When Flora Purim left her native Brazil to come to the United States in 1968, it was immediately apparent that this country had gained an important new artist. Purim is a singer who has assimilated a bewildering variety of styles into a unique, stirring sound; she is a lyricist who is determined to carry her message of freedom to the largest audience possible; she is a performer whose appearances win consistent raves; and she is a studio musician who backs up some of the finest talents in jazz.
Like her music, Flora’s background contains a heady mix of musical styles. From her parents, both performing amateur musicians, she heard classical music, on the streets of Rio de Janeiro she became familiar with the traditional Brazilian music, a sound heavy with African influences, and she listened with increasing frequency to the sounds of American jazz on radio and records.
If Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner seem incongruous amidst South American culture, they served to stimulate Flora’s growing interest in the musical vanguard. Singing bossa nova, then the avant-garde of Brazilian music, she became an established artist in her country, cutting albums and singles, appearing on her own television series, and performing with everything from big dance bands to nightclub trios.
Coming to the United States, Flora first worked with Duke Pearson and Stan Getz, and these dates led to a stint with Gil Evans during which she first met Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Joe Henderson. A place in Corea’s original Return to Forever resulted, and for two years she toured with Corea and participated in the recording of the best-selling Polydor albums Return to Forever and Light as a Feather.
With the first five years of work in this country came a change in Flora’s attitude and a loosening of her style. While continuing to utilize her great technical gifts, she decided to emphasize communication with the audience.
"I changed my whole concept about singing. In Chick’s band we tried to establish communication between ourselves and the people by getting to the basics of the music. We never left technique behind, but if we had to, we would sacrifice technique in order to communicate. It was the beginning of the current phase of my life, when I really decided to say to people that there is a place for beautiful music, a place to be free, and that I could take them there."
Along with this new attitude came a change in Flora’s style, one that opened up new musical avenues for her. Guided mainly by Airto-with whom she continued to work on his solo efforts, and whose band, Fingers, she was to join after leaving Corea-and by close friend Hermeto Pascoal, she began to sing wordlessly in a style that was neither scat nor vocalese but was unique and moving. Hard to classify, the music was harder to resist.
While still working with Airto, Flora signed with Milestone Records as a solo artist in late 1973. Early the next year her first solo album, Butterfly Dreams, was released, and the combination of Flora, arranger Clarke, Airto, and others provided the best showcase yet for her talents.
And then the raves really began. In addition to winning the Down Beat poll, she, was named top female jazz artist of the year by Record World and Cash Box, and the latter publication wrote: "Flora Purim’s vocal style will be as influential in the Seventies as Billie Holiday’s was in the late Forties and early Fifties."
Her follow-up album, Stories to Tell, provided further proof-as if anyone still needed it-that her talent was genuine. Once again the critics paid attention, and once again the fans voted her number one in the Down Beat poll.
But Flora had been arrested in 1971 on drug charges, and in mid-1974 she entered a Federal prison on Southern California’s Terminal Island. For 18 months her musical activity was limited to songwriting and one widely publicized, groundbreaking concert at the prison. Along with Flora appeared Airto, George Duke, Miroslav Vitous, and Cannonball Adderley, among others.
Paroled after having served half of her sentence, Flora was released in December 1975 with some new understandings, a dozen songs she had written in prison, and an intense desire to get back to recordings and performances. That desire was clearly present on her next album, Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly.The common themes of Flora’s work-freedom and communication-had seldom been expressed in as intense and striking a manner.
And seldom has she blended divergent musical styles into such an effective whole. As the album showed, Flora cannot merely be labeled a jazz singer-she is a complete singer who is at home with nearly all types of American and Latin music. Flora herself has suggested the most fitting classification for her talent. "I don’t want to be known by any labels but just as a human being with the ability to communicate."