When Santos Goes Marchin’ In
By Roberto Muggiati
When Andrea Ernest Dias invited me for a panel on the Moacir Santos Festival 2014, I had only a slight knowledge of the man and his music. Moacir left Brazil in 1967 and lived in Pasadena, California, until his death, in 2006, at the age of 80. Most of his records went out of print and this giant of Brazilian music seemed almost forgotten at the turn of the century. Fortunately, the band Ouro Negro, formed by Mário Adnet and Zé Nogueira in 2001, brought back – lifesize – his vast repertoire and sophisticated philosophy of arranging. On the 6th of August, the date of Moacir’s passing away, things started rolling at Rio’s Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil with a discussion titled “Jazz embraces Moacir.” Three music critics, including myself, and saxophonist Zé Nogueira, tried to put into words the untranslatable magic of Santos’s compositions, most of which he simply named Coisa nº 1, 2, 3 ect., the word “thing” being used the same way as Opus in classical music. We joked a bit over the panel’s title. What sort of “embrace” is this? A bear’s hug? A boa constrictor’s squeeze? Reinaldo Figueiredo, who is also a comedian (from TV’s Casseta & Planeta), a cartoonist and bass player, brought up a quote from Wynton Marsalis. He compared Moacir to Thelonious Monk and Beethoven for his ingenuity, and to Duke Ellington because of his orchestral neatness. Marsalis added: “Like very few others, this Brazilian composer and maestro knew how to combine European music with his African roots and with the liberty of jazz.” Wynton not only invited Ouro Negro to play at New York’s Lincoln Center, but took part in the band’s CD dedicated to Moacir’s music, Choros e alegrias.
The Moacir Santos 2014 Festival (Rio de Janeiro, Brasília and Recife) was the brainchild of flutist and music researcher Andrea Ernest Dias. Invited by Zé Nogueira to play with the Ouro Negro band, she was entranced by Moacir’s music. It was not only love at first sight, but eternal love. Andrea met Moacir in his last years and made an extensive research on his life and work, from Pernambuco’s backlands, where he was born, to Pasadena, where he spent the second half of his life. Her long and scholarly study of Moacir bore wonderful fruit: she took the opportunity of the event to launch the biography Moacir Santos, ou os caminhos de um músico brasileiro (by Rodrigo Ferrari’s bookshop-publishing house Folha Seca) and the CD Muacy, with the trio 3-63 (its members were born in 1963): Andrea (flutes), Paulo Braga (piano) and Marcos Suzano (percussion). The disc presented three unpublished works of Moacir that Andrea found at his Pasadena home: Love Go Down, Sambatango and The Beautiful Life, with lyrics by the famous Livingston & Evans duo. By the way, “Muacy” is how Moacir’s name was written down on the baptism registry of the outparish of São José do Belmonte.
A host of top instrumentalists was on hand for the festival, among them Rique Pantoja and L.A. Friends, Sizão Machado Quartet, Baticun with Carlos Malta & Alex Meirelles, Ouro Negro Band with guest artist Curt Berg, Joana Queiroz & Quartabê. I had the special pleasure of attending the shows of Andrea’s 3-63; Hubert Laws & Ricardo Silveira; and Raul de Souza & Sambajazz Trio. I met Raul backstage to discuss the writing of his biography – we have been friends since the late 50s in Curitiba, where he played trombone in the band of the Bacacheri Air Force base. At eighty, celebrating sixty years of his career, Raul is in top form and was loudly acclaimed by a full house. Veterans like trombonist Curt Berg and flutist Hubert Laws also showed themselves shipshape. Laws not only played themes from Santos’s songbook but also paid his homage to Milton Nascimento (Vera Cruz), Maurício Einhorn (Batida diferente) and Villa-Lobos (Bachianas nº 5).
Enveloped by this beautiful music, I could not help thinking that most of it came from the strife and hope of a motherless (and fatherless) child born in poverty who, still an infant, would roam the Pernambuco backlands and, at each new town, would trade a saxophone or clarinet solo for a plate of food. Moacir Santos, a dream weaver that never for a minute in his life ceased to believe in the redeeming power of music.
When Toussaint Goes Marchin’ In
From the arid Pernambuco hinterland to the swampy marshes of Louisiana: a few days later I attended in Rio’s Teatro Casa Grande the double bill of Bourbon Street Fest 2014, featuring New Orleans master Allen Toussaint, 76, and youthful revelation Mia Borders, 26. There is an impressive symmetry between the exodus of American jazz musicians in the 20s and 30s, from Southern states – and mostly New Orleans – to the North’s big cities in search of a better life, and the massive migration of Brazil’s Northeastern musicians (like Moacir Santos) in the 40s and 50s to Rio and São Paulo, in search of mere survival. In both cases, they were running away from economic difficulties caused mainly by natural disasters – such as the floods in USA’s South and the drought in the Brazilian Northeast. Also, by contrast, both regions always thrived on a particularly wealthy musical tradition.
Mia Borders (voice and guitar), accompanied by a basic rock trio (guitar, bass, drums), sticks mostly to the blues, with slight incursions into soul and funk, whereas Allen Toussaint explores the whole gamut of New Orleans styles, concocting a powerful brew that runs from Afro-Caribbean to Zydeco, passing through blues, boogie, Cajun, gospel, honky-tonk, jazz and ragtime. Sitting by his piano with an impressively colorful outfit bearing the rainbow’s hues, Toussaint is a faithful follower of a whole lineage of “professors”, like Jelly Roll Morton in the early days of jazz and most recent cultural heroes like Professor Longhair and Dr. John. One thing must be said about New Orleans: after the draining of its talents in the first half of the 20th century, it bore again a host of wonderful musicians, such as rhythm and blues star Fats Domino and jazz greats such as pianist Elis Marsalis and his four sons (Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason); trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard; pianist and singer Harry Connick, Jr.
Were it not for the devastation caused to New Orleans in 2005 by hurricane Katrina, Allen Toussaint might have never come to Brazil: “I lost my house with everything inside, and also my studio. I lost all those ‘tangible’ things, but the whole tragedy was a blessing in disguise. It made me think about a new beginning and to hope for wonderful surprises.”
A wave of solidarity came to the rescue of Toussaint. With his friend Elvis Costello he recorded an album, The River in Reverse (2006). This led to invitations for shows and festivals around the world. Low profile Toussaint, who had lent his “magic touch” in productions for Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Glenn Campbell and Labelle, and had his songs performed by The Who, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, finally came to the front.
As for Brazil, Toussaint made his mind on a tip from his friend Quincy Jones: “You must go over there, it is very be-au-ti-ful!” We all, from “over here”, have only a word to say to dear old Quincy: “Thank you very much, Mr. Jones!”
Roberto Muggiati is a regular contributor to CIE. He is a musician who writes about music for numerous newspapers and magazines in Brazil.