Brazilian jazz? Yeah, me too. I liked it the first 5,000 times I heard it. But, like a lot of other things, it got to be a cliché after a while, every album sounded like the one before, the same tropical groove, the same rhythmic patterns, the same lightweight feeling. That is, until I heard this latest project by the Sao Paulo-born, New York City-based bassist Nilson Matta, and my interest in the genre has been rekindled.
Unlike nearly every South American-styled CD that's crossed my doormat in recent years, this uniquely creative offering has got some real force and punch to it. The blend of South (Romero Lubambo, Cyro Baptista) and North (Anne Drummond, Craig Handy) American musicians– as well as pianist Edsel Gomez from Puerto Rico - is a wonderfully balanced mixture of jazzy sounds from the two hemispheres. It's soothing and relaxing in places, but gutsy and bold in others – it utilizes the conventions of the genre creatively and, at the same time, refuses to be limited by them.
At the center of it all is Nilson Matta, who is both an outstanding bassist and an exceptional maestro, to employ another overused term. As a bandleader, he has an innate sense of orchestration, of flow, of sequence, of musical space and together with New York based producer/arranger Humberto (Howard) Léder (no stranger to mixing musical cultures, e,g. B.B.King with legendary Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos), they masterfully conceived an idea to make one piece, with specifically-sized ensembles and a unique groove, and to proceed emotionally and logically, how to make a well-known melody seem fresh and exciting, and then, how to contrast it with something not quite so familiar.
I may be showing bias for the home team when I state that much of my enthusiasm is for the two locally grown reed players, Mr. Handy and Ms. Drummond. They are all over this record, often as not, complementing each other and intertwining their flute and saxophone lines in a delightful souffle of sound.
Mr. Matta opens the album with a highly danceable original, "Sertao" (which means, in English, "Sertao," as Paquito D'Rivera would say), co-arranged with Mr. Léder, within which his own melody and Jesse Lynn's beautiful vocals are combined with the inimitable Cyro Baptista's very instrumental like vocals and exotic instruments that he uses to offer sounds that at times are like double flutes and berimbao playing at once, and with gutsy guitar rhythms and solos by the great Romero Lubambo presenting a very hard edge within the tropical context……and then a full blown jazz statement by Craig Handy's tenor, that happens to be made in the middle of a Brazilian band thus becoming not strictly Brazilian….!
If Mr. Matta's bassistry is at the center of this project, then he makes his allegiances and influences clear with two pieces offered up in honor of the greatest bassist-bandleader of them all, Charles Mingus. Mingus is feted both on one of his most celebrated compositions, "Boogie Stop Shuffle," and on Mr. Matta's original "Proemio Do Mingus."
The first is a melody that was treated to a Brazilian interpretation famously as "Boogie Bossa Nova" by Quincy Jones and his Orchestra – yet I think it's much more effective here that Mr. Matta restores that unforgettable melody back to the instrument that it was written for, as a tune for bass fiddle, but within the Brazilian context.
Opening with appropriate bass intro, then tenor & bass, flute harmonizing tightly on the theme, sounding more like a bigger horn section playing an elaborate line together, tenor then going off on its own, then flute, then the pianist with a kind of a postmodern splash, with notes spilling out to the left and then the right of the keyboard, then Nilson's solo, given an especially big sound, and closing with a great shout chorus at the end, like big band chart.
"Proemio do Mingus" is a feature for Mr. Matta's ringing strings, which, commendably says all that it needs to say within less than a minute in honor of the greatest of all bassist / bandleader / iconoclasts, this is a highly declamatory solo - an exciting and brief statement that hardly wears out its welcome.
