The Thrill of Brazil

The journey to Ouro Preto in Brazil is not easy. Even with short waits between the three legs of the trip, it takes most of a day. You fly from New York to one of the coastal airports, Rio or São Paulo (I did the latter), and board another plane inland to Belo Horizonte, which slightly overshoots Ouro Preto. Vans from the Tudo é Jazz Festival pick up musicians and other guests for the drive south, which, with traffic, may exceed two hours. The final destination is labyrinthine, steep and cobblestoned: an erstwhile mining center, now a university town and tourist magnet (population 50,000) known for its translucent gold topaz.

One look at the huddled russet roofs, the white walls with brightly painted window frames and the gold baroque churches, all transformed by the play of golden light, and exhaustion is instantly banished by intimations of paradise. Ouro Preto is a jewel box preserved from another age, namely the 1700s, when precious metals and gems poured from its mountains. If the contagious tranquility and the fact that, from Sept. 21 to 23, it hosts a smart, diverse, laid-back international jazz festival doesn’t relieve one from all cares, a shot of cachaca—the national firewater, refined from sugar cane—will seal the rapture. Brazil doesn’t make tourists; it makes converts.

Several years ago, officials of the Minas Gerais state asked producer Maria Alice Martins for an idea to boost tourism and make use of a recently erected complex of theaters. Given a free hand and working with co-curator Ivan Monteiro, an ardent, knowledgeable jazz enthusiast, her company MultCult launched the first festival in 2002. It lasted two days and involved no stars from the United States.

Over the next four editions they fine-tuned the productions, adding free outdoor concerts, workshops and panel discussions. Most importantly, they increased their reach to create a genuinely international event with a distinct mix of North American (in South America, you become self-conscious about the word American), European and Brazilian players. In those years, thousands of people from Belo Horizonte and other Minas Gerais cities came to hear Ron Carter, Steve Coleman, Ivan Lins, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Legrand, John Pizzarelli, Hermeto Pascoal, Andy Bey, the Bad Plus and many more.

For this year’s festival, the fifth and most ambitious, Martins and Monteiro reached out to journalists, producers and disc jockeys in Rio and São Paulo (Ouro Preto is off the beaten path for them, too, although this is the area that produced Milton Nascimento and other Brazilian stars), and one foreign jazz scribe.

My one contribution was to participate in a mesa redonda (“round table") conversation titled O Novo Jazz Do Velho Mundo (“New Jazz of the Old World”), with an impressive array of Brazilian jazz activists: Monteiro, Luiz Orlando Carneiro, Carlos Conde and Zuza Homem de Mello, a veteran producer-writer who participated in the original Lenox School of Jazz at Music Inn. As my Portuguese consisted of two terms, obrigado (“thank you”) and tudo bem (“all is good”)--, a translator was provided. (I can now also say cachaca and caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail made of mashed limes, sugar, ice and cachaca.) The long and spirited discussion centered on whether jazz’s edge had crossed the Atlantic.

The case for Europe was made musically by Richard Galliano and a remarkable 17-year-old Italian alto saxophonist, Francesco Cafiso, who is not to be confused with past prodigies who were merely prodigal. Cafiso, who began recording three years ago, would be an impressive player at any age—a Charlie Parker acolyte with a taste for Ornette Coleman (“Lonely Woman” was a highpoint of his set) who matches verve with feeling and restraint. His grown-up pianist Riccardo Arrighini tended to show off with pointless pyrotechnics, but Cafiso never lost focus.

I argued for the home team, which in Ouro Preto was represented by Dave Holland’s quintet, Jason Moran’s trio, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s quartet, Preservation Hall Jazz Band (with Walter Payton, father of Nicholas), Kurt Elling and Garage a Trois (featuring Charlie Hunter and Stanton Moore). Not that they needed any help, particularly Moran and Holland. The pianist, accompanied by Tarus Mateen on electric bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, concentrated on pieces from Artist in Residence, his terrifically daring new album, and played a medley that combined two Jaki Byard pieces, “Out Front” and the stride confection “To Bob Vatel of Paris” (a candidate for hippest repertory recovery of the year), with “Motherless Child.” Holland’s band elicited a tremendous ovation for a characteristic, deceptively casual set in which compositional exactitude fostered the illusion of total freedom. Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks let loose on Eubanks’ “Full Circle,” and the group, gunned by drummer Nate Smith and the leader’s iron-in-a-velvet-glove vamps, built to a heady performance of “Lucky Seven” and an encore by Steve Nelson, whose vibes act like a Greek chorus, commenting and elaborating on what everyone else does.

Ironically, the only disaster was served up by the celebrated Brazilian composer and guitarist Toninho Horta, a native of Minas Gerais, who brought more musicians than had appeared at his sound check. He repeatedly halted selections before they could wax any steam so that he could fiddle with wires and speakers, gradually emptying the Salao Diamantina—the center’s attractive main hall, which seats 800 and handled the acoustics better than he realized. Brazil’s honor was upheld by many others, most notably Hamilton de Holanda and Leny Andrade.

De Holanda’s virtuosity on the bandolim, a cousin to the mandolin with 10 strings, enlivened an already lively set by the irresistible French accordionist Galliano, who had arranged his set so that the instrumentation changed with each number, bringing urgency to pieces that were new to me but clearly familiar to the audience, among them “Chorino Pra Ele” and “Disparada,” a head-spinning bandolim feature that brought the crowd to its feet. As for the luminous Andrade, whose recordings did not prepare me for the dramatic depth she brings to a concert hall, she celebrated 1950s Brazilian classics, Jobim, Tito Madi, the legendary Johnny Alf (whose music augured the bossa nova movement) and “A Night in Tunisia” before achieving an emotional peak with “Por Causa de Voce.” After that, anything would have been anti-climactic—except maybe a caipirinha.

Originally published in December 2006

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