Back in 1973, Cesar Camargo Mariano arranged, conducted and
played piano on Elis and Tom (Verve), one of the most popular Brazilian albums released in the U.S. since Getz/Gilberto, recorded 10 years earlier. Last night I caught this stunningly brilliant pianist at New York's Birdland (he's there through Saturday, April 19). Mariano's appearance this week in a club setting, produced by Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta, is a big deal, as evidenced by Eumir Deodato and other Brazilian luminaries in the audience last evening.
Eight-time Grammy winner and pianist Mariano and his trio of Sergio Brandao on bass and Jurim Moreira on drums were accompanied on different songs by guitarist Joao Bosco and special guest Harry Allen on tenor saxophone.
Bosco is a prominent exponent of Musica Popular Brasileira (or Brazilian Popular Music), a post-bossa nova urban music genre. Bosco combines a range of World Music idioms, including Middle Eastern, jazz and Brazilian, and his singing style became increasingly popular in Brazil in the late 1990s. He's one exciting package.
The group played 11 bossa nova songs in the first set plus one encore. Each tune topped the next for sheer beauty, largely because Mariano plays with breathtaking sensitivity and strength. On ballads, his notes sound like falling rain. On more robust sambas, his block chords and runs are percussive but never overpowering and they always manage to get inside you. He has a distinct jazz influence but with an incomparable bossa nova touch. I wish I could provide you with a list of the songs but each was announced in Portuguese.
The bass player Brandao [pictured, far right] was particularly fascinating. Listening to him, you're reminded how different the Brazilian approach and technique is on the bass compared to jazz or Latin players. The Brazilian bass needs to be fluid and overlapping, providing a steady rubbery sound that stirs the drummer and other musicians.
Drummer Moreira was for me the highlight of the evening. In all my years, I have never heard a drummer play so softly and effectively. It takes enormous restraint and soul to play drums this way, and each stroke was like a caress or whisper. On some songs, Moreira kept beat with one stick and one brush—the stick being the heartbeat and the brush the voice. On other tunes, he used sticks that didn't appear to have traditional tips but instead seemed split for added texture and a lighter sound. No matter what Moreira played, his technique sounded like the surf washing up on the beach at night. It was rhythmic, beckoning and powerfully understated.
Allen was featured on several tunes, including She's a Carioca. His tone was as breathy and delicate as Moreira's brushwork, and his phrasing here can only be compared to Stan Getz's during his bossa nova period. Allen's ideas were equally sharp.
I love bossa nova. It's intoxicating, passionate, nostalgic and optimistic. The music has so many different personalities, always reaching for maximum stimulation but finishing with a certain sadness. The addition of Bosco on acoustic guitar and vocals provided an urban, folk grittiness to the set, and his unusual scatty ballad singing style was earthy and pure.
I have no idea what the words Bosco sang meant, but on slower tunes they surely were about some guy recalling seeing the same beautiful girl at a cafe each day, exchanging glances with her but winding up too shy to say hello, and then turning up one day for coffee only to discover that she's gone for good. Or something like that.
If you're in New York this week, get over there. You've heard plenty of bossa nova on albums. You've heard it played by American artists. Now hear what this artform sounds like in the hands of Brazilians who live and breathe the music seven days a week. It's a gig that will linger in your mind for days. It's still echoing in my ears.
JazzWax tracks: Cesar Camargo Mariano's most famous recording remains Elis and Tom, which featured his piano and arrangements behind the vocal duets of Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The album includes the Aguas de Marco, (or Waters of March), Modinha and 12 other Jobim classics. If you dig bossa nova and are unfamiliar with this album, download or buy it.
Sadly, iTunes features just two of Mariano's albums, which is somewhat absurd considering his stature in Brazil and the number of Grammys he has won. With any luck, someone at iTunes will be reading this and take notice. And hopefully Mariano will have the good sense to take this group into the studio and record another Grammy winner.