In New York City, far from the Brazilian rain forest to which this disc is dedicated, the music of Brazil has taken root in the nurturing environment of the fertile local jazz scene and flourished. No longer simply the lone exotic flower in a musical bouquet - a solitary bossa nova in a set of ballads and blues or a single samba at the end of a dance the sounds and rhythms of Brazilian music are now integrally intermingled in the wide world of jazz. From Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to Birdland and the Blue Note, Brazil’s most popular artists - Joao Gilberto, Milton Nascimento, Oscar Castro Neves, Rosa Passos, Leni Andrade - perform their country’s indigenous music before enthusiastic capacity crowds. In smaller Greenwich Village clubs like the Zinc Bar (and more recently Cachaça) an ongoing hybridization has been taking place the blossoming of a music that grafts the jazz and Brazilian music sensibilities into a new genus that can best be described as “samba jazz.”
The three New York based musicians from Brazil that make up The Brazilian Trio pianist Helio Alves, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka Da Fonseca -- each boasts an impressive résumé of experience with the finest artists from both their native and adopted countries. Alves, the youngest member of the band, born to a pair of pianist parents in Sao Palo in 1966, came to the United States at the age of eighteen to study jazz at Berklee College in Boston. Encouraged by trumpeter Claudio Roditi - the “godfather” of the Brazilian jazz scene in the US, who as been something of a mentor to all of the band members - he moved to New York in 1993 and immediately made a name for himself playing with bassist Santi Debriano’s band Circle Chant. Alves has performed with Brazilian bossa nova icons Oscar Castro Neves and Rosa Passos and jazz greats Joe Henderson and Paquito d’Rivera and remains a much in demand sideman, while also leading his own imposing trio.
The band’s bassist Nilson Matta was born in Sao Palo and moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1970, before finally migrating to New York in 1985. Best known these days as the “man in the middle” of Trio da Paz, the innovative Brazilian-jazz cooperative group he co-leads with Da Fonseca and guitarist Romero Lubambo, Matta has performed with a long list of music greats, including Brazilian maestros Wagner Tiso and Luiz Bonfá and jazz masters Joe Henderson and Kenny Barron. He was a regular with pianist Aloiso Aguiar’s early samba jazz trio and an important member of the late pianist Don Pullen’s ground breaking band, the African-Brazilian Music Connection in the 1990’s and like Alves, has also performed with Claudio Roditi, Paquito d’ Rivera, Rosa Passos, on the cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy Award winning compact disc Obrigado Brazil and as the leader of his own group.
Drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, since coming to New York from Rio in 1975 - when there was virtually no Brazilian jazz scene in the United States - has been one of the leading progenitors of the samba jazz concept in the city. His early groups, the New York Samba Band and Brazilian Express, were among the first to meld jazz and Brazilian music in a manner that in no way diluted either style. As with his two Brazilian Trio bandmates, Da Fonseca has worked with some of the best performers from both Brazil and the United States. His discography includes appearances with everyone from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Joyce to Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, and John Zorn. In addition to his work with Trio da Paz, Da Fonseca performs regularly with his wife, the talented Brazilian vocalist Maucha Adnet and leads his own exciting quintet.
On the surface, The Brazilian Trio operates in much the same way as most classic jazz piano trios. In the tradition of groups led by Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan, McCoy Tyner and Kenny Barron (who collaborated with Trio da Paz on his decidedly successful Canta Brasil), each member of the unit operates on an equivalent basis in determining the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic tone of the group at any moment. What distinguishes this band from those other groups is the “bilingual” musical vocabulary that the members employ in navigating through the music drawing upon the myriad Brazilian rhythms and the country’s rich melodic sensibility, which stems from its superb popular songbook, in their jazz influenced improvisational excursions.
Appropriately, the program on Forests, is divided equally between popular selections from the contemporary Brazilian repertoire (few of which have made their way into the jazz repertory, perhaps because of their association with the beautiful Portuguese lyrics which accompany them) and original pieces that demonstrate the compositional sophistication of the group’s members. Leading off with Ivan Lins beautiful Amor, a piece that would have been very much at home in a Bill Evans set, the trio demonstrates the sense of shared roots and objectives that gives the group its distinctive character, as they traverse a variety of dynamics and moods, meshing flawlessly with each subtle shift between foreground and complement.
Matta’s Florestas, the composer’s dedication to all the forests of the earth and in particular to the Amazon Rain-Forest that supplies the planet with much of the oxygen that gives it life, is an episodic piece that begins with the sounds of nature and the composer’s invocation, before the trio introduction in which Matta’s melodic bass and Da Fonseca’s supple brushwork join Alves’ appealing piano in setting the melancholic mood that abruptly changes to an upbeat Brazilian swing section that includes a bass-drum dialogue and a Da Fonseca solo with a samba beat that seamlessly segues back into the poignant piano melody heard earlier on
Untitled, by Alves, epitomizes rich the sound of the group, with its bright rhythmic line that alludes to the well known buoyant Brazilian temperament and references the pianist’s early classical training. Matta’s bass solo showcases his warm tone and lyrical notes (including a brief quote of Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge), while his exchanges with Duduka again highlight the pair’s long shared experience and resultant simpatico.
Milton Nascimento’s Tarde is a musical work of uncommon beauty, a moving exposition of that indefinable mood of saudage that often arises with the twilight of the song’s title. Alves distinguishes himself as a pianist of exceptional depth and taste in the tradition of Bill Evans with his emotionally powerful performance here.
Pro Zeca is a perfect vehicle for the band members to show off their individual talents. The classic samba by Vitor Assis Brasil leaves lots of room for each player to stretch out, particularly Da Fonseca, whose masterful mallet work during his solo is a clear indication of his importance as an innovator on the Brazilian jazz scene. On Flying Over Rio, the drummer also shows himself to be a composer of note, demonstrating a sensitivity not usually associated with his instrument.
Matta’s Paraty, debuted on Don Pullen’s Ode To Life African-Brazilian Music Connection album and has since made successive appearances on Trio da Paz’s Partido Out and Kenny Barron’s Canta Brasil. The rousing romp written in honor of the 18th Century Brazilian city is served particularly well here by Alves’ prodigious piano technique. Conversely, Matta’s bass shines on the pianist’s Ubatuba, a soulful selection propelled by Duduka’s driving drums.
The date concludes fittingly with a pair of compositions by two of Brazil’s best known jazz influenced composers. Hermeto Pascoal’s Montreux, first heard in 1979 at the Swiss Festival for which it is named, is a beautiful song that has somehow managed to be largely ignored by both the jazz and Brazilian music communities. Here it is given an inspired revival that should help bring it the increased popularity it deserves. Vera Cruz, by Milton Nascimento, on the other hand, is already one of the most popular pieces among the musicians that make up the Brazilian jazz community and is frequently heard as a set closer in samba jazz performances, as it is here.
Helio Alves, Nilson Matta and Duduka Da Fonseca are each highly respected members of the New York Brazilian jazz community. As leaders and sidemen their musicianship contributes greatly to the continued development of jazz and Brazilian music in the city. As The Brazilian Trio their combined talents exceed even the considerable sum of their impressive individual parts and the group’s debut marks the beginning of a new era for their music- one that is sure to be heard all over the world.
New York City
3 March 2008