Badi Assad: Wonderland

[4 December 2006]

By Michael Keefe

Brazilian musical artist Badi Assad was originally hailed for her abilities as an acoustic guitarist. Today, she is a major adult pop vocalist in her homeland who has a rapidly growing audience in the world music market at large. Her recording career began in 1994, with jazz label Chesky issuing her debut album appropriately entitled Solo. If this record were your only reference point for Assad, you would not recognize her music today.

Twelve years ago, she played something much more akin in style to the nuevo flamenco of Paco de Lucia, with only the occasional vocal. And this was a good thing. Her voice was young and undisciplined, its presence more of a detraction than an asset on her earliest works. Three years later, the gentle Echoes of Brazil revealed the scaffolding that she would soon build upon . As promised in the title, Assad turned out a nice selection of covers from a fine assortment of Brazilian composers, including Egberto Gismonti, Baden Powell, Luis Bonfá, and, on the final track, herself. Ditching the troublesome vocals, the disc honed in on Assad’s playing, with only minimal contributions on upright bass and percussion.

The following year, Badi Assad signed to Verve, who released the not so jazzy Chameleon. She brought back the vocals, showing improvement, although her lovely acoustic guitar playing continued to be the focal point of her recordings. Stylistically, however, she began edging toward the pop realm. Still spare and largely acoustic, the record pushed at the borders of world, folk, rock, and, on many cuts, something of a post-new age tranquility. A very strong record, it showed great promise for the young artist. Oddly, it was at this juncture that Badi Assad chose to drop out of the scene and take some time for herself.

She returned in 2003, both to the music scene and to Chesky, with the album Three Guitars. You won’t be surprised to hear that this disc features the work of three guitarists: John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, and Assad. Those are some established heavyweights in the world of jazz guitar, and Badi proved (again) that she was no slouch on the instrument, herself. That out of her system, Assad got back to the business of crafting her excellent blend of world pop / folk / rock music.

Having shifted beneath the vast umbrella of the Universal Music Group from Verve to Deutsche Grammophon’s Edge imprint, 2005 saw the release of Verde. A gorgeous album, it cemented the approach she began with Chameleon and that she would take to her new release. By this point, her voice had very much become an asset. On Verde, Assad’s singing shared the spotlight with her still mellifluous guitar playing. The instrumentation was fuller, too, the arrangements changing depending on what worked best for each song. The result was a resounding success.

Now, in 2006, we have Wonderland, the follow-up to Verde. This is a tough bill to fill, but Assad tackles the task with great ambition. The new record’s title refers to Lewis Carroll’s tale of Alice, but this is not the Disneyland version. Although the music on Wonderland isn’t dark, the overall concept concerns a world in which values have been turned upside down and whose populace is duplicitous. Man, the rest of the world really does pay a lot of attention to US politics! Or, just as likely, there are Cheshire Cats in governments the world over. Still, this theme is swept away by the beautiful and spirited music on the album.

Without reading the introduction in the liner notes (and certainly without proficiency in Brazilian Portuguese), few listeners would detect the dark undertones. Oh, sure, there are the hints of melancholy coursing beneath the music’s surface, but that can be pinned on the saudade, the sense of longing that underscore’s the otherwise softly swaying music of Brazil. Certainly the cello playing of veteran producer and musician Jaques Morelenbaum accents this introspective mood. Joining him in backing Badi are Carlos Malta on sax and flute, double bassist Zeca Assumpção, and Marcos Suzano on percussion. They create a sumptuous sound in their journey through Wonderland, as Assad and company turn a wide assortment of covers and a couple of originals into a cohesive vision.

Standing out the most, and perhaps a bit awkwardly, is their interpretation of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. It’s a song so rooted in the context of its original instrumentation that Assad’s cover simply feels wrong. Worse, however, is the album’s final number, which sounds like (and hopefully is) a poorly recorded take of a very young Badi doing disservice to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Estrada do Sol”. Consider it a bonus curio, if you can, rather than part of the album proper.

Every other track on the disc definitely feels right, including another take on an even more contemporary English language song, “Black Dove” by Tori Amos. It’s a lovely number and fits right in here, as does “1000 Mirrors”, originally by Asian Dub Foundation, and Vangelis’s “One More Kiss, Dear”. The other remakes on the record are from Brazilian composers, including the great relative newcomer Lenine and the legendary Gonzaguinha. From the former comes the compelling and driving opener “Acredite ou Não”, a misleadingly peppy track that serves as a touchstone for the more upbeat Verde, but which doesn’t prepare you for the more introspective mood of Wonderland.

With enough excellent acoustic guitar playing to likely satisfy her early fans and plenty of beautiful interpretations of a broad spectrum of compositions from across the planet, Badi Assad remains firmly on the right track, creating a moodier, but equally enthralling, complement to Verde. Wonderland is well worth the trip down the rabbit hole (or to wherever quality world music is sold).

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/badi-assad-wonderland/