Brazil - BRAZZIL - Richard Boukas and his Brazilian passion - Brazilian Music - May 2001

May 2001

An American Malandro

Part II: Richard Boukas talks about life, music,
and the lure of the Brazilian.

Daniella Thompson

Guitarist-vocalist-composer-teacher-writer Richard Boukas has made Brazilian music his avocation and his mission. His numerous activities in its service include teaching at the New School Jazz & Contemporary Music Program in New York City, where he directs the Brazilian Jazz Ensemble; playing in a duo with Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto and in a quartet with Jovino, bassist Nilson Matta, and drummer Paulo Braga; occupying the Brazilian Music chair on the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) Resource Team; publishing articles in Just Jazz Guitar magazine; promoting Brazilian music at every opportunity, and creating some of his own.

Boukas' latest CD is Balaio (Basket), recorded with Jovino and released on Malandro Records. The disc is a compelling synergy of various Brazilian rhythms—samba, baião, maracatu, choro, and frevo—impregnated with the intricacies of jazz harmony. Of the album's twelve tunes, four were composed by Boukas, four by Jovino, and four by Hermeto Pascoal.

In this interview, Boukas, voted best Brazilian guitarist in the U.S. by GuitarOne magazine, looks back on his musical influences and talks about how Brazilian music came to shape his work.

Brazzil—What's your background and where did you grow up?

Boukas— My parents are of Greek and Cretan heritage. I grew up in Astoria, Queens, a rich ethnic melting pot. You can walk the streets of Astoria for an hour and not hear a word of English spoken, buy any kind of ethnic food in little shops that are Greek, Afghani, Egyptian, Armenian, Bengali, Brazilian, Colombian, Jamaican, Dominican, Jewish, Korean, Chinese, Serbian, Russian, etc. It has been responsible for my insatiable appetite for ethnic culture: language, music, cooking, art, philosophy. I was and am lucky enough to live in a community where meeting people from all cultures is a natural part of life; this is New York and for that reason alone I still don't think I could live anywhere else.

Brazzil—What types of music did you listen to in your early years?

Boukas—In the late fifties, having a portable record player was a real luxury, but we had one. From time to time, my father would bring home an LP—it was always classical music: Verdi, Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, and Artur Rubinstein playing the hell out of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. Man, I would wear those records out, to the point where I could just hear the whole thing in my head without even playing the record. Certain pieces had magical moments for me, something I came to realize later in life as specific melodic and harmonic events that had great expressive intensity. For example, Chopin's Op. 9 no. 2 Nocturne in Eb—the beautiful, arching melody, and very hip chord progression just at the end of the B section. It's no wonder that nearly thirty years later, that same piece served as the basis for an extended theme and variations in Brazilian choro style I wrote for the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Other special musical moments I recall from childhood are the chromatic chaconne bassline from the opening chorus of Bach's Cantata no. 78, the Grieg Piano Concerto, and the great tenor Mario del Monaco singing Pagliacci. Man, what a voice he had.

We had a copy of "Twilight Time" by the Platters, 1957 or '58. Man, what a beautiful tune that was for a four year-old to hear! But popular music really didn't come into the picture for me until the Beatles, Stones, Motown, and the folk-rock era in the '60s. My sister Jeannine would drag along her little brother and go club-hopping all afternoon on MacDougald Street, where guys rehearsed right on stage in front of a relaxed audience. Those days in Greenwich Village, there was as much music happening during the day as at night. You could go into Manhattan on weekend afternoons and hear tunes being written and rehearsed by cutting-edge rock bands long before they made it big. Outdoor summer concerts at Central Park were a buck to get in, and always a double bill—sometimes totally incongruous combinations like Led Zeppelin and Herbie Mann, Mongo Santamaria and Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Brazzil—How did you become a musician?

Boukas—It's difficult to say at what point I actually felt that music was my real calling, where I would focus the bulk of my life's work. In my case, it was a gradual process, pursuing creative expression, reaching deep into that realm that always gave me a sense of center, sanctuary, and constructive meaning in my life: writing music, poetry, anything that allowed you to go deep into what you were feeling. Growing up in the Vietnam and civil rights era, we all saw those terrible scenes on the nightly news. Martin Luther King, JFK, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy all getting blown away senselessly, that was totally numbing for a kid trying to reconcile his parents' attempt to instill some sense of ethics. For those that still wanted to feel alive and moving forward, there needed to be an emotional release through some form of expression.

