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Gui Duvignau Translates the Powell Doctrine

The bassist reinterprets the work of Brazilian great Baden Powell

Gui Duvignau
Gui Duvignau

Growing up in Brazil, Gui Duvignau says that he couldn’t help but be influenced by the music of guitarist/composer Baden Powell. “He’s not that well-known here [in the States], but in Brazil you can’t really avoid him—in a good way!”

Following two albums of original music, however (his debut, Porto, was a collaboration with Portuguese singer Sofia Ribeiro), a tribute to Powell wasn’t necessarily the obvious next step for Duvignau. Born in France to a self-described “family of travelers,” the bassist inherited a restless spirit that led him to study jazz at Berklee and make temporary homes in Portugal and Paris before ending up (for now, at least) in Brooklyn. And so, although Baden (Sunnyside), Duvignau’s latest album, is in one sense a homecoming, it’s also a further evolution of the harmonically rich, searching approach that made last year’s 3, 5, 8 such a compelling listen. Far from a typical “Brazilian project,” Baden forgoes the reliance on Brazilian rhythms and instead takes Powell on his own compositional terms.

“I could have gotten Brazilian cats who are really steeped in that music [for the album],” Duvignau allows. “But so many people have done that in one way or another. And when you hear Baden play these songs alone with his guitar, it’s as groovy as it can get. Why would I try to match that? It’s easy to fall into the stereotype of Brazilian music, where it’s lively and rhythmic and ‘Carnival.’ But his music is so much more than that. I wanted to do a translation of his music through my lens.”

To interpret these translations, Duvignau put together a quartet of gifted modern jazz artists, with drummer Jeff Hirshfield and saxophonist Billy Drewes returning from 3, 5, 8, joined by fellow Berklee alum Lawrence Fields on piano and Wurlitzer. Master guitarist Bill Frisell adds his mesmerizing sound to four tracks, while bass legend and mentor Ron Carter plays duo with Duvignau on an original blues based on Powell’s “Asa Branca.”

“It’s a tribute within a tribute,” Duvignau says of the pairing with Carter, with whom he’s been studying for the last two years. “He’s influenced the direction of modern jazz from the ’60s till today. So it was beyond words to have someone who means so much to me musically and personally be a part of this.”

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Carter is also one of the subjects (as well as the publisher) of From the Bottom Up, a collection of Duvignau’s interviews with jazz bassists that grew out of his NYU master’s thesis. “I learned so much about what being a bass player means, and in a jazz setting in particular,” Duvignau says of writing the book. “All these musicians from different generations go through the same issues. They were all so generous to speak to me and to be so candid, which is reflected in the way they play music.”

“When you hear Baden play these songs alone with his guitar, it’s as groovy as it can get. Why would I try to match that?”

It’s only logical that Duvignau would bring together influences from jazz and Brazilian music, as he discovered both of them simultaneously. He initially picked up the electric bass under the sway of rock and heavy metal, but as his talents developed he sought out more challenging fare, Jaco Pastorius becoming his gateway into jazz. At the same time he was coming of age in São Paulo, inevitably hearing the giants of Brazilian music, with guitar-playing friends particularly encouraging him to check out Powell. But it wasn’t until he moved to Boston, where he found himself surrounded by a heavy contingent of Brazilian expats, that Duvignau really delved into playing that music.

More important than reconnecting with a homeland or early influence was the notion of exploring Powell’s vibrant catalogue. In Duvignau’s hands the guitarist’s music feels utterly contemporary, malleable enough to cohere in the free-floating, Motian-inspired take on “Canto de Ossanha” or the sprightly evocation of Bill Evans’ delicate touch on “O Astronauta.”

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“Baden Powell’s music is a library that is very dear to me,” Duvignau says. “His tunes are open enough that they can go in many directions. He wrote so much beautiful music—if I can contribute to getting it out there, I would be happy with that.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.