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“The Brazil Connection”: Of Rio & Reinvention

Classic vocal tracks meet fresh Brazilian-styled arrangements

Marcos Valle
Aretha Franklin
Billie Holiday
Frank (left) and Christian Berman

It’s the feel-good album of 2014. But it dates, at least in part, from 1958. Also 1961. And 1964, ’69, ’78 and ’82. The Brazil Connection, brainchild of producer brothers Frank and Christian Berman, brings together 12 classic vocals, spanning jazz, soul and pop, all refitted to new bossa or samba arrangements as performed by a stellar assortment of Brazilian jazz musicians. Billed as Studio Rio, the lineup includes such living legends as Marcos Valle and Roberto Menescal.

Released in June, the sun-dappled disc caught the immediate attention of radio programmers and, according to the JazzWeek Radio Chart, was picked up by more than 100 stations by mid-summer. Toronto’s JAZZ-FM91, for example, added almost every track in heavy rotation-not just cuts from Billie Holiday, Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone but also Sly and the Family Stone, Bill Withers and Aretha Franklin.

“Often these kinds of projects lack credibility and compromise music that was just right in its original state,” says Ross Porter, the station’s CEO, “[but] Frank and Christian actually contribute to the artistic soul of the originals. … [They’ve] done such a good, creative job in reimagining and redefining the music, it was perfect programming for us, particularly during the summer months.”

Though perhaps best known for their Grammy-winning remix of Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” in 2000, the German-born Bermans are no strangers to successful music mash-ups. Eight years ago, they teamed with Artists Project Earth founder Kenny Young to create Rhythms del Mundo, persuading the likes of Coldplay, Sting and Maroon 5 to have their songs refitted to Cuban arrangements performed by musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club, with all proceeds donated to APE. Several sequels followed.

The inspiration for The Brazil Connection came, says Christian, out of the blue last summer. “We were sitting on a balcony in Berlin and some neighbor was playing ‘You’ve Changed’ by Billie Holiday [from her 1958 LP Lady in Satin],” he recalls. “Perhaps it was the summer mood, but it somehow felt like a bossa nova, and that’s how the idea was born, to pair truly iconic American singers with tasteful Brazilian music.”

Looking for a partner with a rich catalog, the Bermans approached Sony, a label Frank deems “a perfect fit.” The actual song selection process took place in Rio, where the Bermans parked themselves in an Internet café a block from the beach. “We sat there for two weeks just listening to songs and watching the Brazilian people go by,” says Frank, 48. “At night we went out to jazz clubs to listen to Brazilian music. We quickly developed a feel for what rhythms would go with which vocals-bossa novas for the slower ones and sambas for the ones that were a little groovier.”

Armed with a list of 40 tunes, they met with several noted Brazilian arrangers and musicians, including guitarists Mario Adnet and Torcuato Mariano and longtime Antonio Carlos Jobim drummer Paulo Braga. “We wanted to make an album that is truly authentic, that the musicians would really be proud of,” says Frank.

The biggest hurdle was isolating the original vocal tracks. For more modern selections, like Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” multi-track masters existed. But the older cuts posed a significant challenge until the brothers discovered a Berlin-based company called Science of Sound.

“It’s a team of very nerdy scientists and high-quality engineers,” says Frank. “Together they built this really interesting model of algorithms where they can keep the vocal intact and get rid of everything else. Like on [Holiday’s ‘You’ve Changed’], you can hear every whisper, every syllable.”

As the Rio recording sessions took shape, the Bermans’ dream of involving Valle and Menescal was fulfilled. When they shared the playlist with Valle, he immediately leapt on Andy Williams’ “Music to Watch Girls By” from 1967. In the early ’60s, Williams had been instrumental in helping Valle gain a professional foothold in the U.S. In appreciation, says Christian, “He wanted to do something really special with the song.” Menescal fell in love with Aretha Franklin’s 1964 version of “Walk on By.”

Most intriguing for jazz fans will be the Bermans’ reshaping of “Take Five,” based on a live 1961 recording by Carmen McRae with Dave Brubeck. It is the only track that includes more of the original than just the vocal, with both Brubeck’s piano intro and Paul Desmond’s sax solo preserved. “It was a challenge because of its unusual time signature,” says Christian, 45. “It took several hours to work out a groove pattern that had that signature but also had a bossa-nova flair. We tried a few rhythms but it really wasn’t working. Then all of a sudden Mario was playing guitar and the drummer, Jurim [Moreira], was playing the backbeat and it worked out perfectly!”

Up next, the brothers are planning an ambitious world tour featuring Brazilian musicians and the vintage vocal tracks-possibly using hologram technology to bring the original artists to life-plus contemporary American and Brazilian singers. And, yes, a second Brazil Connection is already in the works.

Originally Published