Brazzil—Who influenced your music in the beginning?

Boukas—The great folk-rock singers and groups from the Village moved me the most: Tim Buckley, Kenny Rankin, Richie Havens, Tim Hardin. They and the Byrds had the biggest musical influence on my early writing style and sense of vocal line and harmonies. After a brief fling with my first basement rock band at 15, I traded in my Fender Mustang and Princeton reverb amp and went totally acoustic. I started writing my own folk tunes with very angular melodies, strange voicings, open tunings, the works. Dozens of tunes, and they really had their own sound. By that time, I had formed a well-rehearsed folk-rock trio with my lifelong friends Mark Rabin and John Calderone, both fine guitarist-songwriters. I can still objectively say that we were just about as good as Crosby, Stills and Nash; we were doing a lot of interesting vocal harmonies even before they came out with their first record. At the same time, I was already very heavy into Frank Zappa; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Chicago; Allman Brothers; The Band. I also really loved great blues guitarists like Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Albert King, Johnny Winter, and groups like Paul Butterfield Blues Band. This music elevated the whole level of instrumental playing in popular and rock music. I think that quality attracted Miles and his protégés—Herbie, Wayne, Chick, Zawinul, Tony Williams, and of course, John McLaughlin—into the fusion zone. For rock, blues, and folk guitarists like me, he served as a real bridge into jazz. His early recordings with Tony Williams' Lifetime, the jazzy Extrapolation and acoustic My Goals Beyond were real milestones.

When Mahavishnu Orchestra came out in '71, it blew everyone out of the water. I saw that band play its first New York gig at the Gaslight. The place was no bigger than a postage stamp, and out came John all in white—clothes, Les Paul, Marshall stack, the works. Jan Hammer had the mini-Moog synth, he was really the first Eastern European jazz musician to be taken seriously in the U.S. Billy Cobham was playing those odd meters and fills around the drum kit that made everything else sound like it was in slow motion. That music was so revolutionary and intense, the musicianship and conviction in that band was so far beyond anything I'd ever heard before. Well, that made me put the acoustic in the closet and want to play fusion and jazz. I think John, Zappa, Eric Dolphy, and 20th-century masters like Bartok, Berg, and Stravinsky really led me into the more complex vocabularies that jazz had to offer.

That was just about the time I started to study music formally at New York University. It was primarily a classical theory, composition, and musicology program. However, studying the classical repertoire gave me the tools to understand jazz on a deeper level. When I entered the school, I was such a homegrown musician—my ears were so far ahead of my fingers and knowledge of music theory and notation. Probably the most important piece of this enhanced musical understanding came from being exposed to medieval, renaissance and baroque choral music. I sang mainly tenor but then developed both a countertenor and bass voice, became a utility guy for chorus sections where they needed the help. Singing choral music taught me all about music theory, counterpoint, composition, foreign language, expression and phrasing in performance, and I learned how to sightread anything put in front of me—much better than I could read on the guitar at that time. Choral singing is something I still do professionally and socially today, and I've written a good deal of choral music that has been performed and recorded.

The NYU teacher who had the greatest impact on me was the late Edward Murray—pianist, conductor, scholar, whose brilliant insights taught me how to appreciate all great music, and how understanding things on an analytical level could make one a better performer, composer and eventually, teacher. Ed taught a whole course just on Bach's B minor Mass. He also was the person who turned me on to Bill Evans. In the early '70s, there were no jazz programs to speak of. A number of years later, I remember turning him onto Elis Regina's recording of Gil's "Amor Até o Fim," and he totally flipped, became an avid Brazilian music fan. We remained musical friends all the way through last fall, when Ed passed away. The same semester he died, I had just started conducting an early music choir at the New School Jazz Program, so I could share with my students the same vital experiences Ed shared with me.

The few years after college I did a lot of assorted gigs, jazz jam sessions, learning all the Real Book tunes and standards everyone was playing at the time. I was in a very serious fusion band called Exit, where I was by far the weakest player. Eventually, the band fizzled out and I was ready to explore all the bebop I had missed out on, fill in the blanks in my understanding of jazz history. Luckily, right about the time the band broke up in '75, I heard the great guitarist Jack Wilkins and bassist Eddie Gomez playing duo at Sweet Basil, and, like John McLaughlin, that night was to have a profound affect on the musical direction I was to take. Jack was just 31 at the time, and clearly a master alongside Pat Martino and George Benson, who were coming primarily out of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. By contrast, Jack was coming more from Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, players who were much less appreciated in those days. He could sight-read anything, play improvised solo guitar chord melody better than anyone, and his lines were burning, pure streams of invention. We hit it off immediately. For the first time in my life, at 22, I decided that maybe it was finally time to study the guitar with someone like Jack. I showed up at his place one day, showed him my pile of Wes, Benson, and Martino transcriptions, played a bunch of tunes, and he said, "Hey, man, just come over and play, I can't take your money." Twenty-five years later, we're still very close friends.

