Cellist Catherine Bent tumbled off the bus, case in tow, and walked into a room full of guitar players at Rio de Janeiro’s main choro school. She had arrived the previous night in Rio for the first time and knew no Portuguese (yet). The guitarists spoke no English. Somehow, they asked her to play, and somehow, she understood. She sailed through a popular choro piece, and another, and then – her audience still attentive – she dived into Bach. A roomful of skeptics became a roomful of supporters, and she was whisked off to her first jam session over feijoada and caipirinhas.
“Doors opened for me,” Bent recalls. “I was warmly welcomed into the world of choro in Rio. I had been there less than a month and was invited to play twice with a famous choro band on national radio. It could have been the novelty of a woman from outside Brazil, a cellist, who played the music. But I had also taken the time to really learn the style and a decent body of repertoire. It made it very easy to grow as a performer of the music.”
The Berklee professor has kept the tense wonder of that first encounter in her playing and composing, as her engagement with Brazil’s century-old answer to the string band grows. On Ideal, the first recording chronicling Bent’s choro-inspired work, she unites top-shelf Brazilian players to explore the elegant tradition and its expressive, experimental possibilities.
“I have been struck by the strong sense of community and sharing in Brazil,” Bent notes. “It was intense, the experiences I had in that community, and it required a certain surrender and trust. The kind of trust takes you to other places.”
“Until my 20s, I generally had a color-inside-the-lines approach to music,” recalls Bent. “Then I got into punk and avant-garde approaches and did a lot of free improv and experimental work in New York City, even before starting my more disciplined study of jazz. That was also the time when I started developing my techniques for groove-based music on cello.”
These techniques drew her to musical styles that could make full use of strings, but that were not necessarily designed for her instrument, styles like choro. Choro developed in the late 19th century and came into its own in the 1920s and 1930s, an offshoot of European social dance music and Brazil’s unique mix of African and indigenous elements. (Bent paints a picture of its early evolution from polka to maxixe on “Quebrando Tudo.”) Choro kept the elegance of dances like the waltz or the schottische, yet transformed them with rhythmic and melodic variation, and a swing and sensuality all its own. Pieces often captured everyday moments or paid tribute to homelands their composers had left behind.
Bent first ran into choro as a grad student at the New England Conservatory, while getting her masters in jazz. “l met a flute player, half Israeli and half Brazilian. He brought a book of Pixinguinha to our playing session,” Bent remembers. “I thought at first: this is really challenging. It wasn’t written for cello. It had melodic appeal and a groove and improvisation. I took it on as a vehicle for growth.” Choro soon went from interesting exercise to intense fascination.
The fascination took her to Brazil, where spontaneous musical relationship arose and Bent marveled at the strange ease. It proved inspiring: “Really deep friendships started, creating more community around music than I’d felt before,” marvels Bent. “We didn’t even need to share a spoken language at first. It was just the music and open-eyed trust.” Bent pays tribute to this experience of opening and embracing with “Mãos Abertas,” referring to the open-handed way her new friends shared their music and lives.
After several summers in Brazil, having gained further mastery of the music and the language, Bent was hearing choro pieces in her head, often at the least convenient times, like when packing to leave for two months in Rio. Her first composed choro, “Fazendo as Malas,” came to her amid half-packed suitcases. She found herself rushing to the piano to jot down a few more lines, a couple more ideas.
Like choro itself, Bent’s pieces often incorporate sounds and styles from around Brazil, elements of the music’s history and potential. Forró and other northeastern Brazilian rhythms inspired “Som do Seilerei,” a musically layered send-up of a disastrous yet funny soundcheck. Free jazz breaks, sinuous woodwinds (Bia Stutz’s elegant clarinet), and unexpected and delightful dialog between brass (the prodigy Moraes brothers) and cello all add twists to choro that expand the style without fully departing from it.
These ideas flowed in part from Bent’s profound gratitude for the lessons and gifts the choro community had given her. “I felt the need to start contributing. People get happy when I play, but I was enjoying hospitality, the gift of the music, without giving much of myself back,” muses Bent. “And I needed to go deeper, to be part of the conversation more. But because I write complex pieces that depart from traditional forms, my music isn’t practical for a choro session where most are learning by ear. Some people have already asked for my charts, and I hope the recording will help make the tunes approachable to play.”
To record, Bent turned to her most admired choro colleagues to join her in the studio. Close friend and sax player Daniela Spielmann was someone she knew had to be involved. And Bent invited guitarist Lucas Porto who, as she knew from jam sessions, was a master of both the nylon 6-string and the steel 7-string styles integral to choro.
Bent realizes that she’s tinkering with beloved traditions, but that’s a part of choro’s history, too. Witness the late 19th-century renegade composer, pianist, and social activist Francisca Edwige Neves "Chiquinha" Gonzaga, who left a comfortable middle-class marriage to pursue her music and unfashionable human rights causes. Bent pays tribute to her life and draws on her defiant creative spirit on “A Boa Filha Partiu.” “The most traditional players are not always into what I’m doing, though I respect their intentions,” Bent explains. “Over recent years, I’ve come to see that I don’t have to be a ‘good girl,’ in art or in life. While the respect is there, so is the playfulness. I want to be free and do things that are risky, things that are a bit quirky.”
Even if Bent’s iterations of choro and other Brazilian forms push the boundaries, her zest and commitment to taking joy in artistic risk feel part of a long line of playful innovators. “Choro brought back that fearless pursuit of joy for me, the heart of music,” says Bent. “You have to leave a light personal footprint in classical music and think foremost about the composer’s intent. Choro works differently. Mistakes in choro make people laugh. You might get lost or jump into another tune and find an interesting way back. It brought me so much freedom as a musician. It’s how I found my voice.”