Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gato Barbieri: Latin America: Chapter 1 (1973)

Gato Barbieri is one of the unsung heroes of late twentieth century music. If you've heard of him, it's probably through the credits of Last Tango in Paris (1973), that faux-arthouse spank film that Marlon Brando did in the immediate wake of The Godfather. Gato wrote the award-winning soundtrack for the movie, and this was probably the most valuable and enduring thing about it. If you watch the film and are sufficiently enchanted by the music, you might even hit up and search for Gato in the website's music section. The first two results that will come up are a "Best of Gato Barbieri" disc with an outrageously tacky photo of Gato on its cover, along with an album called Caliente that he recorded in the late seventies. Here's the thing: Caliente, while a good and fine album, doesn't represent Gato at his best--not even close; and that "Best Of" collection is filled with tunes culled from the latter portion of Gato's career, after he'd jumped the proverbial shark. You'd hardly gather from the reviews, however, that there was anything lacking about either of these discs; most customers are veritably slobbering over them.

If you want to hear Gato at his feral, manic best, you'll need to backpedal a few years to the early seventies, when he scaled a towering Alp of creative vision that most other musicians can only dream of. An Argentinian born in 1934, presumably he came of age imbibing the sounds of middle and late Coltrane, those impassioned ebullitions of sound that distilled, in their own way, the fury and determination of the Civil Rights movement. "When 'Trane died," said one of Coltrane's contemporaries whose name I can't remember, and whose exact words I'm struggling to quote from memory, "it was like he left a giant crater in his wake. We all felt a little empty and lost." A number of saxophonists, all of them touched by Coltrane in some way, quickly rallied to fill that crater. The best of these, perhaps, were Pharaoh Sanders, Wayne Shorter, the underrated Gary Ba
rtz, and Gato. To be sure, distinct echoes of A Love Supreme and Crescent can be found in Gato's best work: the daring harmonic experimentation, the famous "cascades of sound" approach. But what makes albums like Bolivia, El Pampero, Fenix, and the four-chapter Latin America series tick, it seems, is their cunning synthesis of North American jazz harmonies with the indigenous folk rhythms of Gato's native South America. (Check out, for example, the second movement of the stunning four-part suite "La China Leoncia".) Underneath the deranged Orphic probings of "Encuentros," "India," and especially "La China," one senses the presence of something really profound: vast swathes of rhythmic and melodic tradition, the accumulation of centuries, which Gato was frantically seeking to excavate, commit to vinyl, and preserve for all time. The fact that he recruited a group of session men exclusively from Argentina, and cut the record in Buenos Aires, further hints that he was attempting something like a sonic panorama of his native continent, insofar as such a thing is possible; whether he succeeded, you can of course decide for yourself. What is beyond debate is that Latin America: Chapter 1 and its three successors represent one of the most frenzied, original projects of 1970s music.

Whatever it was that Gato had tapped into by this point--and it was something truly special--it may have been too much for him to contain. By the second half of the seventies, he had signed with a different record label (A&M, and later Sony, Columbia, and CBS) and was recording the comparatively innocuous stuff found on
The Best of Gato Barbieri. Thankfully, though, by this point he had already left behind a string of albums that testify to his astonishing gifts, and that we can only listen to in rapt wonder, even disbelief, marveling that we have never heard of him.

Latin America: Chapter 1

1. Encuentros (12:29)
2. India (8:58)
3. La China Leoncia Arreo Correntinada Trajo Entre la Muchachada la Flor de la Juventud (13:30)
4. Nunca Mas (5:27)
5. To Be Continued (2:26)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Jorge Ben: A Tabua de Esmeralda (1974)

First thing's first: this is one of the most breathtakingly original recordings I've had the pleasure of hearing, in any genre.
The first of the so-called triologia mística, that celebrated string of three esoteric records that Ben made between 1974 and 1976 (the other two are Solta O Povao and the already-discussed Africa Brasil), A Tabua de Esmeralda is also, arguably, the best. As a shameless Jorge junkie who has clocked far more hours listening to the guy's discography than I'd care to admit, I would venture to call it his greatest album, period. Apparently, it also happens to be Jorge's own favorite among the records he's cut, which must count for something. There are other junkies whose taste I respect who give this distinction to Solta O Povao or the even more obscure O Bidu - Silencio No Brooklin (1967), but I think they're just being cute. Pound for pound, A Tabua is Jorge at his superb best.

