By Michael Ullman
The songs by Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque reimagined on Rio Minas are not necessarily their best known, but all of the performances on this album eloquently testify to saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella’s love of Brazil and its people.
Rio Minas, Jean-Pierre Zanella. (Arté Boréal)
Saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella is a French-speaking native of Montreal. Currently the lead alto saxophonist of the Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal, he’s a player of Italian extraction who is obsessed (delightfully so) with the music of Brazil. Married to a Brazilian woman, Mima Souza, Zanella has been traveling to her homeland since the late ’80s. In 2006, Zanella dedicated an album to the music of composers Antônio Carlos Jobim and Heitor Villa-Lobos. His new disc, Rio Minas, features his imaginative rearrangements of popular songs from two other giants of Brazilian music, composer-singers Milton Nascimento and Chico Buarque.
Nascimento has been a favorite of jazz players at least since Wayne Shorter’s 1974 album Native Dancer, which featured the Brazilian’s compositions and haunting vocals on such pieces as “Ponta de Areia” and “Lilia,” which Zanella also covers here. Chico Buarque is less well known among us northerners but, like Nascimento, he has been a crucial contributor to the development of Brazilian popular music after the bossa nova. About Buarque, the great singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso wrote: “He was the towering figure of national unanimity, the fabulous and seductive composer-singer and, for the students who filled the theaters at the festivals, the perennial star. He was also the great synthesizer of bossa nova’s modernizing advances with the hopes for a return to the traditional samba of the ’30s. He was the embodiment of the best of the best in the history of Brazilian music, and that is how everyone saw him.” On YouTube one can experience his 1966 performance of his hit song “A Banda.” The crowd knows the lyrics and sings along. It was Buarque’s extraordinary popularity that kept him out of the clutches of the then vicious Brazilian secret police.
Rio Minas is, Zanella has said, “a family affair.” His wife Mima designed the cover and his daughter, Sashana Souza Zanella, adds expressive, full-bodied vocals on Buarque’s “Joana Francesca,” as well as on versions of Nascimento’s “Morro Velho” and fellow mineiro (native of the state of Minas Gerais) Toninho Horta’s “Beijo Partido,” famously sung by Nascimento. Because they are tied so strongly to well-known vocal performances, these songs and others on Rio Minas present special challenges to an instrumentalist. In the album notes, Zanella shares what he sees as the problem of playing Buarque (a novelist and playwright as well as lyricist and composer): “He’s got these great repetitive melodies that are difficult to translate into instrumental versions. I feel they need lyrics to carry them.” One could say the same thing of several of Nascimento’s pieces: it’s as if “One Note Samba” were a crucial model for songwriters after Jobin. A stuttering repeated note is a mark of Nascimento’s “Encontros e Despedidas.” (It’s also the title cut of a great Nascimento album.) Nascimento’s anguished vocals make the tune palatable. Zanella’s clever arrangement begins with exposed notes from bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc, who creates a sparsely articulated world into which pianist Pierre François seems to wander. This duet turns out to be a delicately indirect introduction to a melody that Zanella plays in a relaxed way on soprano. As the performance continues, the very repetitiveness of the melody seems to generate its own intensity as Zanella improvises in his most fluent, virtuosic manner. But, before that, there’s an elegant piano solo by François.
The equally hypnotic “Vera Cruz” begins with a spray on electronic piano and a gentle trombone solo before the repetitive melody kicks in via a sprightly mid-tempo. Zanella’s arrangement, with its smooth, warm use of his horns, is striking. There are other unexpected pleasures in this lively album: the hopping bounce of “Bye Bye Brazil” and the intimate poignancy of the vocal on “Beijo Partido.” (The title means “broken kiss.” The tune deals with heartbreak.) The songs reimagined here are not necessarily the best known by their composers, but all the performances eloquently testify to Zanella’s love of Brazil and its people.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.