Jazz CD Review: “Heart of Brazil” — Homage to Egberto Gismonti

While perhaps not more than the sum of its parts — that would be hard to imagine — the music on this tribute disc has its own vitality and stands well on its own.

Heart of Brazil — A Tribute to Egberto Gismonti, Eddie Daniels (Resonance Records).

By Steve Provizer

There’s been a fruitful relationship between Brazilian music and American jazz since the 1950s. The music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Baden Powell, Sergio Mendes, Laurindo Almeida, and others became known in the U.S., inspiring a number of collaborations with American jazz musicians. The most popular of these team-ups were those with João and Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, whose album Getz-Gilberto sold more than 2 million copies in 1964. In the ’70s, the band “Return to Forever,” featuring Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, and Chick Corea, was also very successful.

Since then, no other Brazilian musician has attained that level of popularity here, but a number have achieved notoriety, including Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben, Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento, and the man whose music is the focus of this new recording, Egberto Gismonti.

Gismonti, a guitarist, pianist, and composer, shares some attributes with other Brazilian composers, but he may have the widest-ranging influences. He has thoroughly absorbed native Brazilian culture — he lived with an indigenous tribe to learn their music — but he also draws on modern harmonies and is conversant with jazz, given his part in a trio with bassist Charlie Haden and saxist Jan Garbarek. When he discovered that the standard six-string guitar wasn’t capable of handling the complexity of his expanded melodic and harmonic conceptions, he designed guitars with ten, twelve, and fourteen strings.

It was the idea of George Klabin, owner of Resonance Records, to create an album that showcased Gismonti’s compositions using several arrangers and the American reed player Eddie Daniels. Also featured on the album are The Harlem String Quartet, Brazilian drummer/percussionist Mauricio Zottarelli, and pianist Josh Nelson. Arrangers Ted Nash, Mike Patterson, Josh Nelson, and Kuno Schmid set out to synthesize elements of Brazilian folk, classical, and other world music while carving out space in this sonic mix for improvisations by jazzmen Nelson and Daniels. Nelson is well traveled; he has played with scores of musicians, while Eddie Daniels has been on the scene since the ’60s. (He recorded his first album for Prestige in 1966.) He has played everything from the music of Billy Joel and Sister Sledge to Brahms and Satie. Daniels is a skilled and creative player — an excellent choice to headline this recording.

These days, cross-cultural efforts like this are sometimes viewed with a jaundiced eye and branded as cultural appropriation. But it would be a stretch for anyone to bring in politics here. For decades Gismonti has proved he has a thorough understanding of the music he has chosen to expand upon, while jazz is itself a hybrid of many musical languages. In both cases, the music won’t be deemed credible unless the musicians show considerable knowledge of its roots. No colonization here.

A more relevant critical question is whether these sorts of ambitious collaborations are more or less than the sum of their parts. Sometimes these efforts derail because of insufficient understanding of the emotional content of the source music. This can take the form of overly bombastic accompaniment or transmutations of melodies that don’t take into consideration the original lyrics written for the song. This is not the case here. The elements that were brought together are simpatico and the music genuinely blends its influences. While perhaps not more than the sum of its parts — that would be hard to imagine — the music on this disc has its own vitality and stands well on its own.

Brazilian guitarist, pianist, and composer Egberto Gismonti. Photo: Resonance Records.

“Lôro [Parrot]” — Gismonti wrote this in tribute to his friend, eccentric instrumentalist and composer Hermeto Pascoal. It’s medium-up tempo with a challenging melody that Daniels handles easily on clarinet. After the theme is stated Daniels plays a fluid improvisation over fairly rapidly shifting harmonies. Then, a flowing piano solo follows by Josh Nelson. Percussionist Mauricio Zottarelli is active throughout. We return to the theme and the Harlem Quartet provides a nicely varied string background.

“Bãiao Malandro [Badass Baiao]” — This is a piece with many short sections. It starts with a stark string quartet introduction. An active bass line — percussion and (briefly) clarinet join in. We switch back to strings and the section transitions to the clarinet, which switches between solo and thematic material and finally takes a full solo. The rhythm section churns and turns, leading to a more open-feeling interlude, which is followed by yet another section with a more tentative feel. Eventually, the piano solos as the rhythm section settles into a nice groove. Strings enter to provide a smooth background feel. Then we go back to quick switches between strings and clarinet — then comes in a polyrhythmic rhythm section and a quick close.

“Água e Vinho [Water and Wine]” — Gismonti felt guilty about writing an exercise that gave a female musician tendinitis, so he turned the passage into this pretty melody, which Daniels plays on tenor sax. “When I heard a man’s voice singing this,” Daniels says, “I thought, how do I get that expression? I kind of saw the tenor as a voice, a little more raw than I would normally play in that register.” The mood here is poignant. The harmony ranges around, but there is minimal activity in the rhythm and string sections. The piano solos in a melodic, less percussive vein; the tenor closes with the melody on a Getzian note with a sparse string background.

