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- Posted on Nov 4th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
Yes and no. 'Novas Bossas' is the new collaborative album by the great Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento and the Jobim Trio. And, as the name implies, it's both an homage to and twist on the bossa nova traditions, with a full-circle trip back to the roots, which, in the process, refreshes the style.
The set was ostensibly released to mark the 50th anniversary of bossa nova and honor the late composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of the form's foundational artists. Jobim's vast catalog includes the ubiquitous breakthrough 'The Girl From Ipanema' ('Garota de Ipanema') and the iconic score to the 1959 film 'Black Orpheus.' And the Jobim trio isn't just taking his legacy in its name but in its genetic makeup, as it is anchored by his son, guitarist Paulo, and grandson, pianist Daniel. And both on the album and in a warmly intimate night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles this past week, the music was at once as familiar as one would expect from sounds that have become ingrained in he global language or music -- a core of jazz, pop, even classical repertoires -- but also in the best moments bracingly alive and growing. It all succeeds via simplicity, sticking to the basics in instrumentation -- just piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums and vocals onstage and little more on the recordings but with a progressive streak that utilizes imaginative harmonic development and almost chorale-like interplay.
Ask Nascimento about it, and he takes it back to his 1950s teen years in the small town of Tres Pintas in the rural Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Sporting his usual dreadlocks and shades as he sits, a hearty 66, in his Biltmore Hotel room the day before the concert, he tells how back then he was already singing in local clubs and bars, mostly doing other people's songs. But the only way to learn the songs was from the radio -- and radio reception was not very good there, so he wasn't able to hear the music fully much of the time.
"We couldn't hear it well," he says, with his friend Paulo Lafayette translating his colorful tales. "So we would have to create our own arrangements and harmonies after all."
The result was an idiosyncratic sound that put a rustic spin on the more sophisticated music being transmitted, if not fully received. It was something that he brought with him to the state's capital, Belo Horizonte, at the age of 20 in 1963, a bit sheepish about his lack of musical polish.
"When I moved out to Belo Horizonte it helped -- I met professional musicians in the city," he says. "And when I heard the professional musicians sing and play it right, I though, 'I'm doing it wrong!' But they came to me and said, 'You're doing it right! Never stop that!' "
It was good advice, his distinctive approach soon turning him into one of Brazil's biggest stars -- both as a songwriter and a performer -- with his classics including 'Maria, Maria' and 'Bailes da Vida.' And by the '70s, he gained international fame, collaborating with giants including Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, James Taylor and Peter Gabriel -- even Duran Duran. Through it all, he became known for creative use of rhythms and harmonies that often veer away from conventions, not to mention his signature vocals incorporating a stretched falsetto and sort of chants and calls, wordless vocalizations that sound like they emerged right out of the rain forest.
Perhaps most significant, it made him Antonio Carlos Jobim's favorite interpreter, particularly later in the composer's life. And in fact this new album germinated at the patriarch's house about a year before his death in 1994 at 67. After a day of music making with many of Brazil's greatest at Jobim's Rio house, the maestro (Tom, to his friends) asked Nascimento if he would record his entire catalog of songs, a legacy of hundreds. Nascimento explains that he said yes but on one condition: That the arrangements come straight from Jobim and not be, as had often been the case over the years, reworkings by hired arrangers.
That, of course, never came to be. But the subject kept coming up in conversations with Paulo Jobim, whose first professional music gig was in Nascimento's band, and Daniel, who cites Nascimento's dedication of a show to him on his third birthday as a key moment in his life. And as the project evolved, Nascimento's own formative approaches came to the fore.
"On the new album many things came back from the early days," Nascimento says. "Things we did when I was very young."
The key was that it was recorded in very casual sessions. "We started to do it at my house, which reminded me of the old days when musicians were always together," he says. "I miss that. No one does that any more. Nobody's fault, it's just how we are."
But this time, rather than move to a studio to make the record, they decided to stay at the house and have recording equipment brought in. "So it was the same spirit as the old days, same way of playing, that style that's very free," he says.
Nascimento singles out one of the essential Jobim songs, arguably the first song in all of bossa nova, as an example of the process.
"The first bossa nova song he had was 'Chega De Saudade,'" he says of the song first recorded in 1959 by João Gilberto. "I had already sung this starting many years ago. But when we heard Daniel's introduction to it, it sounded like a train." He mimicked the rhythm of a locomotive. "I was surprised. It was what I used to do many years ago. It was like Daniel had been living in those days! So we were all very happy with that. We kept finding ways of putting new things on the record."
The concept also evolved in the course of the sessions, with songs by Nascimento, Daniel Jobim and Tom Jobim collaborator Vinicius de Moreas added to the repertoire.
Daniel Jobim reprised that train intro for the song midway through the concert, and that seemed to kick things into high gear, transforming an engaging set into a compelling one as Nascimento turned frisky and playful and the rest of the band rose in spirit and power. Daniel Jobim is a pianist of both delicate touch and subtle power, with a sense of voicings of the McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock schools, his father's complementary six-string giving the overall sounds a near-orchestral range. Drummer Paulo Braga (a Nascimento and Jobim veteran) mixed complexity and accent, giving Nascimento's offbeat guitar riff an almost rock power on 'Fe Cega, Faca Amolada' and maintaining remarkable complexities in the elliptical 6/8 rhythms of 'Cravo e Canela' as the show neared its climax. Bassist Rodrigo Villa (turning the trio into a quartet) kept up with him every step of the way without distracting flashiness.
You could easily imagine these sounds coming through a distant radio, stimulating the imagination of kids today. Still bossa. Still nova.