By that time I was already writing some of my own jazz tunes, they were very influenced by composers whom I call the Jazz Impressionists, like Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. The horn players I had the pleasure of working with included tenor players Ralph Lalama, Joe Lovano, and trumpeter Tom Harrell. We played door gigs at places in the Village like Folk City. A big part of the NY music scene was also the lofts that musicians were renting in midtown, Soho and Tribeca. It was as close to a musical community as I experienced until I got involved in the Afro-Cuban and Brazilian scene.

Brazzil—What attracted you to Brazilian music?

Boukas—I've always been attracted to different world cultures. Of all of these, Brazil and its music offers the most rich diversity of artistic expression—it is without parallel. With roots as wide as African, Indigenous, Portuguese, Creole, Moorish, Arabic, Scottish, Polish, English, French, German, there's something all people can connect and relate to. With my Cretan/Greek roots, I have a natural affinity for Arabic, Byzantine, Armenian, and Balkan music. The Arabic/Moorish influence in northern Brazilian music is apparent in the rhythms and scales used in baião, the nasal vocal quality of the repentistas (improvising poets) and instruments of Arabic origin like the rabeca (lap fiddle). So in a sense, all the music I love finds an organic expression in some form of Brazilian music. The first time I heard any Brazilian music was in the early '60s, "The Girl from Ipanema" on AM radio. Then, around 1972, I heard Chick Corea's Light as a Feather record. That was a real wake-up call for jazz players. By 1974, some of the gigs I was doing were in Latin clubs in Manhattan and New Jersey. Salsa and Latin jazz were really hot then. One of my roommates was a master percussionist originally from Puerto Rico, Richard "Gajate" Garcia who has lived in Los Angeles for many years. He turned me on to a ton of Latin music from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Brazil. Among those records were João Bosco, Elis Regina, Emílio Santiago, Milton Nascimento, and a killer percussion recording called Batucada Fantástica. I was listening to Villa-Lobos, Ivan Lins, and Hermeto Pascoal, the Funarte field recordings of folkloric music. I was hooked and knew I'd be playing, writing, and studying this music for years to come. It was very difficult to get these recordings back then, but somehow I always managed to meet the right people.

Probably around 1983 I realized that mainstream jazz was no longer a viable means of growth for me. Instead of limiting myself to short tunes of 32 bars, I can write a choro that is 200-bars long, a samba in 3/4 for trio with bass and drums, an extended chamber piece for string quartet, a solo guitar waltz or choro, a suite of tunes for my Duo with Jovino—and it all feels like it's feeding off that same combination of influences that makes Brazilian music so rich and rewarding to explore. Just listen to the major Nationalist composers of Brazil beginning around 1860 and you'll witness the flowering of styles like choro. The clear Chopin influence in Nazareth, Impressionist influences in Villa-Lobos, Radamés Gnattali, and Jobim, the Bach and early Jazz influences in Pixinguinha. These elements are all evident, and yet are assimilated into a style that is undeniably Brazilian. Then you have the classic songwriters like Noel Rosa, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi. This alchemy keeps evolving to this day, it is totally exciting to me. This is why using Brazilian music in an educational setting is so successful—it provides all the training and skills you need in order to go more deeply into any of its component influences. I use the music in Ear-Training, Sightsinging, Improvisation classes, and in the Brazilian Jazz ensemble I started at the New School in 1995.

Brazzil—Who of the Brazilian composers/musicians has had the most important influence on you, and why?

Boukas—I think there are two kinds of influences—stylistic and inspirational. Ivan Lins, Toninho Horta and Milton Nascimento influenced the way I sing Brazilian repertoire and write some of my melodies for voice—for example, the title tune of my previous CD, Amazôna. My guitar playing is a real mix of so many great guitarists, pianists, drummers, percussionists. Since I also play drums and bass, I am always playing from the heart of the groove, all the polyrhythms that translate directly out of percussion batucada into a pitched environment. As a result, the lines and harmonies are driven by the rhythmic element. I go for the same intensity and rhythmic edge that players like Baden Powell, Raphael Rabello, and Sebastião Tapajós have. Their playing and writing have that perfect balance of classical training, popular and folkloric knowledge, and some Jazz leanings.