“Ciranda [Folk Dance]” — Gismonti wrote this piece as a brief interlude in a symphonic poem that was performed at Rio’s Teatro Municipal. Daniels explains: “It made me think of Gato Barbieri.” Not sure I heard that because Daniels’s tone is so different. The tune opens with a suspended feel and out-of-tempo beginning. The melody swells and subsides until it moves into a haunting section with pizzicato strings. Then it swells once more. Tenor sax improvises in a dramatic way, with Coltrane overtones. Then we are back to rubato with piano trills and fills, cymbal rolls and bowed strings contributing to a somber closing atmosphere.

“Folia [Revelry]” — Ostinatos and percussive hits open this tune as arranger Josh Nelson tries to “breathlessly convey the sense of a party gone berserk.” Rhythmic shifts are many and quick. Clarinet jumps in and out. Many quick changes lead to a free improv section, then to a section that juxtaposes piano, clarinet, and glissando strings. A straight ahead, propulsive section suddenly fades out for the ending.

“Maracatú [Sacred Rhythm]” — Maracatú is a centuries-old Afro-Brazilian tradition of music and dance for Carnaval. The intro features a brief percussion solo, then string “sounds” and clarinet. Pizzicato strings lead to the melody on clarinet. Rhythm section continues with a Brazilian-African hybrid rhythm. Piano, playing repeated single octave notes, and strings are a prelude to another hybrid rhythm with the clarinet soloing. Daniels moves into the flow of the harmonic and rhythmic mix. There’s impressive responsiveness here between the soloist and the rhythm section, then back to single octaves on piano and string section, with percussion taking up a slightly shifting clave. This becomes another section for improv, but with a different group feel. Then, back to piano single note octaves, a small string section contribution, and out.

“Adágio” — This is an early Gismonti composition that he says was directly influenced by Ravel. I hear that, but wouldn’t overstate the influence. Kuno Schmid orchestrated the music for strings, which provide a lush background to the clarinet statement of the melody, followed by Daniels’s adept extended improvisation. Just a lovely piece.

“Tango Nova [New Tango]” — Written by Eddie Daniels, this is the only non-Gismonti composition on the disc. Explains Daniels: ”He called me and said, ‘Eddie, it’s not a tango, it’s a bossa nova.’ So I decided to call it ‘Tango Nova.’ A lot of the time the drums play half-tango, half-bossa nova.” This is true; the feeling switches between those two styles. Tenor sax steps up here. There is a taste of Astor Piazzolla here, although the sax solo is in much more of a straight-ahead jazz vein. Daniels’s sound in this tune reminds me of Charles Lloyd. A piano solo flows in, then a section featuring strings, which is definitely in the tango vein. The tenor sax takes the tune out in a bossa-tango hybrid mode.

“Chôro” — is an instrumental music that arose in Rio in the 19th century. Gismonti calls it “the foundation of Brazilian music. It comes from the music that we call European baroque music, like that done by Bach.” At first, the composition seems more straightforward than that. The long first section features strings and a sweet melody stated by clarinet. Then the piece moves into a more complicated section that goes in and out of tempo, with counterpoint between strings and clarinet. Clarinet solos over a shifting rhythm section and some interesting piano comping. The piano solos. There’s a hint of an ECM feeling here.

Clarinetist, as well as alto and tenor saxophonist, Eddie Daniels. Photo: Resonance Records.

“Tango” — Gismonti composed “Tango,” he recalls, at a time in which he was writing a great deal of theater music. “It references tango but is sometimes more inward looking and when looking outward, it does so in what seems to me is a less sexual, more straightforward way than tango generally does.” The tune is performed here as a duo with pianist Nelson and Daniels on clarinet. They go through the many sections of the piece adroitly and are well in synch.

“Cigana [Gypsy Woman]” — Gismonti was inspired to write this because of the appearance of a gypsy in Eréndira, a 1983 film written by Gabriel Garcia Márquez. “It tries to musicalize the gypsies—people who are discarded from their nationality . . . that manage to dwell every day apart from other realities.” Performed here as a Nelson-Daniels duo with some string section backup, the tune exudes a pervasive feeling of longing well conveyed by Daniels’s clarinet. It is simple in structure, with fewer sections and byways than the other tunes on the album. Haunting, with touches of the earthy.

“Trem Noturno [Night Train]” — This song continues the somber mode of “Cigana.” Tenor sax states the melody haltingly, stopping and then going. The pianist moves swiftly up and down the keyboard, leading percussion and strings in as they kick the song into a higher gear. There’s a soli section for the strings, and then the sax comes in with a full-throated solo, riding over the rhythm section, then back to the string soli and on to another up-tempo rhythm that breaks, an opportunity for clarinet to come in with the more tentative feel of the opening. The sax returns for a somber close.

“Auto-Retrato [Self-Portrait]” — This tune opens with tender strings and clarinet, joined by piano. There’s a very songlike approach to the arranging, almost like a Mabel Mercer backing. Clarinet moves smoothly into a more improvisational approach while the background grows a little more active. Strings drop out as the improvisation becomes more expansive and, when they return, the soloist responds to the strings. A nice ebb and flow is created. We go back to the simpler melody and string backup emphasizing cello. Piano and percussion re-enter, but they stay in the background. The composition ends simply and quietly, with clarinet, piano, and a final sustained note from the strings.

One last thing: As an added bonus, terrific notes come with the album, including an interview with Gismonti.

Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.

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