"Verde" and "Blue In Green" are a pair of other pieces that are also two of a kind. As the titles indicate, both are especially verdant: lush, ripe, overgrowing with rich melody. The first is a trio piece that's mostly built around the compelling piano work of the wonderfully gifted and not enough heard, Edsel Gomez. A sensual, romantic piece driven by the piano, almost suggesting a bolero. I love his touch here – the notes sound quite like raindrops falling on a jungle leaf, within a very lovely, positively verdant tropical style piano trio, I'm always amazed that they can get such a distinctive South American feel with standard North American instrumentation including regular trap drums, as opposed to latin percussion.
The second is the Kind of Blue masterpiece given a wholly different complexion, with emphasis on Mr. Lubambo's guitar – I've never heard this iconic melody expressed in quite this kind of way, opening with bass and then Mr. Handy's bass clarinet, which, in this context, gives Miles Davis' melody a uniquely other-worldly sound. In this version, the melody is much more green than blue, and like "Verde," it's positively verdant, and in fact, extends the verdant feeling - pastel and relaxed, but with the more intense purposeful kind of meandering that we associate with Miles…. a lovely and imposing gallery of sound and textures clustered around a familiar tune, well not only a tune. … Miles Davis wrote a mood as much as a tune,.. And both are firmly established by Romero's guitar and Handy's mournful bass clarinet.
Over the years, we've been inundated with so much Jobim – mostly the same three songs over and over – that I had long since abandoned the idea of ever actually hearing anything new with Jobim's name attached to it. Imagine my delight to find two compositions performed so inventively new to me. "Ângela" was performed and recorded by the composer himself (on Urubu, which, spelled backwards is Uburu) and "Mojave" was likewise recorded and performed by the composer on his iconic 1967 release "Wave". They're both such remarkably performed and recorded here, that I fear it will make it even harder for me to sit through "Ipanema" and "One Note Samba" the next time somebody in a jazz club chooses to inflict them on me. (This is not anti-Jobim bias, I feel exactly the same way about "Over The Rainbow," "Summertime," and "Skylark," beautiful songs that have all been overdone the same way to death.)
"Angela", a lovely medium ballad is highlighted and begins with an intertwining of Drummond's flute and Nilson's bass before the rest of the rhythm section and Mr. Handy join in, the latter playing his big toned instrument in a manner of such boudoir tenors as a Gene Ammons and Houston Person or Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.
"Mohave" is a particularly insistent melody and an eloquent duet for flute and bass, with Nilson doing the work of an entire trio all by himself. I could swear there are moments when the mind drifts slightly and one swears that one hears piano and drums in there (brushes at the very least) in addition to bass, but no, listening more closely behind Ms. Drummond, it's all Nilson, fully filling the role.
"E Menina"is Joao Donato'and Gutemberg Guarabiras classically covered Brazilian samba/pop melody, arranged here with piano - some mirrored chords, a Cuban feeling, not strictly Brazilian…. and drummer Vince Cherico (c. Candido, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, Ray Barretto, Jazz at Lincoln Center's "Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra", etc) also a lot more aggressive, more like an American player with Brazilian accents, Ayja's vocals harmonizing with horns, sounding like a choral group, and then very appropriately, it ends on a fade, which to me suggests a street parade marching off into the distance.
Ever since Eric Dolphy, most famously allied with Mingus, the bass clarinet has primarily been used in what we, for lack of a better word, call avant-garde or free jazz, but the way Mr. Handy wields the unwieldly instrument shows that it can also be used beautifully on more traditionally melodic forms of jazz such as with Mr. Léder's homage to Jobim, "Luas de Nadine", which spotlights the unique combination of bass clarinet, flute, Mr. Lubambo's guitar and Nilson's beautiful arco solo.
"Mambo Inn" is an appropriate piece to sum up. This is the Latin jazz classic by Mario Bauza (most famously performed by George Shearing and Armando Peraza) and it illustrates that at least three of the Americas (North America, South America, and the Cuba-Puerto Rico continuum) can work together in concert, as they say, to create outstanding jazz, and especially well when sparked by the tradition of the en clave piano of Senor Gomez.