In the world of Brazilian culture Vinícius de Moraes occupied a singular, expansive niche. Even when he was serving his country as a diplomat, he produced a sublime stream of words as a playwright, poet, essayist, and lyricist whose collaboration with composer Antonio Carlos Jobim made him the poet laureate of bossa nova. When guitarist/composer Vinícius Cantuária established himself as an essential new voice on the Brazilian scene — particularly with his monster hit “Lua e Estrela” — Jobim welcomed him into the fold as a rightful bearer of an august name.
“I had beautiful communication with Jobim,” said Cantuária, who performs a tribute to Jobim Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, on a recent Skype conversation from his home in Rio de Janeiro. “There was the old Vinícius, and he called me the new Vinícius. We always had a good time. He was the first to say you should move to the U.S.”
Like just about every songwriter who grew up hearing Jobim’s exquisite body of tunes, Cantuária owes a tremendous creative debt to the maestro, a balance he acknowledged directly with his gorgeous 2015 album Vinicius Canta Antonio Carlos Jobim (Sunnyside). For Wednesday’s performance, he’ll be performing solo, accompanying himself on guitar and focusing on Jobim masterpieces, both well known and obscure.
“For me his music is so beautiful and sounds like Brazil,” Cantuária said. “He was the first guy who really focused on saving the earth. He was talking about saving the environment in the 60s. His music is a fusion of all the Brazilian music from the 1930s and 40s, and the first Brazilian romance with jazz. It’s so rich. I grew up with this music and it’s so wonderful to play and sing Jobim. It’s not easy.”
Where Jobim captured Brazil’s sights, sounds and ecology from his perch in Rio’s lush Jardim Botânico neighborhood, Cantuária fully came into his musical identity only by leaving his homeland. Relocating to Brooklyn in 1994 made him feel more deeply Brazilian than he ever felt in Rio de Janeiro (he moved back to Rio two years ago).
The release of his first U.S. album in 1996, Sol Na Cara (Gramavision), which was produced by guitarist Arto Lindsay and features arrangements by Ryuichi Sakamoto, captured the creative ferment Cantuária experienced soaking in New York City’s overflowing pool of talent, collaborating with artists such as David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Brad Mehldau, and violinist Jenny Scheinman. It’s as if he created a Brazilian island of his own in New York, and invited a disparate crew of creative castaways to join him.
Part of the problem for Cantuária was that in Brazil he had become a known quantity enmeshed in the country’s huge music industry. He first gained attention in the mid 1970s as the founder of the rock band O Terco, but his career really took off a few years later when Caetano Veloso hired him as the drummer for his controversial new group A Outra Banda Da Terra.
While at first denounced by critics, the band recorded a series of popular albums, including Veloso’s first million sellers, 1981’s Outras palavras and 1982’s Cores, Nomes. It was Cantuária who wrote the 1981 hit “Lua e Estrela” (Moon and Star), the song that transformed Veloso from a revered musical visionary into a genuine pop star.
“When I wrote ‘Lua,’ I never could imagine that kind of success,” Cantuária said in an interview several years ago, when he was still living in Brooklyn. “It changed my life, but not my way of doing the music. More people knew me, I had more opportunities to show things to people. But in Brazil when I tried to do something new it was so difficult. People are always asking me about new songs, commercial songs for different singers. It’s difficult when you’re part of the game.”
While he continued to write hits for Brazilian artists, Cantuária found a measure of creative freedom in the U.S. the eluded him at home. Over the past two decades he’s released a series of gorgeous albums, though he has never surpassed the sublime lyricism of 1999’s Tucuma (Verve), a session that pairs his poetic Portuguese lyrics and ringing acoustic guitar chords with Erik Friedlander’s translucent cello, Peter Apfelbaum’s brawny tenor saxophone and Joey Baron’s delicate drums.
He gained a whole new audience through his work with guitarist Bill Frisell’s stylistically polyglot ensemble The Intercontinentals, which also featured Malian percussionist Sidiki Camara, Greek-born Christos Govetas on oud and bouzouki, string wizard Greg Leisz, and violinist Jenny Scheinman. Besides their work together in Frisell’s band, Scheinman has toured widely with Cantuária, soloing brilliantly throughout his two-disc album on Kufula, Live: Skirball Cultural center 8/7/03.
“His music is unknowable and totally accessible all at the same time,” Scheinman said. “I don’t know how those Brazilians do it. They manage to make all this lushness and complexity sound like pop music, and he’s the real master of that. On tour we’d be playing these tunes that I could barely transcribe and the whole audience would be singing along.”
If there’s an element of mystery in Cantuária’s music, perhaps it stems from his passion for Miles Davis, a primary source of inspiration along with pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker, and of course Jobim, with whom he’s just getting started when it comes to recording.
“I want to do volumes two, three and four singing and playing Jobim,” Cantuária said. “My list has a hundred songs, and I just selected them at random for the album. For the next one I’ll do the same thing.”
Recommended gigs: Rent Romus / Bows
Alto saxophonist/composer Rent Romus, the founder and guiding spirit behind the invaluable Edgetone label, presents the world premiere of his oratorio Road to Aacheron at Berkeley’s Finnish Kaleva Hall on Saturday and Sunday.
An epic multi-media production with film by Michael Mersereau, narration by Roderick Repke, vocals by the Cardew Choir (with soloists Tom Bickley, Bob Marsh, Polly Moller, and Mantra Plonsey), and Romus’s Life’s Blood Ensemble, Road to Aacheron is a “work of odd musical suspense and mystery inspired by the writers of Fantastic Fiction of the 1930s…interweaving abstract film and experimental music,” Romus writes.
His band brims with musical explorers, including tenor saxophonist Joshua Marshall, vibraphonist Mark Clifford, Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, Timothy Orr on drums and percussion, bassists Max Judelson and Safa Shokrai,, Amber Lampert on oboe, Erika Oba on flute, percussionist CJ Borosque, and David Liekam on Moog synthesizer.
Bows, the Berkeley ambient duo of Kaila McIntyre-Bader and Luke Baće, plays a hometown gig Friday at Starry Plough on a triple bill with Eve of Eden and My Evergreen Soul, focusing on their tunefully post-apocalyptic album The Day We Left and new songs from an upcoming EP due out this spring, iME EP. Bace and McIntyre-Bader will be joined by drummer Matt Schory and keyboardist William Sammons.