Tightrope Walker, Azymuth’s eighth Milestone album in as many years, finds the Brazilian instrumental trio further refining and expanding the boundaries of their samba doido ("crazy samba") with characteristic verve and authority. The band’s unique blend of samba, jazz, and funk takes on new shapes and colors in a wide variety of material, most of it original.
Tightrope Walker is actually Azymuth’s eleventh LP as a group—three were released during the Seventies in only. Like its predecessors, Tightrope Walker was largely recorded in Rio de Janeiro, the band’s home base. Producer/keyboardist José Roberto Bertrami, bassist Alex Malheiros, and drummer Ivan Conti (Mamão), who have been working as a unit for over 14 years, keep things lean and basic on the new LP, although they’re joined on several tracks by Paulinho Olivera on flugelhorn and percussionist Cidinho.
The nonoriginals here are a varied and fascinating lot. "Tu Me Delirio,” by the Mexican composer Portillo de la Luz, was recorded in the Fifties by Nat King Cole (in Spanish) and George Shearing, while Marcos Valle’s "Pygmalion,” the theme from a 1970 Brazilian TV novela, is given its long-overdue recorded debut. (Valle, whose composition "Flame” was the title track of a previous Azymuth album, is probably best known in this country for "If You Went Away,” which has been recorded by Sarah Vaughan, Joe Pass, and Milt Jackson.)
Azymuth became acquainted with the ballad "If You’d Like to Know” by way of the singer Nana Caymmi, who performed it on a recent television special in . The song dates from the Thirties, however, which Bertrami describes as a kind of golden age for Brazilian music. "Nowadays everyone keeps his eye on commercial considerations,” he observes, "and frankly I don’t think anyone is capable anymore of writing this type of melody--beautiful from beginning to end. This composer, Peter Pan, must have written other songs, but if so they’re on 78s and very hard to come across.”
Bertrami is represented on the album by two hardly-traditional sambas: "Samba da Barra,” referring to the section of Rio known as Barra da Tijuca where he once lived; and "Broken Key,” whose jagged rhythms are such that "if you tried to dance to it, you might just fall on your face!”
Alex Malheiros’s "The Other Side of the Coin,” which features a wordless vocal and acoustic guitar work by the composer, is an exquisite example of Alex’s lushly evocative writing style. "This song is reminiscent of a bossa nova,” Bertrami comments, "although Alex wouldn’t call it that. His harmonies are beautiful and complicated, and you have to have studied a lot of music to play them.”
Two Ivan Conti tunes—the funky title track and a futuristic keyboard/drum duet, "Folklore”—close out the album.
José Roberto Bertrami, 40, was born in Tatuí in the state of São Paulo. Influenced by Bill Evans and the seminal bossa nova pianist Luiz Eça, Zé Roberto began working in São Paulo city clubs in the mid-Sixties, notably the João Sebastião Bar, where he, Flora Purim, and Airto Moreira were playing "progressive bossa nova.”
In ‘67, Flora and Airto moved to New York, and Zé Roberto to Rio, where he played with a number of bands before meeting drummer Ivan Conti the following year.
A carioca (native of Rio de Janeiro), Mamao, also 40, had been working in Tijuca bars, in the North Zone of Rio, and with singer Roberto Carlos in Canecão, an immense Rio nightclub that usually features several bands on a bill and where many Brazilian musicians invariably play at some point in their careers.
One night at Canecão, Conti was toiling away with a rock band called the Youngsters while Bertrami was appearing with a bossa nova group. The two musicians quickly became mutual admirers and, resolving to form their own trio, went looking for a bassist.
They found Alex Malheiros a few weeks later, playing with a dance music band in a bowling alley. "We immediately said, ‘this is our guy,’” Conti recalls, "and spoke with him that night.”
Alex Malheiros, 40, was born and still lives in Niterói, the city across the bay from Rio. His grandfather, father, and uncle are all bassists; in fact, his father made the first electric bass in , in 1954, from a photo he’d seen in a magazine ad. (The Malheiros family, including Alex, still designs and builds custom basses today; Alex’s is made of jacaranda, a wood suited to the vagaries of ’s climate.)
Malheiros, who cites Scott LaFaro as his primary influence, had his first job as a musician at age 13. In his late teens, he and Egberto Gismonti spent two years working as a duo, "doing our own compositions—just music ‘to listen to rather than to dance to. At the time such a thing didn’t exist in .”
Before encountering Bertrami and Conti in that bowling alley, Alex had also worked with Luiz Eça, Tim Maia, and big-band leader Ed Lincoln.
For the next five years, Zé Roberto, Ivan, and Alex worked together and separately—with artists like Elis Regina, Deodato, Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, Simone, and Milton Nascimento—and established themselves as top session players for movie and TV soundtracks as well as records. Their first album as Azymuth was actually a soundtrack for the film O Fabuloso Fittipaldi, written and arranged by Bertrami and released in ‘73. Limite do horizonte followed in ‘74 and Águia não come mosca ("Eagles don’t eat flies”) in ‘77. They toured frequently through and South America.
"We were trying to develop our own sound within samba and jazz,” explains Ze’ Roberto, "while trying to escape the patterns and limitations of both. For instance, we utilize the rhythms of the samba school bands, but the samba bass beat might be played by our drummer.
"Our studio phase was invaluable, because as studio musicians we were being paid to experiment without having the responsibility of being leaders. In the process of working with sambistas and pop stars, we developed a style of our own.”
Azymuth performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977, and backed Flora Purim and Airto on their American tour the next year. Also in ‘78, Bertrami served as rhythm arranger and keyboard player on Sarah Vaughan’s I Love Brazil album, and performed with her at a Los Angeles concert.
Since Azymuth’s affiliation with Milestone began in 1979, the band has been finding an audience outside . "Jazz Carnival” (from Light as a Feather) was a gold single in ; Telecommunication was a top ten U.S. jazz album and ’s number one import LP for a 12-week period in 1982. The group has performed numerous times in the and , with their fourth major tour scheduled for spring ‘87.
They’ve also been busy producing a variety of critically acclaimed solo projects for Milestone: Bertrami’s Blue Wave and Dreams Are Real, Malheiros’s Atlantic Forest, Conti’s The Human Factor. They are among the featured guests on singer Mark Murphy’s forthcoming Milestone debut Night Mood, which showcases Bertrami’s arrangements of the songs of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins.
In the best of possible worlds, Azymuth would love to record with Wayne Shorter, to have their songs covered by Quincy Jones, and to devote more and more time to their own samba doido.