Luciano Antonio’s Brazilian jazz finds its audience


– By Don Macica

“I was finding myself in Chicago every weekend, commuting from Kansas City, because Chicago was where the opportunity to play was.”

I’m speaking with Luciano Antonio, who has quietly but steadily become a major force in Chicago’s Brazilian music scene.  Born in the rural town of Iretama in the southern Brazilian state of Parana, Antonio has been performing here since 1994. The first decade or so of that was playing guitar in existing ensembles like Chicago Samba, Bossa Tres and Orquesta de Samba, but eventually he began to step out as a bandleader in his own right, releasing his first album of original music, Vida de Arista (An Artist’s Life), in 2011. A second album, Sem Palavras (Without Words), followed in 2015.

Luciano, who was born into a musical family, taught himself to play guitar at the age of 14. He initially focused on Brazilian folk and Bossa Nova, but was soon studying classical guitar, eventually heading to the United States and Kansas City, earning a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Missouri. It was there he met the leader of Chicago Samba, Moacyr Marchini, who invited him to join the group. By 1999, what started out as a few trips a year turned into a weekly gig. “I would travel here every Thursday afternoon, play the gig, sleep for a an hour and a half at the drummer’s house, then fly back to Kansas City in the morning because I couldn’t miss class.”

He continues, “Chicago Samba is a party band and plays everything: Bossa Nova, pagode, axé, Olodum, fricote… I still play all of that with my dance group project, Planeta Azul, but my original music tends to be a little quieter, music designed for listening instead of dancing.”

In 2002, Luciano finally moved here. Chicago is now home, the place he returns to after his tours Italy, China, and Brazil. If you go out for live music in Chicago, chances are you’ll encounter Luciano in one form or another on a regular basis. In addition to Planeta Azul, he performs as a solo singer-guitarist, in an occasional duo with the superb Brazilian vocalist Silvia Manrique, in the interesting new project AMA led by drummer Luiz Ewerling that features vocalist Ana Munteanu, and, of course, leading his own quintet.

His rigorous classical guitar study has payed off. He’s a terrific and fluid guitarist who is comfortable improvising. Additionally, Luciano is a fine singer whose voice carries that essential but hard to describe sense of Brazilian saudade.

It’s this quintet that has been playing a weeknight gig several times a year at Chicago’s renowned Jazz Showcase, where he now has a full weekend of shows scheduled starting January 26-29, a coveted spot that is usually reserved for national artists.

“Planeta Azul is meant for dancing, and I enjoy playing that kind of music very much. But at the Jazz Showcase, I can open up the music to improvisation, what is called Brazilian jazz, because I have a listening audience. I have the room to take the music where it can go.”

Luciano notes that he draws from a range of influences to compose and play this more intimate music. “Everything from the Beatles to the top artists of of Brazilian MPB (Música popular brasileira) including Milton Nascimento, Djavan, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Some American pop and, of course, jazz.”

The Jazz Showcase quintet will include Neal Alger, one of Chicago’s best jazz guitarists, and a young Brazilian pianist, Gabriel Alves, who has studied here in Chicago with the legendary Willie Pickens. Rounding out the lineup are bassist Geoffrey Lowe and drummer Luiz Ewerling, who are also Luciano’s band mates in AMA. Joining them as special guests are vocalist Neusa Sauer and her husband Breno.

“Neusa and Breno came out of Brazil in the 1960s and settled in Chicago in the 70s. They’re both legends and Chicago is so lucky to have them. If you’ve never heard Neusa sing, you are in for a real treat. This weekend is something of a tribute to them.”

Luciano takes a moment to reflect on his time in Chicago. “I’ve been on the Chicago scene for something like 22 years. It’s really a great city, and I feel like getting a weekend at the Jazz Showcase is something of an acknowledgement that I’m a true Chicago artist.

“I’ll always love Carnaval music, dancing, high energy stuff. Samba and party music are great. But for me, personally, I want people to hear the nuances in my music, and I really appreciate that there is a place like Jazz Showcase where people will listen. The audience offers me their ears and their attention, and the challenge to me is to reward them for it by being as musical as I can.”
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Luciano Antonio Quintet with special guests Neusa and Breno Sauer.
Jazz Showcase, January 26-29, shows at 8 & 10pm.
jazzshowcase.com

Preview: Caetano Veloso at Symphony Center

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By Don Macica –

There is a saying that goes something like this: If you live long enough, you become respectable. It’s a phrase that comes to mind almost every time I consider the life and music of Caetano Veloso. Revolutionary avant-gardist of the Tropicalia movement in the 1960s and forced into exile, he is now perhaps the ultimate Brazilian icon, on par with his hero, the late João Gilberto. It’s been that way since at least the 1980s, when he was described in the American press as something of a cross between the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson, a massively popular and influential musician that is also a poet and incisive observer of Brazilian society.

