I’m pretty sure the first straight-ahead jazz album I ever owned was Stan Getz’s “Anniversary!” It’s been a long time (I was probably in 8th or 9th grade at the time), so I don’t remember all of the details, but I know I had it on tape, I’m almost positive I bought it at Sam Goody, and I probably bought it because the store was playing it at the time.
Years later, I opened my mission call to Brazil. When I opened it, I basically knew three things about Brazil: that it was in South America, that they spoke Portuguese, not Spanish, there, and that Brazil was the home of bossa nova. See, Stan Getz was one of the earliest American jazz musicians to popularize Brazilian bossa nova in the U.S., and Tom Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” led that charge.[fn1] And although “Anniversary!” wasn’t bossa nova, it introduced me to Getz, who eventually led me to Americanized Brazilian music.
On my mission, I learned that bossa wasn’t the sum total of Brazilian music.[fn2] Music was inescapable. Tracting in the streets, in people’s homes, on buses and out in public, I heard all kinds of music. Samba, pagode, Axé. Música popular brasileira. A member’s husband once pulled out his guitar and played Caetano Velosa’s “Sampa,” which blew me away and, the next time we went to the bridge in the center of São Paulo where vendors sold (probably pirated) CDs, I bought an album of his greatest hits. When I got back to the United States and put that CD on, I was introduced to the world of Tropicália, which was a complete revelation.[fn3]
One thing that I never heard while I was in Brazil? Jazz. I mean, I didn’t really think about it—my high school stabs at it notwithstanding, I wasn’t a serious jazz listener yet. And I suppose that, if you’d asked me, I would have assumed that Brazilian jazz was just bossa nova.
So when I got The Reunion Project’s album “Varanda” the other week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Reunion Project is made up of five Brazilian jazz musicians (drummer, bassist, guitarist, pianist, and saxophonist/flautist). I was entirely unfamiliar with any of their previous work. I figured a clean acoustic guitar, a sweet saxophone with a little vibrato, and the tell-tale bossa syncopation.
So I was a little surprised at the opening track, which hits you immediately with an intricate melody played by the sax and the guitar. “Sinuosa” wouldn’t be out of place on a late-period Michael Brecker album, or, frankly, any twenty-first-century straight-ahead jazz album.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s an absolutely wonderful song, leading off an absolutely wonderful album, but I’ve been listening to it for about two weeks straight trying to figure out what makes it uniquely Brazilian.
I think I have an idea, though. “Maracatim,” the third track, starts with a flute.[fn4] The drums come in hinting at samba, the bass duets with the flute for a couple bars, and then you have a unison guitar and piano that interact with the flute in fun and interesting lines.
The opening 45 seconds or so of the wonderfully-titled “Jack and the Goblin Brother” feature a steady piano note (which eventually morphs into a chord), which almost seems unrelated to the bass and drums that come in, only it works. It’s an ostinato, only in the treble, not the bass. And it lends a sense of urgency to the song, and urgency that is only emphasized by the bass riffs, by the drums, and by the melody. (I’m not sure what the story here is, but there’s enough tension that I really want to know more about Jack and about the Goblin.)
But for me, the essential Brazilness of the album coalesces in the title track. “Varanda” doesn’t explicitly adopt the bossa nova rhythm, but the guitar hints at it, suggests a rhythm that it doesn’t entirely employ. The guitar is clean and smooth, and sounds like the kind of classical guitar bossa nova guitarists generally employed. The clarinet is slightly gritty, and brings a hint of klezmer to the sound.
The hint of bossa becomes stronger in “Reunion,” with the flute and piano weaving around a guitar that initially does bossa, and then moves beyond it.
I’m still not entirely sure what constitutes Brazilian jazz. The Reunion Project is a single data point, but if it’s any indication of what is out there, I’ve been missing some great music. Even without the hook of being Brazilian, “Varanda” is a captivating album. The musicians are incredible, and the songs are complex and challenging, while, at the same time, compelling and beautiful. And, unlike a lot of what I enjoy listening to, this album is easily accessible. You can listen carefully or you can let it wash over you.
What I’m saying is, if you served a Brazilian mission, you need to listen. And if you didn’t, you still need to listen. It’s that good.
N.b.: if you’re wondering why I’m talking about a jazz album on a Mormon-themed blog, well, it does have a mission tie-in, but I also explain the #MutualNight posts here.
[fn1] Not that it matters to you, but “Girl From Ipanema” was the first song my wife and I danced to as a married couple at our reception.
[fn2] And I’ll note that I did it as an obedient missionary who didn’t deliberately listen to music for those two years.
[fn3] Also, it turned out, the Caetano album is the only one I bought on my mission that I’ve listened to more than once or twice. I mean, I bought two albums by the Paralamos do Sucesso that I don’t think I’ve ever listened to.
[fn4] Btw, for some strange reason, I’ve been meaning to do a #MutualNight post introducing some of my favorite non-orchestral flute-tooters.