Pianist, composer Marcos Silva: Bringing Brazil to the Bay Area

Pianist/composer Marcos Silva plays a rare concert featuring his own music Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory. Photo: Courtesy the artist

There are probably no more than two degrees of separation between every Brazilian music gig in the Bay Area and Marcos Silva, which is a primary reason the region boasts such a rich scene.

The Rio de Janeiro-born pianist initially made his mark as an ace accompanist, first in Rio and then New York City. He gained his widest audience during a two-decade run as music director for Flora Purim and Airto. But he’s put his performing career on the backburner since launching the Brazilian music program at the California Jazz Conservatory in 1997 (when it was known as the Jazzschool and located upstairs from La Note).

Silva plays a rare gig presenting his own music 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the CJC with his quartet featuring Zach Pitt-Smith on woodwinds, electric bassist Scott Thompson and drummer Phil Thompson (no relation). Purim has recorded at least half-a-dozen Silva songs, and he’s released two albums under his own name, but the pianist has more than 60 originals in his book, and countless arrangements of tunes by other composers.

“I’m still writing,” he said during a recent conversation in the CJC’s Hardymon Hall. “I just wrote a piece last Monday that I’m going to play solo piano on Sunday.”


During the late afternoon interview the CJC was bustling, and our conversation was interrupted numerous times as friends and students came by our table to give Silva hugs and kisses. When he wanted to remember the name of a standard he had played he went from table to table accosting musicians while humming the tune until someone recognized it (“There Is Not Greater Love”). Teaching seven courses a week at the CJC plus private lessons he probably spends more time at the downtown Berkeley school than at his home in Oakland.

In many ways the CJC amplified his already pervasive influence on the Bay Area scene. Vocalist Sandy Cressman has said that Silva’s mentorship gave her a foundation strong enough to collaborate with some of the most acclaimed Brazilian musicians on her new album Entre Amigos. He joined forces with vocalist Mary D’Orazi, a former student of his, on her gorgeous 2016 album To Brasil to Bacharach: A Tribute (which garnered an approving letter from Burt himself). D’Orazi plays the CJC on April 15 with Silva, bassist Brendan Neutra, drummer Greg German, and reed expert Harvey Wainapel (who plays the Jazz at the Chimes series with his Brazilian jazz combo Alegritude on March 19, and credits Silva with sparking a Brazilian music epiphany that has driven his creative evolution since 1980).

With more than two decades of teaching under his belt, Silva has trained a generation of American musicians who are fully equipped to play Brazilian music with Brazilians on their own turf. That means he’s raised up players who can meet his own exacting standards, like his Thompson-powered rhythm section.

Bassist Scott Thompson is an extreme but telling example of Silva’s pedagogic prowess. He was exposed to Silva’s playing in utero, as his mother, saxophonist Mary Fettig, was playing in the pianist’s band when she was pregnant. His earliest memory as a toddler is Silva’s group performing with the great Brazilian guitarist/composer Toninho Horta.

He started studying the bass with Jeff Neighbor, who gave him a solid foundation, in preparation for enrolling with Silva. “I knew he was a hard teacher and that he’d really push the students,” Thompson said. “I didn’t want to just jump in as a beginner. I was about 15 when I started taking his class at the Jazzschool, and he recommended I go to Brazil Camp in Cazadero.”


Thompson wasn’t 20 yet when Silva called him to sub on a gig. He’s been working with him ever since, and regularly gets hired to perform with major artists such as Toninho Horta, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, and the samba jazz quartet led by the mother and daughter team of pianist Debora and vocalist Dani Gurgel.

“Marcos groomed me and Phil to play in his band,” Thompson said. “For me, it’s totally changed the way I think about music, and led to several tours with groups from Brazil. That mentorship was huge for me, but I see his impact throughout the Bay Area. A lot of what happens in the Brazilian music scene wouldn’t happen if not for Marcos.”

While Silva was well established on the Rio scene in the late 1970s, he wanted to delve deeper into jazz. Like so many ambitious musicians before him, he decided to make his way to New York City. He left Brazil in the fall of 1979 for performances in Venezuela and Panama and landed in New York in March 1980, speaking little English and knowing only a few musicians.

Drummer Danny Gottlieb, an original member of the Pat Metheny Group, introduced him to vocalist Flora Purim and her husband, percussion genius Airto Moreira, a connection that changed the course of Silva’s career. They had broken through to a much wider audience in the 1970s through their work with Stan Getz and the first incarnation of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Recording for Berkeley-based Milestone, they released a string of popular albums.

Soon after joining the couple he moved out to Santa Barbara where they were based. By 1986 he had relocated to the East Bay to join the band Voz do Brasil at the invitation of Brazilian-born drummer Celso Alberti. Performing with Purim and Airto meant he was constantly meeting up with jazz royalty, like trumpeter Lew Soloff, drummer Lenny White, and just-departed guitarist Larry Coryell. He can tell stories about the time Jaco Pastorius sat in with the band at the Bottom Line (playing a tune of Silva’s that Herbie Mann recorded, “Dry Land”). He got to know Herbie Hancock and Dori Caymmi, with whom he went on to tour and record.


When Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella approached him about teaching Brazilian music in 1997 he was skeptical there would be enough demand. But more students kept coming, and before long he was teaching nine classes a week. “I couldn’t even go home to sleep anymore,” he said.

For Silva, teaching serious students isn’t about making them clones. He wants to prepare them to interpret a composer’s music from the inside. Rather than focus on bossa nova standards, he’s kept his ear to the ground, teaching music by contemporary artists like Guinga and Chico Pinheiro.

“I give credit to the guys who were there,” he said. “They wanted to learn what was new. I see music according to the composer. It’s not according to Marcos Silva. I teach according to what the composers want.”

Silva’s beautiful music deserves to be more widely heard too, and he’s created an ideal cast to play it.

Recommended gigs: Steve McQuarry / Amy X Neuburg

Oakland pianist Steve McQuarry presents a tribute to great African-American composers Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory with his Special Edition Band featuring flutist Gerald Beckett, bassist Kash Killion, drummer Greg German, conguero Jesus Gonzalez, and Destiny Muhammad on harp and vocals.

Amy X Neuburg curates a diverse night of music Saturday at the JCCEB. Photo: Rob Thomas

Composer, vocal explorer and electronics wizard Amy X Neuburg plays the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay on Saturday, curating a diverse program of experimental-meets-traditional music with Amanda Chaudhary on electronics, cellist Alex Kelly, and the Solstice female vocal ensemble. An all-hands-on-deck closing set will feature arrangements of songs likely to be familiar to everyone.