Goin’ Down South

Sometimes you have to leave home to find yourself most at home. My recent trip to Brazil, culminating with the sixth annual Festival Tudo é Jazz in Ouro Preto (Sept. 13-16), provided a too brief but intense immersion in the marvels of Brazilian jazz, yet, in truth, the most unforgettable set was provided by homeboy Joshua Redman, leading a trio through selections from his Back East repertory. That album, released in April, is one of Redman’s best, and last summer he gave a bold account of it at Town Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. Yet his performance at Ouro Preto was on another level—the kind you live for because it not only exceeds but upends expectations.

My experience with Redman, in the 16 years since he won the Thelonious Monk competition, has been somewhat binary: occasions when he gives himself up to electrifying improvisations and interchanges with the members of his band; and occasions when he is so absorbed in his fastidious arrangements that he seems boxed by them. With the first notes of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” the air in the main auditorium, Salão Diamantina, crackled: This would be an instance of the former, an inspired blowout, and two contributing factors were instantly evident.

First: The hall’s sound is exceptionally vivid and was even more so with Redman’s sound man designing the amplification. In New York concert halls, we are almost inured to muddy sonics that give up the main facts of pitch and timbre with little of the nuance. Redman has worked too hard to master details of sound in every register on both tenor and soprano saxophone to lose them in echoes and overtones. On “Indian Song,” he produced an ethereal yet firmly edged tone on tenor, simultaneously of the air and earth; on “Angel Eyes,” he focused on the high and high-middle registers, etching two-note chords and above-the-scale squalls with offhanded accuracy; on “Zarafah,” his soprano swirled into near-Hebraic davening; on “Back East,” he unleashed a raucous knees-up tirade, neither Rollins nor Coltrane, but firmly in the mighty tradition that seems to exist chiefly to prove that jazz is brimming with a dynamism it hasn’t begun to exhaust.

Second: Gregory Hutchinson. Which is not to say that bassist Matt Penman wasn’t an equilateral member of the triangle—he was precise, attentive, forceful. But Hutchinson, perhaps the great drummer of his generation, entered the fray with a muscularity that accommodated the arrangements while suggesting his impatience to move beyond them. Hutchinson’s counterintuitive provocations, turning rhythms around and clamping down on ballads, set up a chemistry that Redman basked in—this was only their third performance together on a tour that the trio’s usual drummer, Eric Harland, could not make. Yet the passion never undermined the lucidity, the always-involving clarity. Redman, shaking his head at one point, told the audience it might be the altitude, then said he wished that he could spend the rest of his life in Ouro Preto, “or at least a couple more hours.”

There was much more from the North American contingent, which doubled as representatives of Israeli and Canadian jazz, including superb sets by Aaron Goldberg’s trio and the Omer Avital Quintet and a more languid but pleasing one by the Ingrid Jensen Quartet. Madeleine Peyroux and Wallace Roney fared less well, the former channeling Norah Jones (not as good a fit for her as Billie and Peggy), the latter paying a raucous homage to Joe Zawinul. One of the qualities that makes the Ouro Preto festival so absorbing, besides the magically preserved 18th-century environment (a pastel community built on steep hills that make San Francisco feel like the plains, it is located in Minas Gerais, between Sáo Paulo and Bello Horizonte) is the determination of founder-director Maria Alice Martins and co-curator Ivan Monteiro to combine music from the United States, Europe and Brazil.

The Brazilian groups were fascinating, especially Casa Forte, a quartet led by the flutist and saxophonist (alto and soprano) Mauro Senise, playing music by the singer and composer Edu Lobo. His album of Lobo’s songs, one of the year’s outstanding releases, is difficult to find here, but worth the effort. Senise is a gifted improviser—his well-tuned soprano and beaming flute and piccolo combine, in the Brazilian manner, glittery virtuosity, rhythmic intensity and easy lyricism. No less impressive were solo turns by bassist Ivan Conti and pianist Itamar Assiere, and the arrangements (by Gilson Peranzzetta) of such memorable pieces as the ballad “Canção do Amanhecer” and the quasi-blues “A História de Lily Braun.” One of the more anticipated events was the reunion by pianist João Donato and altoist Bud Shank, which had moments of beauty but felt inhibited as Shank, at 81, began to show signs of fatigue and Donato restrained his own stirring beat. But it was also a chance to hear two fabled Brazilian rhythm players, bassist Luiz Alves and the remarkable drummer Robertinho Silva, a master of the brushes who is even more understated with sticks.

My visit coincided with the publication of Música Nas Veias, the much-awaited memoir by the music historian, producer and radio personality Zuza Homem de Mello, who with his wife Ercìlia Lobo, were my hosts in and around São Paulo. While he signed hundreds of books one evening, I visited the magnificent Mozarteum Brasileiro, a train terminal converted into a state-of-the-art concert hall through a complex system of buffers. Gilbert Varga conducted the Basque Symphony Orchestra in a program that included the highly rhythmic Orreaga - Suite Basca by the neglected Aita Madina; Brahms’ Double Concerto, featuring violinist Lorenz Nasturica and cellist Asier Polo; and a brazenly immoderate embrace of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique.

In Campinas, a couple of hours from São Paulo, Zuza took me to hear a similarly eclectic program by the 20-piece orchestra Zérró, led by the indefatigable bassist Zérró Santos (check him out on YouTube). The band combines original music, Brazilian classics and jazz classics (“Naima,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Mercy Mercy Mercy”) in a stream-of-consciousness collage: That is, the band doesn’t only go from one tune to another—it also interpolates one tune within another, depending on the whim of the leader, who, constantly on the move, changes the material as willfully as he does soloists, many of whom are young local players of much promise. Yet another eclectic big band closed the festivities at Ouro Preto: Maria Schneider, working with a Brazilian rhythm section and clearly psyched by the rehearsals. But I had to miss her performance in order to return to New York for Sonny Rollins’ 50th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. I’ll have more to say about that glorious evening when the record comes out.

Originally published in December 2007

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