I’ve been fortunate to see Veloso in concert twice in the last twenty years, and both times he was accompanied by a full band supporting him with lush harmonics, Afro-Brazilian rhythms and bracing modernism. Now, on the heels of his appearance at the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics with his friend and fellow Tropicalia legend Gilberto Gil, Symphony Center is bringing him to Chicago with just his voice, guitar and one very special guest, samba singer Teresa Cristina, a respected artist in Brazil and founding member of the Carioca samba movement.

Caetano Veloso’s voice, at the age of 74, remains a supple and beautiful instrument. If anything, his phrasing is even better, in the manner of a jazz musician who never stops seeking the most meaningful way to play a series of notes. As an artist, Veloso is still something of an adventurer, seeking new sounds and youthful collaborators, as on his most recent studio release, Abraçaço.

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Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, circa 1970

A better indication to what to expect in this concert, though, might be his recent live album with Gilberto Gil, Dois Amigos, um Século de Música, in which the two old friends from Bahia are accompanied only by their own guitars, singing each others songs from the last 50 years along with favorites of theirs written by others.

Since the mid 1980s, Nonesuch Records has done North America a huge service by releasing Caetano Veloso’s albums here. Now, they are doing the same for Rio de Janeiro native Teresa Cristina, making her new Canta Cartola album, recorded live with guitarist Carlinhos Sete Cordas, available mere months after its Brazilian release. It’s a beautiful and intimately recorded document of a special night in Rio. Her Symphony Center appearance will find her accompanied by the guitarist as well.

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On Canta Cartola, Cristina eschews the exuberant rhythms and high energy level normally associated with samba, instead burrowing into the heart of the songs for the saudade within. Veloso will do much the same in this similarly intimate context, revisiting his 50 year catalog with the sort of nuance that can only come with the simplicity of voice and guitar.

Their Symphony Center show is one of only four scheduled in the United States, and two of them are in New York City. That alone makes this night a special one indeed.
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Caetano Veloso with Teresa Cristina, Symphony Center, Sunday October 16, 7:00PM. Tickets at CSO.org

Agúzate Review: Céu, Tropix

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By Don Macica –

Céu could have taken the easy path. She has a classically intimate Brazilian voice that lures you into listening to her every syllable, one that is easily marketed to folks who crave those soft summer sambas. But that’s not what artists do, and Céu is, above all else, an artist.

The São Paulo-born singer and composer shares a restless curiosity and drive with fellow Paulistas like Curumin, Luisa Maita and Cibelle. If you compare New York City to Los Angeles, then you have some idea of the difference between São Paulo and Rio. Compelling music certainly emerges from both places. In São Paulo, though, it has a bit more edge.

Céu’s fourth studio album Tropix, like its three predecessors, is a departure from the one that came before it. Whereas her 2012 release Caravana Sereia Bloom employed an almost alternative rock-like backing band to explore Brazilian music, Tropix is built almost entirely on electronics, using an arpeggiator to sequence beats and rhythms. Despite this, it retains the warmth and intimacy of an acoustic session.

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The word ‘tropix’ is Céu’s amalgam of ‘tropical’ and ‘pixel’. She has described the pixel as the inspiration for this music: “A pixel is a small part of a big thing—defragmentation as a concept.” This idea is built into the lead off track and video, Perfume do Invisível. A synth pattern bubbles under a close up black & white shot of a rather sultry and elegant Céu singing of intoxicating, invisible perfume. Soon, though, the image flickers, splits and distorts like a digital transmission on a stormy night. After sixteen lines of verse, the beat kicks in along with funk guitar worthy of Nile Rodgers and the imagery switches to Céu disco dancing in in glittery clubwear. Funk break over, the verse returns but this time the singer is unadorned, no makeup, wearing what looks like a science fiction take on a monastic tunic. In the outro, the funk is back along with the dancing, but this time from what appears to be inside a strobe-lit cage.

Visually, it’s an avant-garde gem. Musically, it has the same adventurous spirit of Caetano Veloso’s work in the 80s and 90s, smartly balancing satiny smoothness with a grittier edge.

