I knew that Recife was going to be exceptional
As soon as we landed at Recife/Guararapes–Gilberto Freyre International Airport, named in honor of their homeboy Gilberto Freyre, I knew that Recife was going to be exceptional and the perfect place for the final leg of our month-long tour. An airport named for an intellectual who encouraged Brazilians to embrace the Afro side of their cultural heritage and nature? Criticisms of Freyre aside, it’s an unusually enlightened posture in the New World. But from the moment we stepped off the plane, this wonderful and welcoming city graced us with warmth and the finest hospitality.
Marcelo Ferreira, Luiz Barbosa, Lilian Pimentel and Mariana Cosseiro, all from Jaraguá Produções, meet us at the airport. They exude a refreshing mixture of absolute professionalism and a genuine curiosity and excitement about the days and events ahead. It is infectious. Although I don’t see Carol Ferreira (our Producer, who has moved mountains to bring us here), once I get to the car I’m introduced to our driver Junior, and Carol’s brother Marcelo, an opera singer whose distinctive speaking voice immediately identifies him as such. Thankfully Junior knows the city by hand, so on the drive into town I get a chance to really converse with and get to know Marcelo. We talk about Verdi and Wagner (who I learn were both born in 1813), opera houses, orchestras and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I try to get Marcelo to sing – but out of respect for Junior (and the volume) he declines. While discussing his education at the University of Indiana and Campbellsville University in Kentucky, I find out that Marcelo was also once a blues guitar player. I ask if he still plays and he says, “No, and now that I know more, I realize that I wasn’t one then.”
Everyone arrives at the hotel feeling happy about the quality of our hosts and ready to attend the dinner and second line parade planned for tonight in Olinda, the city with the first school for training Frevo musicians. As we walk up the cobbled streets to the restaurant, Oficina do Sabor, I can’t help but think about the French Quarters in New Orleans. Similar to traditions in my hometown, Frevo started with bands from the army regiments parading during Carnival time. Before long it became extremely competitive, with different regiments thinking they had the best marching band and musicians playing louder and louder and faster and faster. This competitive environment also featured elements of violence just as the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian tradition featured musical and physical confrontations and resolutions.
Frevo has its own characteristic rhythm and melodic formula that includes influences from maxixe, capoeira and polka, and it is accompanied by a very fast and acrobatic dance that spices up elastic Afro-syncopated moves with the kicking squats and flips of the Cossacks from the Russian circus. The dancers dress in colorful clothing inspired by regional folk costumes and use yellow, blue, green and red umbrellas (just like New Orleans), while performing their neck-breaking dance steps at a heart stopping pace. Some say the word “frevo” comes from the Portuguese word “ferver” (to boil) and the tropical heat, loud prestissimo music and frenetic dance will definitely bring any public revelry to a frothy boil. And when you add the tight Olinda streets, mind-numbing beverages, all types of exquisite visual stimulation and a couple of million people, you get a feeling for the type of Bacchanalia I’m talking about.
When we arrive at the restaurant, Spok and some members of the Orquestra are already eating. We salute each other and begin to talk with the help of translation. I first met the incredible SpokFrevo Orquestra and Maestro Spok, their arranger, saxophonist and musical director, some 5 years ago at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I felt an immediate kinship. Earlier this year, they played a concert in the Appel Room in our House of Swing and blew audiences away. We are all eager to work with them, learn about Frevo and check out this cuisine. Afro-Latin musicians say, “Play with ‘sabor‘” when they want that umptyumph. Oficina do Sabor is aptly named because everything they put on the table was gone by the time you asked, “What is that?” There is a unique and flavorful shrimp and shellfish stewed in a passion fruit-based sauce and served inside of a pumpkin that occupies everyone at our table’s attention. Damn! Spok and I had to split a third pumpkin. There were also all kinds of coconut sauces and African based Brazilian fusions. This meal was truly tasty and enlightening.
When blessing my food, I had to recognize all the people struggling to feed themselves each day and express gratitude for our good fortune in being treated with such generosity. I thought about my great aunt who could really, really cook (just about anything) but was very poor by American standards. She spoke in a small voice and was not given to a lot of taking, but when putting a great meal on the little table in the back room of her shotgun house she would say, “Just cause we poor don’t mean we cain’t eat good.” And my great uncle, born in 1883 and always prone to arguing with her, would say, “We rich next to where we come from!”
