Toninho Horta and Tom Lellis: Brazilian Setting for Standards

Tonight by Horta and Lellis

Tonight by Horta and LellisVocalist and composer/pianist Tom Lellis has the uncluttered musical thinking and timing of a jazz musician born and bred. His distinctive tone and style of delivery, marked by his idiosyncratic phrasing, holds genuine fascination for instrumentalists. An unusually resourceful and imaginative musician whose lyrical conception is more original than most, Lellis reveals an agility, accuracy, and knack for setting lyrics to jazz tunes and instrumental solos that is exquisite, reproducing the demanding twists of horn technique with surprising ease.

Beyond argument, Toninho Horta is Brazil’s finest jazz guitarist. His tone, articulation, and turn of phrase are all instantly recognizable. There is a case for going further and calling him one of the finest guitarists in Brazilian Popular Music, as well as the first great Brazilian guitarist in American jazz. Much of the evidence required for putting forward this case – his masterly shaping of notes, his exemplary rhythm playing, and his immense chordal vocabulary and gift for fashioning intriguing harmonies – is exhibited on Tonight, the CD recorded with Tom Lellis.

The disc is a treasury of the most individual interpretations, rich in what can safely be called jazz standards, underpinned by Brazilian rhythms, unconventionally re-harmonized, yet arranged at the cutting edge of the modern mainstream. Medium-tempo swingers full of flair and unusual progressions lie in close proximity to moody angular slower pieces and popular American songs from film and Broadway. There is plenty here which points to the duo’s commitment to experimentation and passionate expression, much that achieves and sustains a very high level of artistry, and so many deeply satisfying performances that it is difficult to alight on one for special praise.

Just a few bars of their exchanges on “Maybe September” show the duo’s intuitive musical understanding. Singing in 1/2 time against its sizzling samba groove, Lellis shines throughout; what pleasure it is to hear a jazz vocalist who sings in tune, really swings, and story-tells the lyrics. The interplay between Lellis’s supple voice and Horta’s comping and soloing, coaxing an attractive range of surprising sounds and textures from this pleasant but familiar theme, is the epitome of integration.

Jobim’s “Dindi,” presenting Lellis’s arrestingly cool timbre over Horta’s warmly supportive accompaniment (and alternating vocals in Portuguese), is introduced by Lerner/Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” and receives a sensuous reading. “An Infinite Love,” a slow-burner written by the duo, emphasizes the first flush of true love. Horta’s low-key virtuosity, giving the music its sentimental edge, is ably abetted by Lellis’s lyrics and economical keyboard support, which draws from select washes of sampled orchestral strings.

That Lellis is adept at piano improvisation and comping, is evident on Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance.” A cultured vocalist, he is equally able to cut through the surface of this song and deliver its essence without undue flash, his innate feeling for the lyrics allowing him to add variation to the song’s original course. There is a relaxed kind of fun at work here, for nearly every line is couched as a disavowing statement. Horta’s wordless vocal is a bonus, and the deftness with which the two weave and twine their lines makes a great song even better.

For Irving Berlin’s “Lets Face the Music and Dance,” Lellis uses a re-harmonization he wrote for the standard, “Without a Song,” and in the scat (vocal improvisation without words), where he and Horta use their voices in imitation of solo instruments, Lellis quotes the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein tune “The Song is You.” Playing with élan and abandon, Horta is in burning form on Cole Porter’s “In The Still of the Night.” The lyrics, set as a 1/2 time ballad against a full time samba, are masterfully supported in mood and tempo by Horta, he and Lellis being consummate foils for each other.

“Fly Me to the Moon” features Horta’s scatting, his re-harmonized arrangement, and his finger-breakingly pianistic chord voicing. He is uniformly cogent and controlled, producing an entirely personal, instantly identifiable sound. The title track, Bernstein and Sondheim’s classic “Tonight,” confirms Lellis can realign well-known melodies in elegant and exciting ways. He is one of the few singers to have realized the harmonic potential of Bernstein’s music, his sensitivity to the composer’s music leaving no doubt that he is a creatively uncompromising jazz singer of the highest order.

“Dreamwalking” (Nos Tempos de Paulinho), Horta’s tribute to his brother, parades lyrics by Lellis whose thematic references employ musical allusions to the girl watching fantasy in “The Girl from Ipanema.” Horta sets the tone with guitar and voice, and when Lellis enters, he matches with complementary phrasing and accentuation, dovetailing with invention the ongoing thematic line and bringing the tune a gently swinging grace.