Brazzil—What music do you listen to nowadays?

Boukas—These days the range of music I listen to is still very wide: Brazilian, various traditional and popular music of the world, a variety of classical music, and classic American jazz recordings of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Bach, Chopin, Brahms, and Bartok continue to inspire me. Hermeto Pascoal is pure inspiration. I have never heard anyone be so completely faithful and transparent to his sonic visions.

Another composer I'm totally blown away by is Guinga—an intuitive genius and visionary. His music flows so naturally. He follows his initial ideas through so clearly and yet always has some surprising detours. His melodies express a strong inherent sense of harmony, but not in any conventional way. Very few of his tunes have any recognizable harmonic formulas. He definitely has his own language. I've also come to appreciate some of the composers one generation after Villa-Lobos, like Radamés Gnattali, Guerra Peixe, and Claudio Santoro. Of these, Gnattali has had the strongest impact on me because he uses strong jazz influences and some cool polytonality.

Brazzil—Listening to your CDs Balaio and Amazôna, I was struck by your exceptional vocal range and expression. Did you ever study voice formally?

Boukas—No, never on any formal basis. For both guitar and voice, I'm basically self-taught, but in reality I've studied with the best_ just by being inspired and listening carefully to their work. I've always approached an instrument's technical aspects in direct relation to what the music requires, not the other way around. I've sung ever since I can remember, even as a little kid. I still do quite a bit of choral singing, it's the best thing for keeping the voice in shape for any style of music. You just can't get that kind of experience playing in a jazz ensemble.

Brazzil—On Amazôna, you recorded the samba "Atrás de Nós," which you sing in Portuguese. Are the lyrics your own?

Boukas—Yes, they are. That was one of my first attempts at Portuguese lyrics, the dictionary was very close by. I had been singing a lot of MPB for years before I started speaking the language. All those years of choral singing in Latin and Romance languages helped. Portuguese is without a doubt the most beautiful language to sing in, and if I was going to write vocal tunes in a Brazilian style, there was no choice. I just had to do it!

Brazzil—"Montunomorphosis" (also from Amazôna) has another soaring vocal but is an Afro-Cuban composition. Why did you include it in an essentially Brazilian CD?

Boukas—My love for Afro-Cuban music goes way back. Although this disc was my first really dedicated Brazilian project, I was still hearing Afro-Cuban elements in my writing. This piece just came screaming out of me, the pencil couldn't move quickly enough to get the notes down. In "Montunomorphosis" I tried to capture the swing and looseness of the sonero mejor—the vocal soloist who improvises against the coro during the montuno section. The piece itself is a salsa fusion suite, fairly elaborate writing. It's kind of Eddie Palmieri, Bartok, and Boukas having a musical conversation. I really enjoyed recording some seven-voice layers in that tune, kind of a vocal version of the horn scoring common to that classic '70s era of salsa.

Brazzil—I got a kick out of your vocal horns in "Gajatucada" and "Escuridão da Passagem" on Balaio. Is this a specialty of yours?

Boukas—That's a pretty funny story. A number of years ago I was playing two gigs back-to-back and there was very little time in between. I was in such a rush packing up after the first gig, I left my guitar leaning against the car and just drove away! When I got to the second gig, no guitar. Total panic. I called everyone I knew, but no such luck borrowing one on a Saturday night. After explaining this ridiculous story to the bandleader, I asked if I could sing the trombone part right off the music. It got me through the gig and it was really fun.

About two years later at one of my Trio concerts, instead of scat singing with regular syllables like "dah-bah-dah-bah," out came that trombone sound without my even thinking about it. At first it was a kind of a joke, but then I realized it was a totally different instrument from my normal voice. I could really articulate with the same kind of phrasing as all the great jazz horn players like Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, in a way that my regular voice or guitar could never do.

Brazzil—Your tune "Feiticeiro" (The Wizard) is a choro dedicated to Hermeto Pascoal. Tell us something about that piece and how Hermeto inspired you to write it.