Over dinner Spok tells me all about his history and the history and tradition of Frevo, about how the carnival and the small streets affect playing parades, about when musicians stated improvising in Frevo, and about the relative strengths of different alcohols. All the cats are exchanging information about what dish to eat and where to get it, and there is a muted excitement about the culture, the atmosphere, and the tour being nearly over and about tonight’s second line. A month is a long time to be away from your family and loved ones, especially when you have small children who grow daily and can be transformed over four weeks.
The Oficina is on a hill from which you can see the city of Recife shimmering and shining below. It looks like a postcard picture of nighttime possibilities. After eating, we sit up there and joke about things too silly or ignorant to write about. Then it’s time to visit the Grêmio Musical Henrique Dias. Founded in 1954, it is led today by Maestro Ivan do Espirito Santo.
We enter the room while the orchestra is rehearsing and it is thoroughly neighborhood and strictly downhome. Every musician in here plays with a diehard sensibility. Our entire orchestra integrates the room, intently listening. We can hear many similarities between Frevo and Jazz and also with the 19th century style of band music we grew up playing. When they break, we start to play a New Orleans song “Lil Liza Jane” and they join in singing the refrain. Just musicians in a band room late at night, it always feels great.
Then we spill out into the open air playing the Frevo classic, “Vassourinhas”. As we slowly move down the crowded streets, both groups alternate – one Frevo song then one New Orleans tune – sometimes separate and at other times all together. The commotion causes the people, whose homes line the street, to lean out and participate in the excitement. But the paraders all around us make it very hard to play and walk without blowing in someone’s ears. Spok stops at Quatro Cantos (four corners). It’s the place that all the groups meet when they’re parading during Carnival, like the Municipal Auditorium was for us in New Orleans. There, we make our final stand with a couple of songs.
Though definitely unruly, there was so much enthusiasm that it felt good to be out there playing in the heat, in the street and surrounded by people at 11pm.The next day we have an early 11am soundcheck. As a finale for tonight’s show we rehearse Spok’s “Moraes é Frevo” with both orchestras. Whew! The sax parts are flying all over the place, but the trumpet parts are really hard with all kinds of double tonguing starting on the off syllable. We struggle, but the SpokFrevo Orquestra trumpet players have no problem with it. It’s instructional to hear them play it, but I think it would take a year of practicing (no exaggeration) to actually play my part well. After a good hour, we leave it up to the Lord.
For lunch, Carol Ferreira treats us to another epicurean repast at Bistrô & Boteco in old Recife. She is very much behind-the-scenes and quiet, but she and partner Luiz of Jaraguá were showing us another level of welcome. After the meal I was given a tour of the Paço do Frevo, which literally means the Frevo Palace. It is a museum, school, performance space, media center and studio, created specifically to preserve the memory of frevo traditions.
Eduardo Sarmento is the Director and he is a visionary. It’s inspiring to see how the people have inhabited all six or so floors of the space, using it to enrich their lives with their own culture. And to see the history of Frevo clearly laid out in a year by year photo exhibit, to see a group of school kids sprawled across the floor learning about it, and to see the library, the studio, the colorful umbrellas and the proudly embroidered club banners was truly uplifting. No pursuit could be more meaningful or worthy. I can’t help but envision this type of facility for New Orleans school kids and communities.
Then Spok and I met on the top floor for a public conversation about the relationship between the traditions of Frevo and New Orleans music. The room was filled with musicians, concerned citizens and a few masters who were seated in the front rows. Spok referred to their expertise and achievements at various times throughout the talk. Before the discussion began, I was introduced to Maestro Duda, one of the most important living Frevo composers, who gifted me with an original composition for trumpet. Marcelo functioned as translator with that sturdy baritone and opera singer’s linguistic sophistication.
