Brazil’s Nilson Matta: The Master of Lower Tones

    Nilton Matta

    Nilton Matta After having interviewed Romero Lubambo and Duduka Da Fonseca in this series, it was a natural thing to talk to Nilson Matta, who is considered – alongside cats like Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten – one of the top bassists alive today.

    Mr. Matta’s career spans five decades, as he began performing with his drummer brother when he could barely hold an upright bass. He honed his craft playing by ear at first, and after that he got his musical education in Rio de Janeiro – and also through musician friends whom he met through the years.

    Nilson Matta has great creativity on his instrument. Watching him play (this writer being a bassist as well), one should expect the unexpected. He might be doing a regular bossa groove, and then he comes up with creative notes, inserting a blue note here of there to make the music his own – even if it is a classic like “The Girl From Ipanema.”

    We caught up with him before a two-week residency at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, when he joined his longtime band Trio da Paz, when they paid tribute to the music of Jobim, Stan Getz and also played some of their own material.

    Tell me about your recent project with Roni Ben-Hur

    We have been playing together for some time here and in Europe, and we had the idea of making a record together. Whenever I am in town, I play benefit concerts every Wednesday at Englewood Hospital both for the Jazz Foundation and the Dizzy Gillespie foundation to help musicians in need of medical help. Many of these players have no health insurance, so Dr. Frank Forte – who is one of the heads of the Dizzy Gillespie Foundation – helped to put this together with the Jazz Foundation.

    I have always felt the need to give back at least a little, so every Wednesday I play there in order to help the foundations in the best way a can. Roni has been doing this for over four years, and I joined more recently to replace a bassist called Earl May, who died from a massive heart attack. Roni invited me to carry on his work there, and I’ve been doing it for about a year now.

    So we had the idea of making this record in order to help the foundation as well – part of the earnings from this CD will benefit musicians in need. The goal is to help the hospital to create a fund for them – so this is an important record for me, and it is also musically quite nice – though I’m not too crazy about the mix.

    Have you always played upright bass or did you make the shift during your career?

    I have recorded very little on electric bass over the years. My first instrument was the upright bass – I have been interested in it since I was about 7 years old. My mother played classical piano, and my father liked to host parties. He would have these soirées with my family and later in the evening we’d push the furniture aside and start dancing – it was ‘bom pra cacete’ (very good).

    Back in those days, he had a large collection that included both Brazilian and international music. We also listened to a lot of music on the radio. I always liked instrumental music with jazz tendencies -I remember listening to a disc by (singers) Elza Soares and Miltinho. Those records have a lot of swing, and I was really into it.

    My brother played the drums, and when I started learning it, my dad said ‘let’s get you your own instrument.’ So they took me to a store and I selected an upright bass – which was bigger than I was. So thus started my career as a bass player – we formed a group that played in country clubs, and I haven’t stopped playing since.

    You were born in Sao Paulo, but you sound like someone from Rio.

    I married a Carioca (someone born in Rio) and moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1970, so I sound a little like someone from there (laughs). So I always explain that both my wife and daughter are Cariocas.

    So when did you really become a professional player?

    Back in those days there was a radio show called Reino da Juventude (Kingdom of Youth). My brother and I played there – it started on the radio and then it morphed into a TV show – by the time I was 10 I was playing in rock and blues bands. I learned by myself with help from my band mates, and at that time we were already making some money – so it was something natural in my life to become a professional since I was young by playing and studying.

    So on weekend I played in dance bands when I was 12 or 13. Back then being a minor was not an issue. This was around 63 or 64 – the military regime was taking over then, but that didn’t really affect me at all. I have had a long career – I am 62 now.

    So when did jazz come into play?

    There was this Chinese clarinetist who came to Brazil, and he brought along some jazz records.  His name is Thomas Lee, and today he teaches music in Harvard University. It was he who introduced me to jazz. I already knew Frank Sinatra, Ray Conniff, Louis Armstrong, but Thomas showed me some records by Herbie Mann and later Miles Davis, and I started listening to them.

    Later on I had my real jazz education through a friend who remains close to this day, (pianist) Erasmo França. His parents died when he was young, and he lived with his brother and a caretaker in this huge house, and he was already a jazz aficionado – he had a piano in the house, and he had a large record collection that included even the latest releases – he had money, so he had pretty much everything – even an upright bass.

