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When you go to see a concert by The Assads, it will be a long evening if your interests are narrow. The group capped the 2010-11 Charlotte Concerts series at Halton Theater on the Central Piedmont Community College campus. The elders, Sérgio and Odair Assad, play classical guitars and lean toward Brazilian repertoire, from Heitor Villa-Lobos and Astor Piazzolla to Antonio Carlos Jobim. When the next-generation pianist/vocalist/composer Clarice Assad joins the brothers onstage, along with percussionist Keita Ogawa, the thrust of the music shifts from classical to jazz, and when vocalist Christiane Karam completes the quintet, we suddenly veer toward Lebanon and Turkey, with unmistakably Middle Eastern music and texts.
Engaging anecdotes and sparkling patter have no place in the Assads’ emceeing. But if they tend toward diffidence in their hosting chores, matter-of-factness vanishes when they launch into their wide-ranging music. As the group presented itself in various contexts and configurations, I found my admiration drawn chiefly to the instrumental and compositional skills of Sérgio Assad and the marvels of his vocalist daughter. Sérgio played most of the lead guitar as the brothers opened with Piazzolla’s “Bandoneón” and was even more spectacular as they performed Ernesto Nazareth’s “Epônina.” There is simply more proficiency to his playing, a rounder, markedly pearlescent tone that doesn’t diminish as he speeds the tempo or when he goes far up the treble range of his guitar, where he deftly plucks its harmonics. Nor is Odair a prosaic accompanist. His introduction to Nazareth’s “Butuque” was mildly flecked with percussive effects, but playing the lead on Jobim’s “Amparo,” he merely confirmed his brother’s dominion as a soloist. That was quickly re-established as Sérgio once again dazzled in Jobim’s more familiar “Stone Flower,” joyously pushing the pace.
Joining her elders for Villa-Lobos’s “Melodia Sentimental,” Clarice sang beautifully enough in a glossy style that might indicate she idolized the sensual blandness of Astrud Gilberto. It was only when she was left alone onstage with Ogawa that she let loose with a fuller arsenal of scat and percussive effects that put me in mind of the amazing Flora Purim. Of course, with the wide array of congas, piping, and knickknacks that Ogawa had in his kit, there was the inevitable comparison with the iconic pairing of Purim and percussion whiz Airto Moreira. Assad and Ogawa were definitely making a similar kind of music, electric and exotic in its excitement. The brothers joined the fun for the final two numbers before intermission. With Clarice and her dad jamming with each other, G. Levy’s “Baião de 5” may have actually turned up the heat slightly, but Clarice finally sat down at the piano – where her talents are relatively unexceptional – for César Guerra-Peixe’s “Mourão.”
Sérgio’s original composition, “Tahhiyya li Ossoulina,” was played by the brothers, launching the second half of the program in a meditative vein. But after a brief percussive midsection, “Ossoulina” soon caught fire with a blistering solo from Sérgio that Odair valiantly tried to match. Now it was time for Karam to bring her Middle Eastern vocals to the Halton stage. Considering that the Assad brothers’ grandfather, Jorge Assad, had migrated to Brazil from Lebanon in 1890, Karam represents more of an inevitable circling back to the family’s roots than an eccentric excursion. Her forte is in anguished nostalgic love ballads, which she introduces with an eloquence that the Assads might aspire to. “Nahna Wel Amar Jiran” actually linked up rather well with the duet that preceded it, but Karam’s finest moments occurred in the mournful and nostalgic “Lamma Bada Yatahanna” by Abdel Halim El Masloub. Ozawa cradled a circular instrument that emitted unique haunting sounds whether he struck or rubbed it, greatly deepening the effect.
Though their vocal styles were seemingly too diverse to mesh, the ensuing duet between Clarice Assad and Karam on the latter’s song, “Dunya Bir Dolap,” was sheer delight, accompanied by Ogawa. Assad did so much gonging in her half of the vocals that she too might be considered an accompanist. With the return of the brothers, the complete quintet was onstage together for the first time. The finale was predictably festive and celebratory – but much, much more. The De Volta As Raizes suite was a majestic four-part journey, composed by Karam, Sérgio and Clarice Assad, with Odair switching instruments to play an electric lute that could sound like a slide guitar. The individual parts were named “Tarkeen" ("Leaving),” “Yaoum Jdid" ("Hope),” “Haneen" ("Nostalgia),” and “Saltanah" ("Happiness),” but there were also interludes of despair and yearning. Clarice settled down at the piano for the first three parts, yielding the vocals to Karam, but the youngest Assad triggered the joyous finale with her wondrous vocalese and we briefly heard that Karam could also sing convincingly at faster tempos. The nearly full house seemed to listen attentively as the suite was described to them, but they didn’t have the discipline to withhold their applause even halfway through, bursting into an enthusiastic ovation after the opening section. That’s how sweet this suite was.