Boukas—The piece came to me at a very strange time—right in the middle of a swimming workout just a week before the big state championship meet (up until a couple of years ago, I was an endurance triathlete with a pretty serious training regimen). I remember hearing this melody so clearly in my head; it was a very high flute. Within a minute I jumped out of the pool, went into the bathroom to get some paper towels, and started writing the music down. My coach was furious, he didn't know what to make of me! Three hours later, the whole tune was written. I really felt that Hermeto was looking over my shoulder, encouraging me to write what I was hearing. The final form of the tune is actually longer than the usual choro. It has a double Trio section, a "D" section (AABBACCDDA). In the recording, I played the melody on the guitar synthesizer using a flute sample. In 1990, just a few days before I went into the studio to record the tune, I went to the club SOB's to hear Hermeto and his group live for the first time and brought a copy of "Feiticeiro" for Hermeto. The set was about two hours long, very intense. As Jovino was leading Hermeto off the stage, I approached them and said, "I wrote this for you, Hermeto, please enjoy it." Jovino took the music and one of my cards, and I never heard anything after that. Then one day in 1997 I was speaking with the mandolinist Mike Marshall and found out that Jovino was living in Seattle. I said to Mike, "Man, I would love to speak with him." Two weeks later, I get this phone message on my answering machine: "Hey man, this is Jovino Santos Neto, I hear you're looking for me!" I almost fell on the floor. When we spoke, believe it or not, he still had my card in his hands wondering how he got it in the first place.

Brazzil—Which leads us to your collaboration with Jovino.

Boukas—After some phone and e-mail contact the next few months, Jovino was in NY playing at Symphony Space with a Native American (Lakota) group of singers and dancers. They were all in full headdress, drums, chanting, the works, and there he was, playing a grand piano, all these cool harmonies, totally at home with the whole thing. That convinced me that he could play with anyone. After the concert we went back to Astoria, my old `hood in Queens, and had some great Moroccan food. It was there that I told him of two projects I had in mind. The first was to do a comprehensive recording of Hermeto's music with an all-star group of Brazilian and American artists; the second, to form a Hermeto Repertory Band which would play a steady night of the week and feature a different guest soloist each time. To date, neither of those projects has taken off, but I think they will eventually.

At this early point, the idea of us playing together was still far off, but soon enough, the opportunity came to invite him back to NY in the fall of '98 to play a concert with myself, bassist Nilson Matta, drummer Portinho, and Hans Teuber, the saxophonist in his quartet at the time. We rehearsed only briefly, played a bunch of his and Hermeto's tunes at a Queens junior high school near where I grew up. It was like a time warp. I had QPTV Cable film the concert, edited it down, and it won the National Public Access Cable Award for best music production!

After that, we hooked up in Seattle the following spring to play some gigs with his quartet, bassist Chuck Deardorf and drummer Mark Ivester. They are great musicians, can play anything. In the spring we did a faculty concert (at the New School Jazz Program where I teach) with Nilson Matta and drummer Paulo Braga, calling the band Pé de Moleque (peanut brittle in Brazil). That band did other concerts, including the Lake George Jazz Festival and local NY club gigs. Jovino and I then did an acoustic tribute concert featuring the music of Brazilian composers Nazareth, Pixinguinha, Gnattali, and Hermeto. It was then that we got to play some tunes just duo, and out of that the idea came the idea for making a conscious effort to make the duo happen. The interaction between us was so keen and intense, and with the strength and diverse music of the three composers (Hermeto, Jovino, and myself), we really didn't need anything else. Also, the opportunity to perform and do workshops became more feasible; it's really difficult economically to bring a quartet on the road. With all the main jazz venues being dominated by mainstream jazz artists, it made perfect sense to pursue this avenue as a way of spreading the Brazilian music gospel and creating some alternative work opportunities for us.

Brazzil—How did this all this lead to Rick Warm and Malandro Records?

Boukas—I had already known Rick for quite some time. We were introduced by an industry contact who thought our common interest in Brazilian music would be a good thing to explore. Rick was launching his label, and I was looking for someone to do this Hermeto recording project. Meantime, I had started writing a Brazilian guitar column for Just Jazz Guitar magazine and decided to feature some of Rick's artists: Ulisses Rocha, Romero Lubambo, Juarez Moreira, and Rick Udler. We began sharing ideas of how to bring more attention to Brazilian music in the U.S., and realized that both of us were in this advocacy thing for the long haul.

