Review: The Brazilian Scene

brazilianscene
El Records / Cherry Red

From bossa nova to samba to tropicalia – all variations on a particularly laid-back, chilled out and effortlessly groovy theme – Brazilian music of the 1960s is amongst the most remarkable you’ll ever hear. If ever a music captures a time and place, it’s this. Nothing invokes the image of lazy days sitting on a sun kissed beach than this, and the sense of Sixties sophistication and casual sensuality runs throughout most of the tunes featured on this album, which captures the scene perfectly. This is no beginners compilation – there’s no Girl from Ipanema here, at least not in a version you’ll be familiar with. Instead, it’s a head first jump into the Brazilian world of uniquely cool jazz. – and, as it turns out, far beyond.

While the album opens up with a couple of individual tracks, what we have at the centre of this CD is a pair of LPs and EPs from Ze Maria with Jorge Ben – the much requested album Todo Azul – and a four track recording from Gilberto Gil, both of which display the developing sound of the time. However, the album eases in with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Herbie Mann offering up a smooth version the classic One Note Samba, followed by Mann returning, this time with Baden Powell in the effortlessly cool Consolacao.

Todo Azul kicks in at track three, and it’s a bit of a shock to the senses after the opening tracks. It’s heavily organ led, and the title track initially sounds a little too close to those ultra-cheesy organist LPs of the 1970s. But any doubts are swept aside with the next track, Por Causa De Voce Menna, which slickly integrates the organ into a smooth bossa nova groove. It’s fast paced and funky, but topped with a chilled out vocal – at least until the falsetto chorus kicks in – that brings it down to Earth.

tudoazulAnd the rest of Todo Azul follows this rather schizophrenic style, balancing – sometimes precariously – between smooth jazz sophistication and Blackpool Tower kitsch. Sometimes, the balance wobbles in a single track – Samba Do Aviao manages to be cheesy and cool at the same time, its two minute length having moments of genius and silliness that seem to be battling each other. Japonihno mixes funky jazz with hints of orientalism, while So Danco Samba manages to create a classic 1960s Euro film score vibe – you can imagine this playing on the soundtrack of some sub-Bond Euro-spy classic.

In fact, it’s that Eurocult feel that becomes dominant here. It’s no exaggeration to say that this could easily be the soundtrack to a particularly vibrant Jess Franco movie – close your eyes and you’ll start to see moments of Franconian madness involving sportscars, exotic locations, beautiful women, guns and nonsensical plots. Tracks like Influencia Do Jazz and A Vido Do Negro conjure up this feeling perfectly.

There’s a sudden familiarity, as the album jumps to the much-covered Mas Que Nada. You might not think you know this song, but you do – maybe not in this version, but certainly from one of the hundreds of other recordings. It’s unsurprising that the song was so popular, because it’s great – a lively, infectious, danceable number that seems to encapsulate the whole Brazilian sound in one record.

The other internationally well known Brazilian song is also here, though Garota De Ipanema is, in this version, a rather too frantic organ-led instrumental, barely recognisable as the Astrud Gilberto / Stan Getz ultra smooth cool jazz number we’re familiar with. On reflection, I’ll stick with the classic version.

Ironically, the next track, Deixa Eu Ficar, does have the smooth feel of the classic …Ipanema, if not the seductive vocals of Gilberto. Album closer Gostoso E Sambar once again returns to that odd mix of cool and camp that marked out the early part of the LP, making Todo Azul a rather mixed bag – at its best rather perfect, at its worst rather too end of the pier.

The next four tracks are by Gilberto Gil, and take on a more traditional samba feel – acoustic guitar and minimal backing, slick vocals and a mix of up-tempo and downbeat tunes on Serenata Do Telecoteco, Maria Triesteza, Vontade De Amar and Meu Luar Minhas Cancaoes give these an authentic sound that perhaps makes them a little less accessible to the casual listener. Certainly, no one could ever claim that these stripped back tracks are over-produced, as they sound like live recordings done in a single take. Nothing bad about that, of course, and there’s a charm to these four tracks that is hard to put your finger on. They just work.

gilbertogil
Gilberto Gil

After the cool, guitar-led instrumental Murmurio by Luiz Bonfa, we get the ambitious three part Sonatina for Flute and Guitar from Radamés Gnattali, which pretty much does what the title suggests, being a strange hybrid of bossa nova and classical. Lento is as simple a piece as you can imagine, oddly discordant and eerie in parts (this would also make a great film score!), while Adagio is more of the same and Movido ups the pace somewhat. It’s interesting stuff – I’m just not sure it really fits in with the rest of the album, especially at a near fifteen minute running time.

Mind you, the next track also runs for a whopping fourteen minutes, and Hector Villa-Lobos’ Uirapuru takes us as far away from the cool jazz of the samba as it’s possible to go. This is a 1917 orchestral composition, a ballet suite based on Brazilian folk legends and Amazonian myths. As a dramatic orchestral piece, it’s impressive, as is the next track The Little Train of the Capira. I’m certainly glad to have these two pieces of music. But they are wildly out of place on this album.

So, The Brazilian Scene – while certainly an accurate record of Brazilian music in the first half of the 20th century – is a rather more eclectic collection than you might be expecting. If you are looking for an introduction to bossa nova and tropicalia, you might prefer to start elsewhere, but if you are familiar with the music and want to explore further, this is a pretty good place to begin.

DAVID FLINT

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