Whenever a renowned percussionist takes center stage on an album, I get excited. There’s a sense of unpredictability, a potentially delightful sea of unknowns ahead that make for a voyage with a promising trajectory.
Ivan Conti – Mamão to many – is one of Brazil’s great jazz drummers, a septuagenarian best known to those in the know with regard to the 1980s Brazilian underground samba scene as a member of the Rio-based jazz-funk trio Azymuth. Azymuth’s spaced-out style was one the group characterized as samba doido, or “crazy samba”. On new solo album Poison Fruit, Mamão shows that he still has the chops to execute such sonic mayhem, both as percussionist and as more broadly experimental in his compositions.
The music here, though, is a far cry from retro psychedelia. The tracks on Poison Fruit are smooth and current electronic numbers with samba rhythms and a cool dancefloor energy that any modern MPB artist would be proud to call their own. Hardly the expected coming from such an old-school legend, but then again, Mamão is all about the unexpected.
In fact, as crucial as drum is as a foundation for each song, Mamão uses it wisely rather than forcing it to always be the center. Opening track “Aroeira” is one of the more percussion-heavy tracks, but a bouncing bassline takes the spotlight. On “Encontro”, tropical synth melodies add a lounge feel to the mix. The beats are strong and straightforward on neon-hued “Bacurau” and lithe instrumental “Ninho”, and softly lace together the ephemeral “Ilha da Luz” with soft brushes of hi-hat.
Sonic dimensions enhance the immersive quality of many a track, particularly those with more of an electronic touch. “O Ritual” takes us into the Amazon, a mystical exploration of roots and loops that echoes from side to side to give the illusion of depth and distance in a way. “Poison Fruit” sounds a little like the underground level of a particularly intense Nintendo platformer set in Rio, complete with synthesized blips that had this reviewer constantly looking over her shoulder for the source of them.
A more acoustic track, “Que Legal” has a slow, psychedelic guitar opening interrupted by an odd noise that sounds like it comes from the eternally open mouth of a dollar store Halloween animatronic. The music speeds up to become the album’s chief earworm. Following it in sharp contrast is “Ecos da Mata”, another rainforest rave track with earthier percussion. “Tempestades” follows, a short track that finally puts Mamão’s impressive drumming in the foreground.
The remainder of the album is devoted to remixes of earlier tracks, all of which are fairly good, none interfering too much with the source material. (Thankfully, Reginald Omas Mamode IV’s solid remix of “Que Legal” eliminates the CVS toy aisle moment.) Poison Fruit closes on Dokta Venom’s Dub Mix of the title track, a reprise that adds even more drive to what is undoubtedly the album’s main highlight.
Like any exceptional drummer, Ivan Conti knows music from the ground up. On Poison Fruit, Mamão builds from a lifetime of experience and an understanding of music that makes him flexible enough to thrive in any era with an unfailing sense of style.