“What I’m doing now,” Claudio Roditi comments, “is just the music I used to hear and play when I was growing up in Rio: a combination of jazz with Brazilian rhythms.”
Yet on Slow Fire, his new recording for Milestone, the Brazilian-bred trumpet and flugelhorn artist advances that musical merger in new ways. “A lot of the instrumental part of this combination wasn’t heard very much here in the United States,” he explains. “People heard the singers but didn’t really hear the instrumentalists. Many musicians in the U.S. don’t know the elements involved in the many types of Brazilian music. I think it is absolutely important when you make the fusion between jazz and Brazilian music that you have a total knowledge of both styles so that when you put them together the result is a choice and not just someone mixing up styles because they don’t know any better. It’s just like in jazz—you have to be able to discern between different styles, you have to know the difference between Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and Miles Davis and know where they come from and even find a common ground between the two of them.”
For more than two decades Roditi has been studying the distinctions and the similarities within both Brazilian music and jazz and the result is a seamless blend that bears the stamp of his singular musical personality. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Claudio spent much of his childhood in smaller outlying towns where his father was a broker in Brazil’s coffee industry. It was in a little community called Varginha, in his mother’s home state of Minas Gerais, that his musical direction was determined. He had taken piano lessons from the age of six from a Uruguayan cousin on his mother’s side, and progressed from playing percussion on kitchen tables to a set of bongos. But when the ten-year-old Claudio walked into the music room of the school behind the family house in Varginha, his life changed. “I was looking around at the instruments in the band room,” Roditi recalls, “and I saw a trumpet and said this is what I want to play—out of the blue. I liked the way the instrument looked. But,” he laughs, “it’s been rough ever since.” (The story is touched upon in the lyrics of “Em Minas Gerais” from Gemini Man, his Milestone debut.)
While playing marches in the school band, Claudio convinced his father to buy him a few jazz albums that had trumpets on the covers, records by Harry James, Ray Anthony, and Louis Armstrong. Later, on a family visit to an aunt’s house, Claudio was introduced to other jazz recordings in the collection of an American-born uncle. “I didn’t know why,” he remembers, “but I just liked it.” In 1959, Roditi’s family moved to Santos, where relatives would gather for jam sessions in their house, and at 13 Claudio discovered such new inspirations as Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, and Chet Baker. “I got a Miles Davis record, ’Round About Midnight, that same year that turned my head around completely,” he says. “Musically, I had no idea what I was listening to and then one day it clicked, it actually clicked and I started understanding, not to be able to explain in musical terms, but I understood how the cats were improvising on top of themes.”
When Claudio’s father died that year, Claudio and his mother returned to Rio where saxophonist Aurino Ferreira began instructing the young trumpeter in musical concepts. “He gave me the clue to make sense of improvising in bebop, he was the first one who was able to lay down in musical terms what was happening, what I was hearing on records but couldn’t pinpoint.”
Bossa nova was at its peak in the early Sixties but at the same time in Rio many instrumentalists were experimenting with even newer forms, especially an exciting combination of bebop and samba. “Everybody was improvising over samba rhythms,” Roditi recalls, “and that probably had the biggest influence on my playing.” But the music scene in Rio grew stale for Roditi around 1965 and when he had the opportunity to enter a jazz competition in Vienna, Austria in 1966, he thought, “This is my chance to get out of here and be exposed to something else.” The jury panelists included Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Josef Zawinul, Ron Carter, and Mel Lewis, and Roditi met other musicians from all over the world. The exposure convinced Roditi that he must continue to expand his horizons. In 1970, he enrolled in the Berklee School of Music in Boston (an institution he had read about in ads in Down Beat magazine back in Rio), and he has lived in the U.S. ever since.
During his six years in Boston, Roditi honed his reading, composing, and arranging skills, co-led a big band for a year, and began developing the connections that have kept him busy for the past decade. He played with Brazilian guitarist Amaury Tristão at the Tin Palace in New York, in a band that included saxophonist Charlie Rouse and that led to Roditi’s appearance on Rouse’s Cinnamon Flower. He recorded an album with his trombone hero Slide Hampton, and he played with Herbie Mann for three years. Through percussionists Ignacio Berroa, Daniel Ponce, and Thiago de Mello, he met Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and has been a mainstay in Paquito’s band for the past six years. Although the specific roots of their music are different, Roditi and D’Rivera share a common musical vision: “We like to bring cats from different backgrounds to our music,” Roditi explains. “On the new album, only the bass player and myself are Brazilian, we have people from all different places playing our music.” While he was known for doubling on valve trombone in his early work with D’Rivera, Roditi has put away the larger instrument. “It was ruining my trumpet chops; you play one tune on trombone and go back to the trumpet and you don’t know where the mouthpiece goes anymore.”
Although he has cut one album, Red on Red, for producer Creed Taylor, and another, Claudio!, for Uptown Records, Roditi feels that his recording career is just beginning. On his Milestone albums, he says, “I’ve been able to do exactly what I wanted to do—putting Brazilian music together with bebop is where my heart is.”