After establishing herself as a first-rate instrumentalist with the acoustic guitar chops to win international acclaim from trade publications and invitations to recording sessions with the likes of Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie, Brazilian singer, guitarist, and songwriter Badi Assad returned to her native country to record Verde, her first solo release in six years. While her technical skills are beyond reproach, she admirably incorporates them into a pop repertoire, drawing heavily from the post-Tropicalia work of fellow countrymen Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. With a powerful, expressive voice reminiscent of Gal Costa, Assad adheres to the MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) aesthetic—music that’s mindful of traditional song forms while incorporating international pop influences.
Assad’s guitar is still at the forefront of most of the songs on Verde, but her nimble, spacious style never encroaches on the overall mood; on a handful of tracks, she cedes the guitar work to Webster Santos, reinforcing the feeling that the disc is not simply a showcase for her six-string talents. However, when Assad does let her remarkable technique dominate, the results can be gripping—as on “The Being Between”, co-written with her longtime musical partner Jeff Young, where she uses “prepared guitar” (a drumstick stuck between the strings and fretboard) to get some beautiful koto-like effects from the instrument. Another weapon in Assad’s formidable arsenal is what she terms “mouth percussion”, a melodic cousin of hip-hop’s beatbox. She employs it sparingly enough (as a solo interlude on the joyful funk of “Não Adianta” and in tandem with a vocal melody on “Asa Branca”) yet it still comes across as a gimmick rather than a technique fully woven into her overall style.
The material on Verde splits rather evenly between original compositions, traditional Brazilian pieces, and songs borrowed from the realm of popular music. Assad’s original works are among the most powerful pieces on the disc, the only cases where her synthesis of talents becomes complete, as opposed to presenting her as merely a gifted interpreter of form. Perhaps it’s that she is better able to wrap herself around the lyrical sentiment, but “Você Não Entendeu Nada” and “Estrangeiro Em Mim” crack through the icy cool that permeates the disc; along with “The Being Between”, they’re easily the highlights of Verde.
Assad’s choice in non-Brazilian material is intriguing; covering songs by Bjork and U2 has recently come into vogue among jazz and world music artists, and Assad does well to align herself with that sort of adult-oriented edginess. She recasts U2’s “One” (a song that’s already crept its way into the popular canon via interpreters like Johnny Cash) as a bossa nova ballad, with her airy, open chords providing an appropriately fragile accompaniment. Björk’s “Bachelorette” gets a similarly clever treatment, arranged as an Astor Piazzola-esque tango with pulsing accordion and cello while Assad delivers a commendably Björk-like vocal performance. Even Assad’s approach to traditional Brazilian pieces like “Viola Meu Bem” is cool and sophisticated, subverting stereotypical rhythms in favor of overdubbed vocals and distant percussion. But again, edgy and adventurous doesn’t always equal awe-inspiring.
Still, there’s nothing ostensibly awry with Verde as a whole; but even so, it’s a recording where everything seems highly calculated. The guitar technique and arrangements are impeccable, the singing sweet and alluring, the experimental flourishes tasteful and never intrusive… all of which comes largely at the sacrifice of passion. Even after several listens, one rarely gets the impression that Assad is doing anything other than crafting a pleasant record.