These are good days for jazz and Brazilian music, but then what days aren’t? The sway of bossa nova and samba has always given jazz musicians the shivers. The polyrhythmic complexity of these Brazilian grooves suggests a new kind of swing, and no tenor saxophone solo ever sounded worse with a Rio pulse.
Duduka Da Fonseca is a Rio native and a spectacular drummer. He’s a cat who plays light even when he’s grooving very hard—a feat that makes other musicians smile from ear to eyeball. He moved to New York in 1975 and, consequently, has played with everyone from both continents—Antonio Carlos Jobim down south, Gerry Mulligan up north, and everybody in between. Eminently qualified to make a great jazz-samba album, Mr. Da Fonseca has done exactly that.
Samba Jazz in Black & White mostly features a tasty quintet of relative unknowns: Mr. Da Fonseca on drums, bassist Leonardo Cioglia, Helio Alves on piano, Guilherme Monteiro playing guitars, and reed player Anat Cohen. The tunes chosen for this project are all by various Brazilian composers, including Jobim, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, and Mr. Alves. Putting aside the temptation to samba-ize jazz standards, the band also declines to “swing” the Brazilian tunes as if they were straight ahead jazz. So, given that the harmonic vocabulary of Brazilian music overlaps with sophisticated jazz chords, what about the disc is “jazz” at all?
Well, mainly, there are the generously loose and flowing improvisations, particularly by pianist Alves and guitarist Monteiro. Mr. Alves plays with the comprehensive command of Kenny Barron or John Hicks—comping with as much creativity as he blows, and generally firing up each song. Mr. Monteiro has a muted approach that is less Wes Montgomery than Jim Hall but always swinging. The two sound particularly tasty on a rhythmically exciting tune like “Janeiro” by Ion Muniz.
Mr. Monteiro’s partner in the front line of the band is Anat Cohen, who weilds soprano and tenor saxes as well as clarinet. Ms. Cohen, originally from Israel, can also sound muted at times, but her star shines more and more as the record progresses and as she gets deeper into her solos. Indeed, you yearn to hear her (and the whole band, really) live, as this seems to be a group thriving on the moment. Her soprano work on “Palhaco” is truly expressive and fun, even witty in spots, reminding me of Jan Garbarek’s work with Keith Jarrett.
Finally, Samba Jazz benefits from the just the right number of guest spots. Mr. Da Fonseca’s wife, Maucha Adnet, sings wordless vocals on “Mestre Bimba” and imparts a feeling song on “Medo de Amar”. So often it seems that Brazilian women singing in this style sound impossibly dry and flat as if they’re trapped inside a classic Gilberto album. Ms Adnet avoids that fate beautifully while staying in the idiom. Also, trumpeter Claudio Roditi guests on “Bye Bye Brazil” to lovely muted effect.
The only weakness of this project is a somewhat understandable niceness. Every tune is lyrical. The soloists play with professional expertise and harmonic astuteness. The overdubbed flutes (four!) of Paulo Levi on one track are tasty and bubbling, and no one goes on too long in any one solo. In short, it’s the kind of jazz record that could have been made any time in the last 40 years. That’s not a bad thing, but it does justify a certain finger-drumming tedium in the true fan. Mr. Da Fonseca writes in the liner notes that blending samba with jazz is what he’s been developing his whole life. Fair enough, but we’ve still heard this kind of thing before. No doubt in concert they move it up a notch. But the record is probably too pleasant by a click or two.
But why niggle? These folks can play, and they know just how to get your fingers and hips moving to their infectious sway. Let the warm breeze take you.