Given his world-class chops, Helio Alves should be famous, but he doesn’t quite fit into any known category. He is originally from São Paulo, Brazil, and sounds like it. But he also sounds like a pianist with years of classical training, and like a street-smart jazz musician. Alves emigrated to the United States in 1986, graduated from Berklee, and has worked with as many North Americans (Joe Henderson, Phil Woods, Slide Hampton) as Brazilians (Airto Moreira, Duduka Da Fonseca). He performs rhythmically intricate, sensual music with the precision and harmonic sophistication of a classical musician and the edgy energy of a jazz player. It’s a heady blend.
“Kathy,” by Moacir Santos, is representative. It alternately prances and floats in graceful 5/4, with a sweet melodic piquancy that is affirmational yet wistful. Alves’ improvisations retain a given song’s complexity even as they elaborate that initial content into spontaneous logical new structures. Everything he plays, regardless of tempo, sounds elegant and refined. “Música Das Nuvens E Do Chão” by Hermeto Pascoal and “Sombra” by Alves also contain his signature combination of exact fingering and ecstatic momentum. They start slowly and softly and relentlessly intensify, partly because of the sheer athletic prowess of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Antonio Sanchez, but mostly because Alves’ internal motor runs hot.
His transcultural encounters with jazz standards are unique and seductive. The hard 4/4 clarion core of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile” is set to dancing in Bahia rhythms. “Chan’s Song,” by Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, from the film Round Midnight, has a new fervent pulse and ornate decorations from guest guitarist Romero Lubambo. Helio Alves is his own category.