This isn't to say, however, that A Tabua is an exceedingly complex recording, or even a varied, eclectic one. On the contrary, what strikes one about many of these songs is their simplicity: the best of them possess the radiant transp
arency of elegant math proofs, and all of them are spun from the same sonic cloth, as if they comprised a single album-length suite. The title is a reference to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Hellenistic text that purported to hold the secret of the primordial substance from which all other matter in the cosmos derived. In the Middle Ages the text was considered the foundation of the art of alchemy. This is all quite absurd, of course (although Newton took it seriously enough to translate a supposed version of the text from Latin into English), and Jorge treats of it with an appropriate mixture of humor and fascination. There is nothing facetious, though, about the manner in which this record will, in time, come to take hold of you irrevocably, permeating your mind and, if you elect to play it with a stereo system, your body; indeed, there is something genuinely mystical, as befits its subject matter, about the otherworldly power of its melodies, its grooves. Before long, you will need to hear it every day, perhaps several times a day. Don't think you won't.

The stand-out tracks on A Tabua are, to begin with, the first five, an unfalteringly gorgeous sequence of songs suffused with an irresistible sweetness--tunes like "O Homem da Gravata Florida," "Eu Vou Torcer," and the especially excellent "Os Alquimistas Estao Chegando" have a summery loveliness about them, a warmth and exuberance that will immediately transport you to a sunnier clime. The glittering jewel, however, is "Errare Humanum Est," as eerily masterful a song as any to be found in Ben's catalogue, or indeed anywhere else in the music of the 70s. My buddy Jarrett, the only other soul here in Ma
dison I know of who's alert to the mind-boggling riches of classic Brazilian music, theorizes that this song, whose theme is space travel, was inspired by the whacked-out writings of Erik von Daniken. Daniken's notorious bestseller, Chariots of the Gods (1968), posited an "ancient astronauts" account of the origin of human beings, one which Jorge, an intensely devout Catholic, may well have had reason to rebuke as erroneous. (The title is a phrase borrowed from Seneca.) Whatever the song's provenance, and whatever the significance of its cryptic lyrics, these matters ultimately have little to do with the five-minute acoustic orgasm that is the music itself.

Other high points include "Zumbi," an homage to the leader of the 17th century fugitive slave community called Palmares in Brazil, and the weirdly mesmeric closer, "Cinco Minutos." The only weak point, it should be noted, is the irritatingly pious "Brother," which I'd advise you to skip over. The download is available here courtesy of my anonymous friend, "F.," who runs the spectacularly encyclopedic blog Flabbergasted Vibes, which was the partial inspiration for this blog. He's generously given me permission to sh
are all of the links to Ben's discography available on his site. Check out FV sometime. The password for this DL is "vibes."

So that's it. I'm going to close this entry with a somewhat random quotation by Percy Shelley, which I came across in the course of my reading last night:

For the end o
f social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption. It begins at the imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself thence as a paralysing venom, through the affections into the very appetites, until all become a torpid mass in which sense hardly survives. At the approach of such a period, Poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed, and its voice is heard, like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from the world.

Heady, beautiful stuff. I'd add that music ideally performs this same function. With poetry, it's humanity's last bastion against the insidious venom of social corruption, which for Shelley meant abuse of political power, moral hypocrisy, and selfishness--all of which conspire to deaden the individual spirit over time. It's poetry--and, I think, music--that offer us a means of combating this process, through the regular promise of ecstasy that both provide. They remind us that we're alive.

