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Many cultures possess great musical traditions, but Brazil has an especially rich, varied, and continually surprising cache of treasures. Listen to the great recordings of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd playing such Brazilian anthems as "The Girl from Ipanema," "Corcovado," and countless others, and you are transported back to the innocent times of the early 1960s. That was the first wave of music from Brazil, music that continues sensually to roll over us today in different styles, forms, and influences.
Concert/serious/classical composers from Brazil have always used a wealth of traditional, indigenous forms of their musical culture and incorporated them into their Western European concert compositions. As a classical guitarist, I struggled to learn the wonderful compositions of Heitor Villa-Lobos, probably the most revered Brazilian classical composer. Among the many works by Villa-Lobos that became staples of guitarists' repertoire were several called "choro," an instrumental form that is older than the better-known bossa nova and sambas. These were probably my favorites. They are harmonically rich, rhythmically diverse, and sensual; and they were, for me, much more playable than his virtuosic set of twelve etudes! The choro, which originated in the late 19th century in Rio de Janiero, combined Afro-Brazilian rhythms with European forms and harmony. It is a mixture that makes up a seemingly incongruent sound that offers elegance and earthiness, the familiar and the exotic, and caution mingled with danger. If you get the feeling that at times you are hearing what sounds like Bach combined with subtle, syncopated rhythms, then you are experiencing "choro."
The group Choro Sax Brasil appeared in Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium on September 25, on the final concert of a ten-day US tour partially funded by Brazil's Ministry of Culture. The group was formed with two purposes in mind: to feature the saxophone as an instrument that in Brazil pre-dated its American eminence in jazz, and musically to document the evolution of choro. The group features two saxophonists playing a variety of instruments. Mario Seve, one of the two, is also the producer, composer and arranger of some of the pieces performed. David Ganc, the other saxophonist, replaced Daniela Spielmann, who stayed behind after recently having a baby. These two are definitely the featured players, but it would have been a very boring evening without the backup of four outstanding musicians on piano, guitar, bass, and percussion.
The program began in a very low-key way as Seve strolled out on stage, moved some stands around, appeared a bit unsure of what was going on, and then played a brilliant solo. The distinctive sounds of Brazilian rhythms began to be heard from the wings of the stage as percussionist Marcio Bahia proceeded to do things with a single snare drum that lesser drummers couldn't begin to approach with an entire drum set. Many of the rhythms are reminiscent of the Luis Bonfa score to the great film Black Orpheus. After this, the three remaining band members came out.
There was great variety within what at first sounded like the perpetual dominance of the two saxophonists. Pianist Paulo Malaguti proved to be a consummate singer, too, especially skilled in rapid-fire delivery of Portuguese lyrics. Unfortunately, the piano itself was very poorly miked, so its sound was either extremely muddy or barely audible. Guitarist Bilinho Teixeira played a nicely amplified acoustic instrument that supplied much of the lush, distinctive Brazilian harmonies. It may be hard to believe, but in the midst of all these instruments and the electronics, and taking into account the generally complex arrangements, the highlight of the evening was probably a solo played by percussionist Bahia on a tambourine -- yes, that most basic grade-school instrument. I don't want to imply that you may someday hear a tambourine concerto, but he did things with this percussive "toy" that had people not believing their eyes and ears.
For my taste, the sound of the two saxophones, amplified much too loudly, became a bit tiresome after a while - despite the unquestioned virtuosity of the players. Still, it was an evening well spent, for this high-powered, energetic group gave us a welcome glimpse into the magic of Brazil's seemingly endless well of music.