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The Beat Goes On

From the Samba to the Bossa Nova, Brazilians Infuse Their Music with Driving Drums and Mesmerizing Rhythms
Larry Rohter
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 2)

More than 30 years later, exotic, unexpected harmonies are still the backbone of Nascimento's music. Newly remixed versions of his masterpieces Clube da Esquina and Clube da Esquina 2 were released in the '90s; they bring out all of the haunting beauty of songs like "Cais" and "Olho d'Agua," many of which have been subsequently recorded by artists ranging from Brazilian pop singers to American jazz stalwarts. The disc Milagre dos Peixes reaches nearly the same level of accomplishment by emphasizing Nascimento's extraordinary vocal range (which often moves from an ethereal falsetto to a wistful baritone in the same song), his clever phrasing and his fondness for wordless singing.

Nascimento also provides the foundation and inspiration for Native Dancer, one of the first of what would subsequently become many collaborations between Brazilian and American musicians--and which stands even today as probably the most successful example of that cross-cultural phenomenon. Recorded in the mid-1970s with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, who were members of the Miles Davis quintets of the 1960s, the record gives a jazz treatment to five of Nascimento's compositions and features his ethereal scat singing on several other tracks. Nearly 15 years later, Nascimento and Hancock would team up again on Miltons, which contains reworked versions of such canons of the Nascimento songbook as "San Vicente" and "Bola de Gude."

Over the years, several members of Nascimento's circle have struck out on their own, heading mostly in a jazzy direction. Drummer Robertinho Silva, regarded as one of the top percussionists in the world, mixes a variety of American and Brazilian rhythms on a pair of sterling solo releases that draw as much from the Miles Davis band as from Milton Nascimento. Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil takes its title from one of Shorter's compositions and features the author on soprano saxophone but also contains a lilting version of the classic "Brasil." The same recipe is used to great effect on Shot on Goal, which includes the Thelonius Monk standard "Bemsha Swing" done as a jaunty Carnival samba and another excursion into Miles Davis territory with "Nefertiti."

Listening to the music of guitarist Toninho Horta can be deceptive. Many of the songs on his two main releases in the United States, Diamond Land and Moonstone, are so gentle, so relaxed that it may be tempting to consign them to the realm of elevator music. But a closer hearing reveals Horta to be, as his friend and admirer Pat Metheny puts it, "one of the most harmonically sophisticated and melodically satisfying Brazilian composers of recent times," capable of writing "chord progressions that defy gravity." Horta's remarkable talents are probably best displayed on a subtle, jazz-based trio outing, Once I Loved, that features several of his own compositions as well as his take on American standards such as "Stella by Starlight" and "My Funny Valentine."

As should be clear by now, Brazilian music is a universe of its own, full of different innovators and genres--which may make the thought of plunging in unprepared simply too daunting. If that is the case, any number of introductory compilations are available, the best and most comprehensive of which is probably Brasil: A Century of Song. This four-disc set, accompanied by a 48-page booklet that offers biographical information on the artists, explanations of styles and translations of the lyrics, starts with Carmen Miranda, ends with Milton Nascimento and manages to touch on all the ground in between. Even for more experienced listeners this labor of love offers attractions: some of the songs selected here are not found on other recordings available in the United States, and a few are rarities even in Brazil.

Also worth exploring is another four-volume collection that looks at some of the main genres of Brazilian music, devoting a separate record to each. Bossa Nova Brasil includes some of today's top artists singing bossa nova standards and Nordeste Brasil focuses on the folk-based styles of the Northeast.

But the two most stirring discs in the set are Samba Brasil and Afro Brasil, both highly danceable sets that bring to mind the old Brazilian adage that "anyone who doesn't like samba is either sick in the head or lame in the feet." A related disc, Canta Brasil: The Great Brazilian Songbook, shifts attention to composers, accentuating the work of the Bahia and Nascimento clans.

Most other compilations tend to focus more narrowly on a particular period or style. For instance, David Byrne, former leader of the New Wave rock band Talking Heads, has put out a "Brazil Classics" series on his Luaka Bop label, reflecting his own particular tastes. The first disc, Beleza Tropical, is a survey of mainstream Brazilian pop, leaning heavily on Caetano Veloso and other tropicalistas, while the second, O Samba, focuses on the principal contemporary samba performers. The more traditional sound of Rio's main samba school performers, on the other hand, gets a fuller treatment on Rounder Records' delightful Brazil--Roots Samba, complete with the unison chorus singing and large percussion section that is the Rio trademark.

Several overview discs also concentrate on forró, the accordion-driven dance music native to Brazil's northeast, the poorest and most backward part of the country. Urbane Brazilians traditionally have looked down on this style of music as crude and lower-class: indeed, one compilation released in the United States deftly skewers that prejudice, proudly taking Forró: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers as its title.

That peculiarly Brazilian chauvinism, however, is no reason for Americans not to enjoy a frenetic style of music that David Byrne aptly describes as "a mixture of ska with polka, in overdrive" in his liner notes to the excellent Forró: Music of the Brazilian Northeast. The focus here is on the late Luiz Gonzaga, the king of forró, who also figures prominently on Asa Branca: Accordion Forró from Brazil.

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