A Tabua de Esmeralda
  1. Os alquimistas estão chegando (3:15)
  2. O homem da gravata florida (3:05)
  3. Errare humanum est (4:50)
  4. Menina mulher da pele preta (2:57)
  5. Eu vou torcer (3:15)
  6. Magnólia (3:14)
  7. Minha teimosia, uma arma pra te conquistar (2:41)
  8. Zumbi (3:31)
  9. Brother (2:54)
  10. O namorado da viúva (2:03)
  11. Hermes Trismegisto e sua celeste tábua de esmeralda (5:30)
  12. Cinco minutos (2:57)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Clara Nunes: Clara Clarice Clara (1972)

I've been having so much fun listening to this album over the last several days that I decided to make it my next feature here at Wanwood. It was a near-impossible choice between this one and Nunes's later record, Alvorecer (1974), which is most often considered her career high-mark and which is, indisputably, a magical LP. It may be, though, that Clara Clarice Clara (1972) is even more varied and deep, its obsessive grip even harder to resist; and, given that it was the album on which Nunes first really found her artistic voice, it is likely the best place to begin.

Clara Nunes is a difficult artist to introduce, in part beca
use I'm still in the process of discovering her myself. This much is true: her discography represents one of the deepest, most ore-laden mineshafts in all Brazilian music. If you're willing to follow her where she wants to lead you, she'll take you, in the course of her dozen-and-a-half studio albums, through far-flung pastures of sheer musical bliss. For the most part, they're pastures untrodden by listeners outside Brazil, since Nunes's records inexplicably languished out of print for many years following her early death in 1983 at age 39. (She underwent a failed operation to treat varicose veins.) As a masterful interpreter of the samba form, she's often grouped together with Alcione and Beth Carvalho, whom she inspired. But, with all due respect to both these women, neither holds a candle to Nunes, who easily transcended the status of a mere sambista in part through a seamless mingling of samba with other ingredients, including African dance rhythms derived from Umbanda and Candomble religious rituals. Of course, samba had been an essentially African phenomenon from the beginning, when former slaves, newly migrated to Rio in the late 19th century, brought their dance customs with them, melding them with traditionally European grooves like polka. So in a sense Nunes was just returning samba to its origins.

Clara Clarice Clara has a bit of everything: the insidiously catchy "Sempre Mangueira," the vigorously uptempo "Ilu Aye," the overwhelmingly lovely ballad "Morena do Mar," even a cover of "Clarice," the crown jewel of Caetano Veloso's self-titled album from 1968. What unifies it all is Nunes's glorious voice, by turns soaring atop West African rhythms, by turns chirping coquettishly with the acoustic guitar that punctuates many of these tunes. In all likelihood you'll go through the following stages in listening to Nunes's albums: a.) You'll marvel at the artistry of the songs, at the contagiousness of their melodies; b.) You'll get addicted to them and play the shit out of them; c.) Regardless of your orientation, you'll begin to fall in love with Nunes. You'll want to take her out to dinner and a show--hell, you'll want to have her in bed, then talk to her about everything under the sun until the wee hours of the madrugada. d.) You'll have the melancholy recollection that she's been dead some thirty years, cruelly ripped out this world on the mere threshold of middle age, and hence you'll never be able to meet her, much less woo her. e.) You'll remember that you've got that panoply of fabulous Nunes records at your fingertips, and you'll content yourself with basking, again and again--and yet again!--in the irrepressible joy they lovingly convey.

Clara Clarice Clara

1. Sempre Mangueira (2:24)
2. Seca Do Nordeste (3:00)
3. Alvorada (2:24)
4. Tempo A Bessa (2:31)
5. Morena Do Mar (3:19)
6. Ilu Aye (3:28)
7. Opcao (2:34)
8. Anjo Moreno (3:10)
9. Tributo Aos Orixas (2:47)
10. Ultimo Pau-de-Arara (2:52)
11. Clarice (6:07)