José Roberto Bertrami
José Roberto Bertrami, as producer, chief writer, and keyboardist for Azymuth, has a great deal to do with the Brazilian trio’s unique sound. He strikes out in a somewhat different direction, however, on his own Milestone solo debut, Blue Wave.
Bertrami’s sublimely lyrical compositions, such as “Partido Alto #2" and “Blue Wave,” dominate the album, but one of the LP’s main attractions is the first American recording of “Bye Bye Brazil,” the theme from the popular late- Seventies film. (The Roberto Menescal/Chico Buarque song was performed on the original soundtrack by Azymuth.)
Recorded in Rio de Janeiro, where the keyboardist has been based since the mid-Sixties, Blue Wave features a superlative cast of Brazilian musicians whose ties to the leader predate Bertrami’s long association with Azymuth: bassists José Alves and Claudio Bertrami; his cousin José Carlos, on flute, and guitarist Hélio Delmiro, both frequent Azymuth collaborators; and the great drummer Robertinho Silva, who’s worked for many years with Milton Nascimento. (Silva’s wife Aleuda, the percussionist who duets with Bertrami on “Chorodô,” is best known for her work with Hermeto Pascoal and Azymuth.)
José Roberto Bertrami was born February 21, 1946 in Tatuí, a small city in the interior of São Paulo. The eldest of seven children, four of whom are musicians, Zé Roberto grew up surrounded by music. His father Lázaro was a classical violinist and a professor at Tatuí’s public conservatory, the only such institution in .
Bertrami’s formal piano studies began when he was seven, with the noted paulista teacher Doña Selma Romagnolo. After two years, however, he turned to playing soccer and what he terms “professional vagabondage.” “There has never existed a worse student than I was!” he laughs. “I never studied, never knew a thing. But I always excelled at music.”
At 13, as his mother was beginning to despair that he would ever get serious about school, Zé Roberto enrolled at the conservatory. “In my two years there, I did seven years’ work,” he claims, “and then I was expelled. The conservatory was almost entirely a classical music situation, and I’d begun to break some rules—like holding a jam session at school, which is prohibited to this day.”
Bertrami had already discovered jazz, particularly Bill Evans and Miles Davis. At the same time, bossa nova was becoming quite popular, and in his early teens Zé Roberto was very taken with pianist Luiz Eça of the influential Tamba Trio.
Once out of school, Bertrami was ready to start working. He’d sneak off to São Paulo by train—a grueling four-hour trip—to meet friends such as the pianist Mario Edson, who played in various nightclubs and places of ill repute. Bertrami’s own first job was at a club called Cancan, right next door to a hotel where 17-year-old bassist José Alves had a steady trio gig.
An important break for the young pianist came several years later, when he met a singer named Flora Purim at São Paulo’s João Sebastião Bar. He ended up joining the new band Flora was putting together with percussionist Airto Moreira and which also included trombonist Raul de Souza.
In 1967, Flora and Airto went off to New York, and Zé Roberto decided to move to Rio with his brother Claudio. They formed a trio with drummer Robertinho Silva, and spent the next eight months working at the Rio nightspot Canecão.
“We played bossa nova and samba,” says Bertrami, “mostly tunes by Jobim and Milton Nascimento. Milton had just won the top prize at the Festival of Popular Music that year, and I played with him there.”
Among the other bands working at Canecão during this same period were a jazz/rock unit featuring the guitarist Hé1io Delmiro, and a rock group, the Youngsters, whose drummer was Ivan Conti (Mamão), now one-third of Azymuth.
“I began to notice Mamão’s playing,” Bertrami recalls, “and was very impressed. One day I suggested to him: `let’s do a switch—you play samba with me while Robertinho [Silva] plays with the Youngsters—and we’ll see what happens.’”
The results was that Bertrami and Mamão resolved to put together their own trio. They found their bass player, Alex Malheiros, several weeks later as he was toiling away with a dance band in a bowling alley!
For the next five years, Zé Roberto, Mamão, and Alex worked together and separately, establishing themselves as top session players. Bertrami also joined singer Elis Regina’s group for a two-year stint.
The first Azymuth album 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 Aguia não come mosca (“Eagles don’t eat flies”) in ‘77.
They toured frequently throughout and South America, and continued their studio work, playing on countless samba albums as well as film soundtracks and recordings by top Brazilian artists like Jorge Ben, Simone, and Gal Costa.
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 1 Love album, and performed with her at a Los Angeles concert.
Since Azymuth’s affiliation with Milestone began in 1979, the band has been finding a receptive audience outside . Their albums—Light as a Feather, Outubro, Telecommunication, Cascades, and Rapid Transit (a late ‘83 release)—have been consistent sellers, and the trio has made club appearances in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.
Bertrami’s solo disc, Blue Wave, has a jazzier, more explicitly Brazilian feel to it than do Azymuth’s records. “Parati,” a keyboard duet with José Alves, refers to a beautiful place right outside of Rio; “Shot on Goal” is a feature for the samba style of Robertinho Silva.
“Robertinho and Mamão are without a doubt the two greatest drummers in today,” says Bertrami. “Yet they play so completely differently that my style changes with each of them.”
Following the recording of Blue Wave, Bertrami staged a live, one-night-only presentation called “Mr. Bertrami” with Alves, Silva, and José Carlos.
“Everyone who saw the show wondered if it meant the end of Azymuth,” laughs Bertrami. “People who’d always thought Azymuth was too ‘rock and roll’ said, ‘This is serious music.’ And those who liked Azymuth said, ‘This is way too much jazz!’”
Blue Wave offers a look at that other, rarely-heard side of Mr. Bertrami, an important composer and keyboard talent.