The remaining eleven songs on the album stay in this warm, highly listenable space. You could put this album on while cooking dinner and it would sound great. At the same time, a closer listen will reward you highly. The lyrics continue their exploration of a fragmented world, but viewed intimately, not from afar. I probably don’t have to translate Amor Pixelado for you, but I will tell you that it is as beautiful and honest a love song as I’ve ever heard.

Only a few of the songs sound ‘Brazilian’ on first listen. The ones that do, Minhas Bics and especially Sangria, are gorgeous. Still, even a propulsive anthem like Chico Buarque Song or a dance workout like Etílica/Interlúdio are clear descendants of the Brazilian Tropicália movement. When acoustic sounds (guitar, bass, drums, a string arrangement) intrude on the electronic soundscape, the effect is beguiling.

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photo: Luiz Garrido

And, of course, there’s that voice. Along with the overall strength of her songwriting, it is the constant that powers all four of her albums. Caetano Veloso once sang “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer. But I’ve given up all attempts at perfection.” Veloso, of course, has one of Brazil’s all time most marvelous voices. Céu possesses an instrument that is similarly captivating, but like Veloso, she, too, is not content to get by on charm.
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Céu is in concert at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St, Chicago on Friday, June 24. Tickets at citywinery.com.

Preview: Choro das 3 at Jazz Showcase

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By Don Macica.

When my son was in the third grade, he came home from school one day and declared that he wanted to play the flute. Dutiful parents that we were, we not only enrolled him in the school band but decided that private lessons would be beneficial. We found an instructor through our local park district. That’s how I got to know a woman who was on her way to becoming an authority on a form of Brazilian music I had never heard of: choro. Upon hearing it, I fell in love. It’s lively and full of charm. If a well-played choro doesn’t coax a smile out of you, your life is much grimmer than mine.

My son’s maestra went on to study choro in Brazil under a Fulbright scholarship and published a book of interviews with choro masters based in part on her Fulbright research. Me? I just started adding choro CDs to my overstuffed shelves. So, when a friend told me that Choro das 3, a choro group from her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, was touring the U.S. with a stop in Chicago, my ears immediately perked up.

On casual listen, choro may not sound like Afro-Latin music, but its origins are very much the same. Choro is one of the earliest forms of urban music in Brazil. It’s beginnings in the late 19th century roughly parallel those of jazz in New Orleans, and for a while it was wildly popular. Just like ragtime in the United States, tango in Argentina and habanera in Cuba, choro was a result of influences of musical styles and rhythms coming from Europe and Africa. Brazil’s most revered composer (prior to Jobim, of course), Heitor Villa-Lobos, called choro “the true incarnation of Brazilian soul.” If it’s accurate to say that without ragtime there is no jazz, than it’s equally accurate to say the same of choro and, say, bossa nova. The driving ecstasy of samba, a more obvious descendent of African music, overtook choro in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, and you could say that bossa nova, with its sophisticated harmonies, refined and internationalized samba, with a little help from jazz. Choro, however, never faded away, even if it didn’t conquer the world. Like New Orleans-style jazz, it remains an important cultural touchstone.

Choro das 3 is a family band, three sisters and their dad. If that sounds corny, it’s not, and in fact it’s almost essential to understanding the soul of the music. Choro is traditionally played in informal settings called roda de choros, where people gather to share songs and play with each other, often in people’s homes. It was these rodas that kept the music alive when it was superseded in popularity by samba and bossa nova.

Choro’s main tools are similar to other music of the Americas. Its rhythmic foundation is the pandeiro, which Puerto Ricans will of course recognize as the pandero and residents of New Orleans the tambourine. It’s played much the same way in all three cultures. In Choro das 3, the father, Eduardo, plays the pandeiro and sisters Corina, Lia and Elisa play various flutes and stringed instruments. One listen to the Brazilian bandolin will instantly bring to mind similar instruments as the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban laud. In the hands of talented musicians, the music can reach dizzying heights of complexity. The family band that is Choro das 3 are exactly that.

Choro das 3 hit the road on May 20 to promote their newest CD, a trip that will bring them to one of the Chicago’s best rooms, the Jazz Showcase, on July 21. Part of what makes this visit special is that, despite the fact that you can go out almost any night of the week in Chicago and hear excellent Brazilian musicians, few of them perform choro, even if, as I suspect, they know it inside and out. That’s not entirely surprising, given the wider popularity of samba and bossa nova. I have little doubt that, even in Chicago, choro is still played privately among friends in rodas.

Fortunately, Choro das 3 is coming here soon to enlighten the rest of us.

Choro das 3, Jazz Showcase, Tuesday July 21. Tickets at jazzshowcase.com

About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.