Brazil’s Antonio Adolfo: Bridging Traditions

Antonio Adolfo's CD

Antonio Adolfo's CD Jazz hagiography abounds with tales of unknown talent, many of the stories probably apocryphal, but in the case of Antonio Adolfo we have a genuinely underrated, yet influential figure. The son of a music teacher and orchestral violinist, Adolfo began his professional career when he was 17, performing in nightclubs on a narrow side street in Rio nicknamed Beco das Garrafas (Bottles Lane). Says Adolfo, “I was musically created and educated there.” At age 22 he was touring with Elis Regina.

Pivotal in his development as a performer, composer, and arranger were studies with Eumir Deodato, David Baker, Guerra-Peixe, and Nadia Boulanger. Accompany artists like Elizeth Cardoso, Fátima Guedes, Marcos Valle, Nara Leão, Sueli Costa, Vinícius Cantuária, and Rita Lee refined his skills. Adolfo’s compositions have been recorded by, among others, Wilson Simonal, Ivete Sangalo, Leci Brandão, Emilio Santiago, Beth Carvalho, Sérgio Mendes, and Stevie Wonder.

The launching of his independent record label, Artezanal, awakened many Brazilian artists to the need for alternative paths of production and triggered a boom of independent recording. Further, Adolfo’s recordings dedicated to Chiquinha Gonzaga, Ernesto Nazaré, João Pernambuco, and to the composers of the Belle Époque are noted cultural milestones.

On his new recording, Chora Baião, Adolfo puts us into the eye of an aesthetic storm. With the definite intention of linking traditional and Brazilian jazz forms, he achieves a synergetic balance, or better, a bridge between stylistic tendencies. Eschewing the standard workhorses by Pixinguinha, Nazaré, and Luiz Gonzaga, Adolfo selected three originals as well as a baião and choro repertoire from the cannons of two Brazilian popular music (MPB) icons, who in passing these styles through their own filters, have reinvented them–Guinga and Chico Buarque. 1.

One of the highlights of Chora Baião is the way Adolfo has assimilated the styles of two MPB artists, whose compositions are guided by how they play guitar, and arranged the chord changes, bass lines, meters, and rhythms in a way that transforms the music into the sophisticated chordal and improvisatory complexities typical of the Beco das Garrafas jazz groups. Adolfo’s informed arrangements push the harmonic and rhythmic logic of these tunes to their ultimate conclusions. It is a masterfully assembled disc, engineered, recorded, and mixed by Alex Moreira of BossaCucaNova.

A glance at the personnel listing will tell you that something is up. Adolfo has chosen a stellar cast of players who bring out the best in one another: Marcos Suzano, Jorge Helder, Rafael Barata, Carol Saboya, and Leo Amuedo. This is a band that gels effortlessly, each musician playing an equal part. Never is there a moment’s complacency. Their conversancy with each other and with the demands of the music opens the way to an excellent recording. Indeed the teamwork between them helps explain the disc’s richness.

The opener, “Dá O Pé Loro” (Hey, Parrot! Give Me Your Foot), recorded by Guinga on his third CD, Cheio de Dedos, is a baião with Hermeto Pascoal’s influence and a jazz inspired arrangement. Beginning with a typical Northeastern percussion trio–pandeiro, zabumba, and triangle–all performed (via multi-tracking) by Marcos Suzano, this is music with an edge of excitement. Leo Amuedo’s guitar solo, dynamic with a discreetly propulsive power, serves as a fine introduction to his coherent solo style. In addition, the tune’s hybrid modality and rhythmic structure, work as foils to the Brazilian jazz rhythm section, enlivening an already inspired atmosphere.

The choro/samba-canção “Nó na Garganta” (Lump in the Throat), also recorded by Guinga on Cheio de Dedos, is subtle and delicate, Adolfo having made some perceptive changes in harmony, melody, and meter to link Guinga’s music to jazz. There is an exquisite sense of ensemble empathy as Adolfo solos over the A section and Amuedo on B. Both are superbly served by Suzano playing tambourin with his fingers and drummer Rafael Barata, using brushes on snare drum for the melody, but switching to sticks on cymbals for solos. A ping-pong dialogue at the coda between guitar and piano dovetails until the two coalesce in a contrapuntal weaving of independent lines.

The title track, Adolfo’s “Chora, Baião,” a baião with elements of choro, toada, and jazz–as well as eight bars of maracatu performed by Barata (drums) and Suzano (moringa) after the introductory lick–has bite and substance. Adolfo’s effectively understated solo is terse, lyrical, and dramatic, a flame that smolders rather than sears. Leo Amuedo’s has no hint of a semi-tentative approach to a phrase. His peerless, pure tone and an apparently unquenchable flow of improvisational ideas is the kind of thing that must cause acute envy among other guitar players.

“Você, Você” was a Chico Buarque, Guinga collaboration recorded on Buarque’s CD As Cidades. The lyrics for this toada, according to Buarque, were inspired by his grandson repeatedly saying, “Você, Você” (You, You) to his mother. Lyricists, however, seldom reveal the true meaning of their verse. Listeners paying close attention might catch an allusion to the Oedipus complex, a son’s deep admiration for his mother, a mysterious jealousy, written as an extended metaphor that only a poet with the acumen and talent of Chico Buarque can create.