The heart-stopper is “Three for Marie” (3/4 Marie), a breathlessly tender piece dedicated to Lellis’s wife – they have three kids – and a thorough showcase for his many talents: his range of tone color and sensitivity to line, his unfettered expressiveness, his flexible timing and evident rapport with Horta. Seeming to start from nowhere and disappear into the same nowhere, sounds appear and fade like headlights on the horizon. Lellis, full of tenderness, sentiment, and sighs, balances clarity with the music’s purely coloristic qualities; Horta’s guitar, following a thematic muse, intensifies the feeling.

Lellis’s acute sense of pitch and soft-grained tenor voice are ripe for essaying “The Nearness of You.” Horta, digging into the energetic forward-reaching mood, sustains its vigorous tempo without sacrificing either fluency or lyricism. An apparently unquenchable flow of ideas imbues all his music with a discreetly propulsive power permitting him to play in the most relaxed, soulful manner, completely free from artifice or grandstanding. The overall effect is of the two communing with each other and conveying the tune’s essence in terms of a personal message to the listener.

“Summertime,” a DuBose Heyward poem set to music by George Gershwin, was performed as a lullaby in Porgy and Bess and became the best-known piece from the opera. Reinforced by a blues-based line and a slow-moving harmonic progression, the tune imparts a folksy informality. As this track shows, Horta communicates a great deal of warmth, his very obvious love for the song helped by Lellis’s expert accompaniment. While “Summertime,” illustrates the strength of Horta’s singing, his jazz-shaped vocal phraseology is more evident on Cole Porter’s “I Love You.”

Opening with an interval of a downward major 7th, followed by an ascending major sixth, and covering the range of a tenth, “I Love You” presents the vocalist with a real challenge. For the same reason, instrumentalists find in this tune an opportunity to display range and virtuosity, especially with its surprising harmonic sequences. Here Horta delivers the emotional core of the lyrics, projecting lyric nuance over jazz-vocal virtuosity. Lellis’s piano solo, using rhythmic displacement to generate interest, is firm and precise.

“Over the Rainbow,” a tune MGM executives cut from The Wizard of Oz three times, won the Academy Award in the Best Song category and, some 60 years later, was recognized as the best song of the twentieth century and the top movie song of all time. Technically demanding, it begins each A section with an octave leap on the word Somewhere and requires a vocalist with just the right touch of vulnerability and the facility to sing a long-breathed phrase with perfect control. Lellis has all of that plus a miraculous ear and the vocal equipment to follow wherever it leads.

With his velvety timbre and searching response to the fluctuating shades of the bittersweet verses, Lellis gives “Over the Rainbow” what might be its definitive reading. Interpreting through the mind of someone who will wake up freed from past troubles, Lellis makes you think anew about one of the most beautiful ballads penned during the Golden Age of American Song. Quite apart from his obvious gifts as a singer and musician, that’s what elevates Lellis above most of his contemporaries who so often fail to live the words they’re singing.

Lellis’s instinctive rightness of phrasing and the sense of worldly experience with which he delivers his lyrics echoes of Sinatra’s style. Few singers have ever sounded so comfortable on this material. And Horta, one of the world’s transcendent guitarists, is the ideal partner, his fabled technique enabling him to articulate every idea which comes his way. His confident fluency and infectious exuberance both as soloist and accompanist is stunning. His affinity with Lellis is a model of how to accompany a singer without stealing the limelight, yet to play so ravishingly as to command attention.

This is no mere vocalist-plus-accompaniment release. It stands above others as a testament to the duo’s musical stature and to a fruitful collaboration, emphasizing the rare empathy that exists between two creative spirits whose virtuosity successfully bears out both men’s position in the very front rank of jazz musicians. Their imaginative arrangements, spirited improvising, and artistry raise Tonight head and shoulders above the mass of other standards-oriented ventures, encapsulating as it does all the duo’s strengths: sensitivity, keen musical intelligence, and above all a willingness to express a refreshingly pan-American sensibility.

Journalist, musician, and educator Bruce Gilman has served as music editor of Brazzil magazine, an online international publication based in Los Angeles, for more than a decade. During that time he has  written scores of articles on the most influential Brazilian artists and genres, program notes for festivals in the United States and abroad, numerous CD liner notes, and an essay, “The Politics of Samba,” that appeared in the Georgetown Journal

He is the recipient of three government grants that allowed him to research traditional music in China, India, and Brazil.  His articles on Brazilian music have been translated and published in Dutch, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Spanish. You can reach him through his e-mail: cuica@interworld.net.

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