What became clear to both of us was that unless people in the industry were willing to devote some of their personal career energies to promoting Brazilian music and culture at large, nothing was going to happen. U.S. labels would fold, Brazilian labels would not get U.S. distribution, there would be no touring avenues for artists living in or traveling to either country. From a market-share perspective, the neo-bop and smooth jazz that dominates the already tiny jazz recording industry would continue to do so unless a niche of awareness was carved for Brazilian music in radio, print media, corporate sponsorship of festivals, the works. I've been working on that diligently for some time now. I got approval for the Jazz Journalists Association to add a Best Brazilian Jazz CD category to their annual Jazz Awards. The hope is that NARAS and LARAS (the Latin Grammy academy) will follow suit. I got approval to establish a chair in Brazilian music for the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators), and now am working to bring great Brazilian artists and groups to the annual convention. Rick has also got involved with IAJE. We work together almost daily to brainstorm about ways to promote the music, and it's equally exciting and daunting. It's all a labor of love—no one is making any real money doing this yet—but it is food for the soul to hear this music get to people for the first time, to watch their ears and hearts open up.

Brazzil—How did the idea for the CD Balaio come about?

Boukas—In August '99, I took a leap of faith and said to Jovino, "Hey man, let's record this duo!" I went to Seattle, and four days later we had ten tunes in the can unmixed. We ended up keeping six of those and recording six more in June 2000. By that time, Rick Warm had committed to releasing the project in early 2001. That was a leap of faith for Rick, because I have the distinction of being the first American artist he recorded. He was justifiably concerned with the implications of this "now every Brazilian guitarist wanna-be is going to be pounding on my door saying `you released Boukas, why not me?'" But to quote Rick, he knows that "I will work my butt off" to promote Balaio. I'm also one of the few Malandro artists living in the States and readily available to tour. When it comes to selling CDs, you have to gig.

Brazzil—How are you viewed within the Brazilian music scene?

Boukas—I can humbly say that after playing and studying this music for more than 25 years, learning Portuguese to be fairly fluent, I've earned respect from Brazilian players in NY and in Brazil. They know I've done my musical and cultural homework, can play with the best musicians and hold my own. That mutual love and respect means a lot to me, it gives me a sense of musical community that has been lacking in today's mainstream jazz world for years.

Brazzil—Let's talk about the Boukas-Jovino Duo and the music you play.

BoukasBalaio is a good representation of what Jovino and I sound like. Playing live is in some ways even more intense. This is the first time in my career where I have cultivated a true peer collaboration with another player-composer. Before that, all my groups featured just my own music. When I play a piece by Jovino or Hermeto, there's a freedom of expression where I can bring a spontaneous creativity to the music without the predisposed self-critical mind of the composer-player. We try to make the performance of a given tune different every time. That keeps the music fresh and also maintains a high level of spontaneous creative expression.

Brazzil—How is duo playing different from working with a larger group?

Boukas—With a duo there can be no auto-pilot. Either you are plugged in 100% or the music will fall into a numbing mediocrity. Audiences really pick up on that, and then playing is reduced to just going through the motions. With Jovino, the playing is alive and the music is constantly evolving. He's a great partner. We align in many essential ways—every note counts, every musical gesture has intensity, spirit, and joy behind it. The music can change on a dime in mood, density, dynamics, and that's very satisfying.

Brazzil—What's the concept behind Balaio?

Boukas—We didn't have the name for the CD until almost all the tracks were done. We were driving to the studio on the 520 bridge, a breathtaking view of Lake Washington in Seattle, and then Balaio came to mind. It was not only the name of one of Hermeto's tunes, but its Portuguese meaning (basket) was appropriate to the project: the three composers, four tunes each, "a basket of musical fruits," that's what Hermeto called it.

Actually, many of the tunes we recorded were decided upon right in the studio, we just ran them down quickly once or twice and let the tape roll. We didn't have a preset game plan; we would just pick a tune out of the bag, try it, and if it clicked, we recorded it.

Brazzil—Do you mean to say that the music was all improvised?

Boukas—Not exactly. Each piece has its notated melody, form, and chord structures. Then there are different levels of compositional detail that are either there in the music already or left up to the taste of the player. My tunes tend to be a bit more fleshed out detail-wise than Jovino's or Hermeto's; but with one exception, "Capricho," my tunes on Balaio are much looser than the larger-scale pieces on Amazôna. That project was more elaborately produced and sculpted. Balaio was more like, "Here's the music, this is our clay, let's shape this the way we hear it."

Brazzil—How does the singing come into the picture? It seems like some of the things you did on Balaio needed to be worked out ahead of time.