    So I would go there around 8 in the evening and I would stay until the next morning, listening to music. São Paulo was filled with musicians then playing every night, and we would go and hear those guys at clubs, and we would sit in at times.

    It was França who showed me a record by (bassist) Scott LaFaro for the first time – LaFaro revolutionized bass playing, and he covered all areas in the genre. He was a genius, but he died in a car accident in 1961. I heard his last live recording made at the Village Vanguard, and I thought, ‘this is the guy I want to listen to.’ He left a large discography behind – he played with everyone who mattered then.

    He was in Bill Evan’s first trio, right?

    That’s correct – it was his last session. He changed the whole concept of playing jazz. He influenced me a lot. I don’t imitate anyone, though. I have always liked to listen to other bass players and their music. When I listen to a jazz record, I hear everything – the piano, the bass, the soloists…. I don’t have this thing about ‘studying’ any specific player.

    I started studying formally in my twenties when I moved to Rio de Janeiro and went to the Federal University of Rio to learn classical playing and using a bow.  But França was my first ‘school’ of jazz – we sometimes meet and play together. So that is how jazz came into my life – that, samba and bossa nova.

    How many years did you perform in Brazil after your graduation before you made the decision to relocate to the United States?

    I worked with many musicians and singers in Brazil, like Jonny Alf in São Paulo, and after I relocated to Rio I worked with Chico Buarque de Hollanda and MPB4 for many years. I also worked with Roberto Carlos, and after that I joined João Bosco’s band.

    In 1980, I decided not to back singers any longer – not because I don’t like them – I think the human voice is the most beautiful thing there is. But in Brazil, singers are a little different. Only when I worked with João Bosco did I have a chance to do a bass solo. So it was then that I decided to pursue more instrumental music.

    In 1983, I received an invitation to play in Japan. So I married Luiza – who is my wife to this day – and went to Japan. When I returned in 1984, I didn’t find the same Rio de Janeiro that I’d left. I thought, ‘how could the city change so much in such a short time?’ and so I decided to check out how the scene was in New York.

    In the meantime, I started playing with (guitarist) Romero Lubambo in a club where we played almost every night. We performed regularly for about six months, and I told him about my idea of coming to the US and give it a try. We found a place in New Jersey.

    We soon found work – Romero with Astrud Gilberto and me with Gato Barbieri. I told him that I didn’t have work papers, and then his people took care of it.  I worked with him for about six months, and then began the era of Trio da Paz – I already knew Duduka da Fonseca from Rio – we played soccer together.

    So when I arrived I called him, and Duduka invited us to jam together. He had a studio in his basement in Greenwich Village, so we started playing – so it was then that I christened the trio. I am a supporter of Corinthians in São Paulo, but in Rio I root for America, a team that has no rivalry with the other teams in the Guanabara area – so when they played with Fluminense or Vasco da Gama, it was called ‘the peaceful game.’ So during one of these jams I said, ‘This is the Peace Trio, because there are no ego issues or anything like that – and the name stuck.

    So how is Nilson Matta’s career moving forward?

    I have three solo records out – one was recorded in 1999, and later I made another one called Walking With My Bass, which has a lot of guests (Ivan Lins, Rosa Passos and others). More recently I did Brazilian Voyage (Zoho). In September I will do two records: the first will be a follow-up to Brazilian Voyage with the band that I lead, sometimes as a trio, a quartet or a quintet. The other one is something more challenging… I don’t want to use the word ‘modern,’ but it will be something with horns, sort of samba meets jazz.

    I have also been teaching a lot – I have a music workshop called “Samba Meets Jazz.” I am musical director alongside Roni Ben-Hur. This is the third year we’ve been doing this, it’s for singers and instrumentalists who want to learn samba, jazz and Brazilian grooves – it’s a gratifying thing. We did a workshop in Paraty, Brazil recently – and of course I keep on playing with Trio da Paz.

    For more on Nilson Matta, visit www.nilsonmatta.com

    Ernest Barteldes is a freelance writer based on Staten Island, New York. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com. This article appeared in a different form in The Brasilians.

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