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A Samba for a Modern Night: New Music From Brazil

Brazilian music of the past four decades — in particular the styles rooted in traditional samba, bossa nova, Música Popular Brasileira and, lately, electronic-dance-samba hybrids — has, for many fans, composers and players, come to represent an artistic approach closest to offering the best of all musical worlds rolled up in one big, shiny ball.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

The music’s practitioners will tell you this is due to a couple of factors: the country’s cultural roots and the music’s pure form. The cultural aspect involves the history of Brazil’s people and the specific racial and cultural equations engendered when African slaves mixed with European settlers and the region’s Indians (sound familiar?). The short version: When the brilliant African-derived rhythms refashioned by the descendants of the slaves infused it with high-grade European harmony and melody (mostly of French, Spanish and Portuguese origins), the samba was created.

Yes, Brazil is a large country with many musical strands. But it’s samba’s architecture that has come to represent the country’s lifeblood. The style not only offers rhythm, but is also a strain of music whose basic requirement is a near-perfect balance among rhythm, melody and harmony. And its younger kin, bossa nova — along with the more recent outpourings of DJ and electronic-inspired dance styles — fans out in all directions from there. But dig far enough into each, and you’ll find the composers’ common reverence for the golden braid of Brazil’s rhythm-melody-harmony.

The new album by Kassin +2, Futurismo (Luaka Bop), is the third in a trilogy of +2 albums (also Domenico +2’s 2004 Sincerely Hot and Moreno +2’s Music Typewriter from 2001) released by the three members of one of the best and most relevant bands in Brazil. The trio, Moreno, Domenico and Kassin, are bursting with great ideas about how to bring Brazilian music into the 21st century. Each is an amazingly versatile composer and multi-instrumentalist, with a typically Brazilian love of musical variety, Brazilian or not. In this respect, they are the heirs to the greats of Brazil’s Tropicalismo and rock movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze, Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso, who proudly “cannibalized” English Invasion bands and American rock and jazz artists to incorporate into their own samba-rooted and Brazilian folklorical musics.

Moreno, in fact, is the son of Caetano Veloso, who helps out on a few tracks on Music Typewriter. (The two collaborated on Veloso’s album Ce.) The record heralds a new era of tasteful electronics/samba hybrids. Placed alongside utterly gorgeous, more traditionally lyrical gems of Brazil’s past, the music makes some kind of logical sense. That Moreno sounds like his dad when he sings is nice, but what is mind-blowing is how, in tracks like “Enquanto Isso” and “Paro Xó,” the son has arrived at such a precise synthesis of old and new, has written what sound to my ears like bona fide, new Brazilian classics. He’s composing music with a comfortable familiarity, like you’ve been hearing it all your life. And the closing tune, “I’m Wishing,” is so achingly beautiful, it makes a listener want to jump off the nearest cliff.

That “want to jump off a cliff” quality — termed saudade, which Brazilians insist can’t be translated into English but which in essence means a sweet-sad nostalgia — comes and goes on these +2 recordings, as if the band has updated the Brazilian attitude and taken a plucky, headlong dive into unknown electronic- and rock-flavored emotional terrain. The beauty in much of the trio’s music is there in spades, but, generally speaking, possesses a younger, more leathery attitude toward nostalgia. It’s far less bittersweet.

Singer-drummer extraordinaire Domenico +2’s Sincerely Hot is a head-spinningly eclectic batch of new Brazilianness that stews samba, bossa nova, Tropicália, MPB (Música Popular Brasileira), rock and electronic glitch/loop together in very tough-minded yet utterly beautiful ways. How can it be that someone so young can have this mastery of rhythm and melody? He is (perhaps not coincidentally) the son of Ivor Lancellotti, a highly regarded ’70s samba composer and singer. (And in the ’90s, Domenico formed an experimental rock band called Mulheres Que Dizem Sim — or, Women Who Say Yes.)

Domenico, a human octopus of ferocious percussion skills, presents minimalistic tracks, like “Alegria Vai Lá,” whose gurgling, buzzing synths, relentless driving polyrhythms, quirky found-sound loops and repetitions deliver a kind of ecstatic madness, a hypnosis, like a Brazilian version of NYC proto-synth-punk band Suicide, or, better, a Carioca Deutsche-Amerikanische Freundschaft. Yet the lovely “Aeroporto 77” has those timeless descending/ascending bossa chords and lounge vibes, which ride over wobbly Wurlitzer organ comps. (This just-killer chord sequence, by the way, harkens back to the trick learned from the Brazilians’ revered French composers, especially Debussy, who hints at chord sequences that never actually arrive.)

In Domenico’s effervescent “Possibilidade,” bubbly with flutes, trombones, acoustic guitars and rolling, marching polyrhythms, the impossibly pleasant chord progressions suggest a sunny afternoon daydream that recalls British orch-pop aesthetes the High Llamas. Want some contrast? “Você e eu” is, well, a death-metal mash-up dotted with random electronics and a lot of noise. Hard to believe such claustrophobic mayhem comes from the same head as something as soothingly dulcet as “Tarde de Chegada” or the grainy analog mystery called “Arrivederci,” which one might mistake for the theme to a 1970s Jess Franco film.

The glory of Brazilian music’s historically unbiased mashing up of disparate musical strains and grand song structures can be heard in the music of composer-performers such as Tom Jobim, Lo Borges and Milton Nascimento, all of whom were probably absorbed by Kassin. His just-out Futurismo, like Music Typewriter and Sincerely Hot, visits a new place in contemporary Brazilian expression, where beauty and lyricism are never lost — even as Kassin probes his fascination with unexplored electronic and rock-aligned territory.

He is the imaginative producer of a number of popular Brazilian artists, including Bebel Gilberto and Marisa Monte, and on Futurismo, he collaborates on several tunes with John McEntire of Chicago instrumentalists Tortoise and Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas — which makes wonderful sense. O’Hagan has arranged tracks for many artists, all of whom mine an area of ... call it contemporary daydream rock. Its common goal is to concoct the perfect pop admixture of sweetness and modernity.

In Kassin’s “Tranqüilo,” the tremolo guitar, swishing/clopping polybeats and aquatic feel of vibraphones amble about with no particular place to go; it seems to have no goals, no worries. In “O Seu Lugar,” classic bossa chord progressions rise and fall simultaneously; an easygoing beat, relaxed vocals, mellow electric piano and bird tweets ... these effects are subtle, panning left and right and twining ’round Monsanto electronic sounds. You’re in the ’60s, the ’70s or thereabouts, and it feels good.

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