Boukas—Not really. Although the voice was overdubbed for reasons of separation in the recording, most of the decisions on what I sang happened right there in the studio in front of the microphone. I ended up singing a lot more than I thought. The only tune of the CD without vocals is Jovino's "As Cores da Menina," a great samba. A lot of the more soaring, lyrical melodies like Hermeto's "Campinas" or Jovino's "Rosa Cigana" really needed that kind of vocal treatment, it felt very natural to use the voice in tunes like that. It also varies the texture in the Duo from the guitar and piano being the main instruments delivering the themes.

Brazzil—Your liner notes for "As Cores da Menina" describe a `more modal approach to the improvisation.' Can you explain that?

Boukas—This is a 20-bar tune, and the first eight bars center around Bb major and A minor. Because these two chords have a lot of scale tones in common, the player can play more loosely within a modal structure rather than "threading the needle" from one chord change to the next as with more traditional jazz tunes. Also, this kind of modal playing is enhanced further—improvising within Brazilian styles offers a stronger rhythmic approach to the player. That's one of the main reasons why I love playing in Brazilian and Afro-Cuban styles; it liberates you from the jazz imperative to crank out out bebop eighth-note clichés over harmonic formulas like "II-V-I" and so on.

Brazzil—In your notes for the tune "Balaio," your mention `diatonic melody.'

Boukas—This is a great aspect of Hermeto's music. Often he'll write a very simple scale-like melody from some of his nordestino folkloric roots, or just a pretty melody with no particular Brazilian flavor. Well, as this innocent melody unfolds, he often finds exotic harmonizations for it, which creates this simultaneous sense of calm and instability. With Hermeto, there's always a surprise just around the corner. In "Balaio," he keeps the harmonies under the first six bars of the melody pretty straightforward (D major/G major/B minor), and then the rug gets pulled from under your feet, Wham!!! Bb minor!! It's like a cold mountain stream hitting you in the face, and these kinds of harmonic shifts really keep improvising musicians on their toes. With Hermeto, a diatonic melody is almost begging for harmonic mischief. That allows him this wonderful coexistence of folkloric simplicity and harmonic/rhythmic complexity that is so key to his musical aesthetic. Bartok did that with Romanian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian folk melodies.

"Vale da Ribeira," on the other hand, takes the same eight-bar melody and uses some wild reharmonizations the second time around. Although these are compositional devices, the notion of reharmonizing a melody on its repetition is very improvisational in origin—not only in Hermeto and jazz composers like Wayne Shorter, but in Chopin, Mozart, Bach. It's that classic economy in developing your initial materials.

Brazzil—In Jovino's piano solo introduction to "Balaio," it sounds like he's quoting Duke Ellington's "In a Mellow Tone." Is he?

Boukas—Well, I never asked Jovino about that one. But let me tell you, this guy is a walking human trocadilho (pun), verbal and musical. It's a chronic disease that has no cure, and I'm part of it now. He's always twisting words among six languages, quoting classic melodies like Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil" in the funniest places over totally different tunes and their sets of chord changes. It's a playful part of the improviser's craft, the kind of running jokes between musicians that few in the audience will catch, but are often enough to make you double over from laughter.

Brazzil—And in your vocal solo on "Gajatucada," you quote Jobim's "Desafinado." That is a fun tune, kind of a Bebop meets Brazil.

Boukas—"Gajatucada" is actually a very old tune, probably the first real samba I wrote that was worthy of performing live, back in 1979 or so. It has an Afro-Cuban bembe section in the middle that breaks up the samba groove. This tune really kicks with a rhythm section, and it's a challenge for a duo without bass and drums to play a samba with fire yet without trying too hard to make up for the absence of those instruments. It takes a lot of close listening to each other to hear which of us is going to comp the tamborim rhythm, play the surdo bassline, and so on.

In Jovino's "Homeopatia," I decided to use an acoustic bass instead of guitar. This was not only to lend some more bottom to the groove, but to have at least a couple of tunes where Jovino could play the piano in a more traditional jazz duo piano-bass setup. I love playing this Tacoma bass, it is what the Brazilians call a baixão (large acoustic bass guitar). In this tune, there are a lot of moments that Jovino and I hit together rhythmically and melodically that sound totally planned_ but they're not. People don't believe it, and sometimes, neither do I!

Brazzil—You included Hermeto's lovely ballad "Campinas" in Balaio.

