Smooth jazz fans unfamiliar with Bob Baldwin’s truest musical heart may look at the title of his A440 Music debut Brazil Chill and think it’s just another exotic experiment by a guy better versed in gospel and funk edged soul-jazz. Actually, it’s the extraordinary musical equivalent of a decade of playful flirtation leading to a full-fledged, life changing romance, with the happy ending kiss reaching full rhythmic bloom before the backdrop of the Rio sunset.
Enamored by the likes of Eliane Elias and Brazilian themed projects by adventurous jazz cats like George Duke and Pat Metheny, the keyboardist—stuck in numerous studios Stateside—has danced with Braz jazz before on individual tracks from his popular discs Reflections of Love (“Billy’s Smile”), Cool Breeze (“Bahia Maria”) and BobBaldwin.com (“Those Eyes”).
A visit to Rio in early 2001 with jazz promoter Frazier West intensified Baldwin’s fascination and left him enamored with more than the 400 types of rhythms he learned existed in Brazilian music; he literally purchased 100 native CDs on trips before the one he took there to record the album.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the sexiness of their music, and the comfort that Brazilians seem to have living in their own skin,” he says. “If there’s one word to describe their culture, it’s ‘festive.’ The people there have fewer economic resources by far, but seem much happier than the average American. That joy is reflected in the music, and the pop music there has a certain sophistication I was attracted to. The thing that entranced me musically was the percussion. When I first met (percussionist) Café Da Silva, he had a beat up drum, like a djembe mixed with a garbage can, and I loved how he hit it. The sound transported me. I was excited by the idea of turning my core sound as a piano and keyboard player over to top level native musicians.”
Baldwin knew that the only way to create an authentic musical experience was to brush up on his Portuguese, call his old saxophonist pal from New York Leo Gandelman (now owner of Zaga Studios in Rio) and jam right in the heart of things with the indigenous cats who make the music happen down there. Brazil Chill includes Baldwin’s feisty interaction with guitarist Torcquato Mariano, the legendary Marcos Ariel (a famed keyboardist who plays chorinhi styled flute passages on the swinging “Cafezinho”), vocalist Zolea Ohizep and drummer/percussionists Da Silva, Armando Marcal and Juliano Zanoni. Joining Baldwin on the easy rhythms of the title track are members of the legendary funk band Azimuth — who literally got tears in their eyes when they heard some of Baldwin’s music for the first time.
“I began half the tracks with a Brazilian rhythm and later added my keyboard textures, and on the other half I started with an established groove and added percussion textures onto that,” he says. “The most important element was having a powerful percussive flavor and native feel. The concept grew beyond my expectations. Once we had the studio, the musicians and the vibe going, everything came together. I wouldn’t direct the guys too much. Instead, I’d offer the framework and let them do the rhythmic interpretations. Once the bass locked into the drum track, everything blew up from there.”
Although certain songs, particularly the insanely dense with percussion street samba “Carnival,” find Baldwin’s regular keyboard voice getting a bit overwhelmed by his surroundings, the key to the success of Brazil Chill is in his blending of his North American sensibilities with a distinctly Rio itinerary. He makes sure we know where we’ve landed on the brief opening track “Street Sounds,” 15 textured tracks of urban ambience (with a little spoken Portuguese), and on mini celebrations like “Everybody’s Beautiful (In Brazil).” Baldwin mixes those exotic flavors with some homespun grooving on the hybrid “New York Samba.” Digging deeper into this funk roots, Baldwin calls us home on the hip-hop flavored ballad “Last Call,” which features scratches by New York drummer Dennis Johnson.
“The title Brazil Chill was a very straightforward way to convey the idea that I’m an American exploring the flavors of Brazil, very much a student whose education is in progress throughout,” he says. “And that includes learning Portuguese. The real trip was the fact that most of the musicians only knew a little English, and we had to rely on one of the engineers who was bilingual to help us out. But it was really a testament to music being the universal language which allows you to communicate in a way that goes beyond words.”
Baldwin was a very welcome last minute invitee onboard the second weekend of Warren Hill’s Smooth Jazz Cruise 2004, something of an ultimate seafaring excursion for the extreme genre fan seeking island sun and tourist shopping by day and rockin’ funk jazz till all hours after the moon rose on the choppy but warm winded Caribbean. The overwhelming success of these cruises — which included shows during the day, late in the evening and wild jam sessions till 2 a.m. — ensure that the event, co-promoted by Hill and Akron, Ohio travel agent Peter D’Attoma — will become an annual tradition, perhaps on par as a yearly destination with the Catalina Island Jazz Trax Festival. Hearty advance sales for next year’s excursion began during the week, much like future season ticket sales during a championship season.
Bob Baldwin and headliner Jonathan Butler hopped on the Costa Atlantica for the January 25 - Feb. 1 voyage from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic and Nassau. Baldwin shone (like the pink morning sun on the deep blue, enjoyed by most fans from their private balconies) with some colorful Crusaders-like Rhodes flavors at the first night’s jam session and picked his spots throughout the week, subbing in spots for regular keyboardists Brian Simpson (from Hill’s band) and Michael Logan (from Kirk Whalum’s band) to play along with Kirk Whalum, Peter White and Jeff Golub. There was a real spirit of mix and match throughout, as different headliners would run onstage for an impromptu number or two, the most exciting of these being saxman Euge Groove with White (gliding up the balcony stairs in perfect symmetry) and Butler scatting and singing to Hill’s rousing singalong closer “Hey Jude.”
Flutist Alexander Zonjic, who rarely performs solo gigs, also added incredible soloing to Hill’s feisty, tropical dance classic “Mambo 2000.” Best musical moment hands down was when guitar lords Golub, Chieli Minucci and wildman Randy Jacobs exploded on a Hill-written rock blues blast, with Hill retreating into the trusty horn section of Harris brothers Bill and Don.
Some of the mixing and matching was unintentional as Groove, White and then Hill were cabin bound for days with a nasty flu that inspired 104 degree body temps. All thankfully recovered and the fans had no trouble adjusting their schedules and enjoying extra shows by Groove, Marion Meadows (who renewed his wedding vows with minister’s son Whalum officiating on the sand) and bassist Michael Manson along the way. Artist-fan interaction was enhanced by autograph sessions and spirited Q&A sessions, one of which found Zonjic obliging with his version of Bob James’ “Theme From Taxi.” Zonjic summed up the spirit of the week by opening his own gig with the quip, “I’m the guy with the flute, not the flu.”
WHAT I’M LISTENING TO:
1) Larry Carlton, Sapphire Blue (Bluebird) – Why the guitar great waits a decade between blues dates is a mystery, as this fiery and locomotive, yet frequently cool and restrained jam session shows off a deeper talent than any of his recent solid pop efforts.
2) The Love Project (Narada Jazz)
3) Nestor Torres, Sin Palabras (Heads Up)
4) Keiko Matsui, Wildflower (Narada Jazz)
5) Dan Siegel, Inside Out (Native Language)
Posted by Jonathan Widran at May 5, 2004 8:39 PM