the musicians or the arrangements as they did to how well the groups could reproduce the classics. Felinho was a saxophone player in the famous orchestra of Maestro Nelson Ferreira who began improvising during their performances. That sparked a major revolution in the way that frevo was played since, for the first time, people began to notice an individual musician’s performance. As frevo musicians today, we have been very influenced by that bold approach that Felinho took, showcasing his performance instead of just being part of a party orchestra.”
The infectious energy of Ninho de Vespa’s opener, “Onze de April,” introduces a set that is marked simultaneously by a sense of graceful movement and a playful mood, a pair of contrasting yet complimentary sensations which the Orquestra’s seventeen musicians and twelve guest artists express throughout the album.
And what an impressive cast of guest artists have been tapped to join the Orquestra! Clarinetist Paulo Sergio Santos, best known to international audiences for his work in Uakti and their collaborations with Peter Gabriel and Phillip Glass in the 1980s, virtually shimmers on “Onze de Abril,” written by the renowned composer and musician Dominguinhos. Jovino Santos Neto’s “Comichao, which the acclaimed pianist recorded on his own 2003 album, Canto de Rio, here feels somehow richer and even more vibrant than the original. Adelson Viana, who guests on electric piano on his own “Spokiando” (co-written with João Lyra), brings a sparkling sophistication to the song’s propulsive marching rhythm, supported by Spok’s equally effervescent solo. Beto Hortis takes center stage on the accordion on “Capibarizando,” and Luciano Magno’s capering guitar seems to literally embody the title of his “Pisando em Brasa “ (“Jumping in the Embers.”)
The prominent pianist/composer/arranger Nelson Ayres, who has worked with an astounding array of internationally acclaimed artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, and Milton Nascimento throughout his nearly sixty-year long career, brings an imposing elegance to “Quatro Cantos.” Ayres has also worked with the equally venerated singer and composer Dori Caymmi, whose “Ninho de Vespa” (“Wasp’s Nest”), is the album’s only track with vocals. Master Zé Maria (trumpet) and Nilsinho Amarante of Trombonada ( a five piece trombone only band whose collaborations consistently challenge genre pigeon holes)perform together on “O Que Nelson Gostou,” a sprightly light-hearted romp.
Mandolin virtuoso Hamilton de Holanda’s performance on his composition, “Tá Achando Que Tá Devagar? “ seamlessly integrates the mandolin, which has a long and rich tradition in Brazilian folk music, into Spokfrevo’s big band sound, once again positioning de Holanda among the most eclectic innovators on his instrument. Further innovation takes “De Baixo Do Frevo,” with its almost improvisational bass solo by bassist, arranger, producer and songwriter Bráulio Araújo, well into jazz territory, a region also explored by the the lively “Pipocando,” (“Popping”) led by flutist César Michilles, and “Cara de Carranca,” written by guest artist, pianist Thiago Albuquerque, who trades strong solos with the Orquestra’s guitarist Renato Bandeira. Spok takes center stage on the album’s final selection, “Moraes É Frevo,” which cements his reputation as an audacious catalyst for musical evolution.
While determined to propel frevo’s evolution, Spok remains equally committed to preserving its rich tradition. He has produced a film, Sete Corações (Seven Hearts,) which pays tribute to the music, its masters and to Pernambuco, just as the Buena Vista Social Club did for the then-obscure heroes of Cuban music.
Many critics, who recognize Spok’s music as the harbinger of a new school, endorse his boldness. In an article for Jornal do Brasil (17/07/2009), musical critic Tárik de Souza writes that “the time has come for frevo‐jazz”, pointing to Spokfrevo as “a big band that has synthesized frevo and jazz in a blazing way”. In 2005, O Globo newspaper ranked the Spokfrevo performance at TIM Festival as one of the ten best gigs of the year in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2009, the band’s first album, Passo de Anjo – Live was awarded the Prêmio da Música Brasileira (one of the most important awards in Brazilian music) as the best instrumental music CD of the year. Spokfrevo was elected the best group in the same category.
Spokfrevo’s international career received a definite boost in 2008, as their first large-scale European tour proved the universal appeal of its music. When in France, the Orquestra was invited to perform at the closing ceremony of the World Music Day (Fête de la Musique). It has played the final gig of the event at the Palaisdel’Élysée, the official residence of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who attended the performance accompanied by First Lady Carla Bruni. Spokfrevo’s summer tour of festivals throughout France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland, served to position frevo as a unique musical language, as well as a proper integration of the genre into the jazz and world music scenes.
“Frevo has always been very identified as a music from Pernambuco, made by musicians from the state, but what we have been trying to prove is that this regional restriction has never been a real limitation,” says Spok. “We believe that frevo is a style that can easily touch people from all over the world. Even if the songs sometimes have lyrics, frevo is essentially an instrumental genre, so there’s no linguistic barrier that would stop anyone from enjoying it – it’s vibrant, it’s rich, and it’s very energetic.”
With the release of Ninho de Vespa, fans of Brazilian music around the world will discover yet another facet of the music that moves them both in the flesh and in the spirit. Frevo, as performed by Spokfrevo Orquestra, will join samba, choro, MPB , bossa nova and forro in the rich cultural mélange of Brazil.