Paying tribute to Sérgio Mendes with a spirited sound that blends jazz improvisation, Uruguayan candombe, and breezy Airto/Flora-esque pop is never a bad thing. Just ask the six members of Brasuka, whose luscious 2021 debut album A Vida Com Paixão—which translates as A Life with Passion—is a welcome balm of cross-cultural rhythm and righteous, jazzy soul.
Brasuka is rooted in a 20-year-old friendship between percussionist Ricardo Bozas and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rosana Eckert. The twosome worked various gigs together in Dallas, playing Latin jazz, salsa, and tango in bilingual (Spanish/English) church services. “One day before a service, I found Ricardo in his car blasting Mendes’ Brasileiro,” Eckert recalls from Brasuka’s Texan HQ. “When he saw how much I loved it, he asked, ‘Do you want to start a band and play Sérgio Mendes?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’”
Despite Eckert’s positivity, the fact was that she also had her own career as a jazz vocalist to think about—one that had been underway ever since her 2003 album At the End of the Day. How does one build two careers at once? “I find it to be a tricky balance,” she acknowledges. “In the first decade of my solo career, I did most of the driving musically. However, in the last several years, I’ve discovered the magic of collaboration. When you combine musical libraries and aesthetics with someone else, you amplify your resources, and the musical ears and mind can expand. Brasuka is that same type of experience, times six! I’ll definitely still nurture my solo career, but it’s Brasuka’s time right now.”
And right now, for Eckert, Bozas, and the rest of Brasuka—keyboardist Denny Robinson, guitarist Tom Burchill, bassist/percussionist Brian Warthen, and drummer Jose Aponte—rhythm is the marquee star. (On A Vida Com Paixão, the sextet was joined by co-producer/flutist Daniel Pardo and saxophonists Drew Zaremba and Jeff Robbins.) For new compositions, the band chooses a groove first, then plans and plots an “arrangement map,” with players contributing to each section’s rhythmic story. “When any song is brought into rehearsal, it becomes like a family stew, and we all add some ingredients,” Eckert explains. “That’s what I think gives us our own sound, apart from our many influences.”
The simmering “Samba Jiji,” which opens A Vida Com Paixão, was the first original (non-Mendes) tune that the band attempted. “I wrote it for Brasuka, and it came together fairly easily … so well-received on gigs that it was a boost in the arm for us to write more original music,” Eckert says. “Eager to have more originals to play, we started bringing in old tunes previously written before joining Brasuka. Jose brought in ‘Confundido’ from his college days. Denny brought ‘La Higuera,’ which he had written back in [his native] Cuba.” The band workshopped those older songs, giving them new lives and grooves.
“When any song is brought into rehearsal, it becomes like a family stew, and we all add some ingredients.” — Rosana Eckert
“When I wanted to start a new tune, I would ask the drummers, ‘What groove do you want to play that we’re not doing yet?’” Eckert says. The answers to that question gradually became more complex, as evidenced on a track like “Road to Hermeto.” Inspired by Hermeto Pascoal, this brisk, challenging melody with trip-tricky chord changes shifts to an odd meter in its midsection, with all Brasuka members playing syncopated hits underneath a drum solo. “It was difficult to sound calm while playing that song—it tended to feel frantic. We had to work with it to get it under our fingers and make it sound natural.
“I think ‘uplifting Brazilian jazz fusion’ best describes who we are,” Eckert says in summary. “We focus on rhythmic variety, harmonic richness, and positive vibes. With all that’s going on in our challenging world, there’s a need for dancing, laughing, smiling, and singing. We feel called upon to create those experiences and put that kind of vibe into the world.”