Written by Chico Buarque for the film about a lighthouse keeper and his daughter, “A Ostra e o Vento” (The Oyster and the Wind) was originally a slow modinha in 4/4. Perceiving a link with Jobim’s “Chovendo na Roseira” (Double Rainbow), Adolfo changed the meter to a 3/4 jazz waltz and added choro elements in the harmony. Singing wordlessly, aside from the word vento (wind), Carol Saboya brings to the song an elasticity of time and melody that only a superb jazz singer can manage, while Barata’s exquisite brushwork and Leo Amuedo’s penetrative guitar, strong in content and paced by a naturally legato rhythmic approach, echo the mood.

Bassist Jorge Helder is the veritable anchor mooring “Chicote,” an up-tempo baião with jazz features, written by Adolfo when he studied with Guerra-Peixe. Says Adolfo, “That motif was actually influenced by Chick Corea, which is why the title is “Chicote.” Notable among the solos are Amuedo’s, showing an unflagging inventive flow and sensitivity to shadings; and the swirling rhythmic currents of Barata’s loose-jointed and fluid contribution, its varied points of emphasis do not punctuate or calibrate time, but redirect our perception of its flow.

Adolfo has been a consistently inventive stylist since the mid-sixties. His piece for solo piano “Chorosa Blues,” a toada with elements of choro and Canção-Brasileira, develops ideas rooted in the work of both Buarque and Guinga. Taking the basis, the obvious affinities in these works, Adolfo unfolds a tune that starts where they left off and, demonstrating lyricism and restraint, achieves a brooding intensity which is very much his own, a sepia hue more finely honed than melancholy.

Written in 1975 by Chico Buarque and Paulo Pontes “Gota d’ Água” (Drop of Water) is from a theater piece inspired by the Greek tragedy Medea by Euripides, which tells the story of a betrayed woman’s revenge. Originally a Canção-Brasileira with a taste of samba-canção, Adolfo’s arrangement incorporates elements of the slow tempo samba-jazz played by the trios during the 60’s on Beco das Garrafas. The bass and piano solos, evocative and satisfying, remain largely faithful to the contours of the song’s melody. It is a wistful piece and wonderfully atmospheric.

Recorded on Guinga’s CD Suite Leopoldina and dedicated to Jorge Helder, “Di Menor” (Underage), with its muscular single-note lines and energetic chords, generates staggering harmonic and kinetic energy. It begins with the pandeiro setting up a choro/samba de gafieira groove, and moves toward samba jazz. All Barata’s trademarks are here: his mobility around the entire kit and his expert use of the auxiliary percussion to flesh out the texture and offset the soloists in the most provocative light. Both Adolfo and Amuedo solo, but their statements are kept brief to create constantly changing colors, character, and perspective.

“Catavento e Girassol” (Windmill and Sunflower), recorded on Guinga’s second CD, Delírio Carioca, is a toada with elements from choro and samba-canção. Inspired by the original lyrics by Aldir Blanc, which suggest a couple’s strained dialogue and drama, Adolfo’s instrumental arrangement has piano and guitar doubling the melody in the A section, but in the B section they are dialoguing solo lines. Adolfo’s are graceful and flowing, sometimes long and intricate. Amuedo’s display a controlled, yet assertive manner. The serpentine lament of Suzano’s cuíca adds suggestive depth.

The CD closes with the absolutely haunting “Morro Dois Irmãos” (Two Brothers Hill) from Chico Buarque’s eponymous CD. On this toada, fused with a slow tempo Canção-Brasileira and jazz elements (in the harmony and phrasing), Adolfo’s tone is as clear as his musical thinking. There are many finger-perfect pianists on tap, but those of Adolfo’s natural musicality are rare indeed. Everything in the molding of the phrase comes from within, from an instinct for decorative touches. Beautifully nuanced, his delivery is clean and sure. Sensitivity of this kind just can’t be programmed.

This recording has the authoritative ease in execution that only comes through complete mastery. There is never a routine or automatic moment in its attractively varied program. It has a freshness that derives in large part from the impeccable musicians with which Adolfo has surrounded himself, all with improvisatory egos nicely in check. These are highly professional sidemen with depth of feeling and no little commitment. Amuedo and Adolfo offer up a plethora of compelling solos, and the supple, ESP-like collaboration of percussionist Marcos Suzano, bassist Jorge Helder, and drummer Rafael Barata cement it all together.

Perhaps the disc’s single most impressive achievement is the way Adolfo preserved the purity of these beautiful and inspired melodies, many of which are unknown outside Brazil. Hearing these arrangements teases listeners to compare them with the originals and note how Adolfo has refined their expressivity. You can feel the frisson within the group as they work out on the arrangements. The entire program exhibits a flair for the melodic and is easy to listen to again and again. One of those recordings where new delights come tumbling out at each hearing, Chora Baião is engaging music immaculately played from one of Brazil’s unsung greats.

1. There is a predominance of baião and choro, but a fusion of styles should be acknowledged at all times since the binary forms–choro, baião, and samba–come rhythmically from similar sources that can be synthesized in the maracatu.

 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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