If choro is Brazil's version of Dixieland, the Modern Traditions Ensemble is its Preservation Hall Jazz Band, highly skilled if a bit academic.
Choro has been called the New Orleans music of Brazil. It has a Dixieland aura, since it often uses a flute or a clarinet as the main instrument. It is like jazz in having its own musical patterns and riffs, requiring virtuosity of the musicians who play it. Choro also uses stringed instruments, including mandolin, and piano.
Like our Dixieland, choro will continue to be performed as a part of its country's tradition, as on New Old Music. This recording lacks the fire of an all-night rodas de choro jam session, though. If choro is Dixieland, the Modern Traditions Ensemble is its Preservation Hall Jazz Band, highly skilled if a bit academic. But there is no doubt about the talents of the musicians who appear here: Isaias de Almeida (mandolin), Naylor Proveta (soprano sax and clarinet), Israel de Almeida (seven-string guitar), Benjamin Taubkin (piano), and Guello on percussion, with Teco Cardoso on baritone sax on the ninth and last track.
The unusual combination of instruments gives this CD an unfamiliar sound for Americans. Choro is not well known to U.S. listeners. By the time bossa nova became popular here in the '50s, choro had already passed its Brazilian peak of popularity (from the '20s to the '40s), although it was revived in the '70s.
All of the songs on New Old Music are standards, written by choro's most famous composers. The sound is varied, because most of the tracks have different combinations of musicians. "Proezas de Solon (Solon's Exploits)" by Pixinguinha has a light, refined touch. Choro takes some of its forms from European classical music, and you can hear a bit of chamber music here. Jacob do Bandolim's "Vibracoes (Vibrations)" is a soft, meditative piece, with the other musicians weaving around Israel de Almeida's Spanish guitar. "Sonoroso (Sonorous)" and "Coxixando (Whispering)" have distinctly minor key Brazilian resonance, with the melodic counterpoint of Dixieland.
"Porolas (Pearls)" begins with a smoky clarinet solo -- giving a late night feel to a piece that is a cross between classical and jazz. Using old-fashioned melody lines, the clarinet alternates with duets by the de Almeidas and a bit of piano work. Taubkin is backed by Guello and Israel in "Lamentos do Morro (Moans of the Hill)", a lively jazz-inflected tune with the polyrhythms so characteristic of Brazil. "Gotas do Ouro" is a stately waltz.
"Coxixando (Whispering)" contains unusual duets with clarinet and guitar, and piano and percussion. "Lamentos (Moans)" makes a strange pairing of piano and mandolin. The two instruments sound beautiful together in this slow piece, with harmonizing solos. "Cheguei (I Arrived)" is a carnival tune, with all the musicians playing in a mood evoking revelers dancing in brightly colored outfits.
The musicians here work more loosely than in jazz and Dixieland. There is no discernable pattern of rotating solos, or clearly defined boundaries between melody and rhythm. Although other influences are apparent, choro is a unique language that produces music of many different moods. For listeners drawn to Brazilian music, choro is well worth exploring, and New Old Music is a good way to begin.