Boukas—This is a side of Hermeto's music that most people don't know about—the lyrical, ballad side. This is such a beautiful tune, I also have my student Brazilian Jazz Ensemble at the New School play it. When they ask me how to approach it, I tell them: "Don't think about keeping time, jazz, taking a solo, just paint into a horizon that never ends in depth or width." I liked what we did on this tune on the CD. When interpreting any piece of music, especially in a style like jazz where improvisation is always an implied option, you have to respect a piece for what it suggests naturally for its own treatment. "Campinas" is a very long tune, so we played through the melody just once, no solos, and that's all that needed to be done.

Brazzil—The solo guitar introduction to your tune "Escuridão da Passagem" (Darkness of Passage) is beautiful, very evocative.

Boukas—Jovino once called this "Chopin meets Toninho Horta." Well, that's a good summation of the influences in this tune. It has an intensity, but from the inside out. There's this floating melody supported by dark chords, a sense of anticipation that something's coming, but it never quite happens. Chopin and Bach are major roots in choro. Add Debussy and Ravel, and you can hear that same Romantic character in the ballad writing of Jobim and Guinga—so it's a perfect meeting place for a Greek-American Brazilian Jazz musician!! As for Toninho Horta, he's such a great composer and guitarist, his melodies unwind so naturally and intuitively. That deep introspective quality in his music is a real mineiro thing—all those guys from Minas Gerais have it. Actually, when writing this tune, I heard Dori Caymmi singing this melody in my head—that almost priestly chant-like sound he has is haunting.

Brazzil—Your tune "Capricho dos Ventos" (Play of the Winds) also has this quality of pathos and Chopin in it, but it has a very different melodic and rhythmic structure.

Boukas—You nailed it. Although this piece is quite lengthy, it literally wrote itself in one sitting. The inspiration comes from the Valse Brillante of Chopin; that continuous étude-like melody just flowed right out. The guitar intro has a hint of Guinga in it, that colorful way he mixes open strings with fretted notes to get these lush harmonies. For this, I took the last section of the theme and used it as the basis for the intro, a kind of re-composition in reverse order. The music eventually evolves into a guarânia for the solo section—it's one of the more popular southern Brazilian dances, a 3/4 from Rio Grande do Sul, similar to the pasodoble. The concluding section is a lesson out of Brahms' harmony book, I felt his beard coming on with all those inversion chords! This tune is a nice contrast in programming when we play live, it exposes the classical side of the repertoire and really gets people to listen to the music on its own merits and not whether it's distinctly Brazilian or not in character.

Brazzil—What's in the pipeline for the Duo, now that the CD is released?

Boukas—Jovino and I are doing many concerts and workshops around the country, mainly in university settings that have jazz programs. The response to our work has been so refreshing, even in places like Casper, Wyoming, where you'd never think an audience for Brazilian music could exist. The new book of Hermeto's tunes, Tudo é Som (All Is Sound) is attracting a lot of attention in educational circles. Jovino is Hermeto's archivist and edited this book for Universal Edition. We hope it's the first of many to come. Other than that, I think we should be recording again soon either as a Duo or as a Quartet. On behalf of Jovino and myself, I really want to thank you, Daniella and Brazzil, for your interest in our work and continued support of Brazilian music and culture.

Richard Boukas & Jovino Santos Neto: Balaio (Basket) Mal 71017

Audio samples:

01. As Cores da Menina (Jovino Santos Neto)

02. Balaio (intro)

03. Balaio (Hermeto Pascoal)

04. Gajatucada (Richard Boukas)

05. Campinas (Hermeto Pascoal)

06. Homeopatia (Jovino Santos Neto)

07. Escuridão da Passagem (intro)

08. Escuridão da Passagem (Richard Boukas)

09. Capricho dos Ventos (Richard Boukas)

10. Hermeto (Hermeto Pascoal)

11. Vale do Ribeira (Hermeto Pascoal)

12. Rosa Cigana (Jovino Santos Neto)

13. ChoroBop (Richard Boukas)

14. A Mountain Atop a Mountain (Jovino Santos Neto)

Richard Boukas: guitars, vocals, mandolin (3), acoustic bass (6, 9), cavaquinho 11), percussion (8)

Jovino Santos Neto: piano, flute (11)

For further information:

Richard Boukas:  

Jovino Santos Neto:

Malandro Records:

The writer publishes the online magazine of Brazilian music and culture Daniella Thompson on Brazil and the website Musica Brasiliensis, where she can be contacted.

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