It was deep, when I looked around the room I saw so many common cultural touch points: I saw my father, and clarinet master and teacher Alvin Batiste, artist John Scott and band director John Fernandez at sparsely attended musical lectures and symposiums at Xavier University and other institutions during the ’60s and 70’s. I was reminded of their lifelong struggle to insist on the seriousness and importance of the local Art in a New Orleans community that at the time was much more interested in the New Orleans Saints (and we were LOSING all the time then). Through the conversation I came to understand the uphill struggle for Spok and so many of the advocates for Frevo culture and music. Yes, we discussed parades and banners, blocos, social aid and pleasure clubs, marches, parading, the tradition of violence that ties the Mardi Gras Indians to the capoeira dancers, swing rhythms, tradition and innovation, improvisations and chord progressions, and the past and future. The conversation was well received, but the subtext was not discussed because it just was.
Spok is an embodiment of the art and a charismatic ambassador of the style. Every now and then an artist arrives with the magnetism AND the desire to enrich some aspects of the artistic quality and the substance of the art. He or she is a blessing for the style, but with every blessing there also a curse. The substantive challenge of rising to the artistic level of the masters is a concern that vanishes if you give way to the popular musical trend of the moment. Popularity is of course, is its own standard, and presents challenges unrelated to any musical masters or in some cases any music period. Then, should you choose the less popular route, there is always the old guard that defends the quality of those masters’ work. Many times the charismatic figure is one of the few people who even knows who the masters are, let alone the old guard, and often the ENTIRE tradition is presented to the public through the popularity of this artist, regardless of his or her desire or intention. It’s impossible for someone with a spotlight on them to redirect that light onto someone the light is not on. And, the elders are naturally and sometimes even justifiably resentful of this dynamic, creating an unresolvable tension that requires the younger artist to have a very subtle understanding and a feathery touch at all times.
Then there is the pressure on that artist to develop and innovate aspects of the style (that are considered sacred by some) while also being true to its essence, while also dealing with the commercialism that fans the flames of fame. Of course the fame consistently pulls you away from the essence that you are supposed to embody, while learning how to play, and cultivating a group and a group concept, while also dealing with the fact that the art you embody has very little support from the very people that created it (because ultimately they want whatever is most commercial). This is the New Orleans conundrum. The name Jazz is great, claiming its origins and traditions is even better, just as long as we don’t have to actually check out the music or teach it to our kids. That’s why my answer for what’s new in Jazz is now and forever: people are going to start listening to it.
I love Spok and everyone at the Paço do Frevo because they are engaged in that long uphill battle to raise the consciousness of the culture with its own art despite a tradition of neglect that says, “it’s only something from the street and not serious, let it be whatever.” They are for real, and that entire building stands as a testament to their belief. And all those kids inside learning the substance of their culture offer the possibility for an educated continuum.
After the talk was over, a group of trumpeters (three from SpokFrevo Orquestra) performed Maestro Duda’s “Fantasia Brasileira para Trompete”. There were four movements and each was rich with counterpoint and drama, and each employed a different style and rhythm. The trumpeters played it to a fare thee well, with sophistication and sauce. I loved it.
The concert that night was at Parque Dona Lindu, in Boa Viagem beach. It was an indoor/outdoor venue; similar to the one we played in São Paulo. Spok and the Orquestra opened up and played with their characteristic passion, virtuosity and fire. At one point our own Elliot Mason sat in with them on Maestro Duda’s “Nino, o Pernambuquinho” along with trumpeter Fabio Costa. If you can’t play and tongue with some serious velocity, stay home. Elliot can, and he was AT home and welcomed as such.
Spok’s set was energetic and electrifying and on their last song they played an extended blistering brass line that made us all look in disbelief and want to inspect their instruments after the gig. It reminded me of a photo of the trumpeters in the London Philharmonic examining Louis Armstrong’s trumpet in the early 1930’s. The SpokFrevo Orquestra’s virtuosity and precision speaks to hours and hours of practicing and also to the quality of their leadership.
We went on stage playing and swinging hard, determined to finish the night and the tour right. The audience was very lively and active and they absorbed the range of music we played with no hesitation or judgment of the various styles. I always have to remind myself that our listeners have definitely not heard the original music we play (mostly because almost all of it is unreleased) and that many of them have also never heard any of the traditional arrangements, and if they have, it was on a recording and not live. That’s why we always say ‘play the music of all periods just like you wrote it yesterday.’ This group of listeners loved both Spok’s set and ours.
As the night wore on, I was cognizant of the time and of our hard curfew. Spok came out and we played his “Moraes é Frevo”, which we had rehearsed earlier. I have to ask his forgiveness because I don’t think I played one complete measure properly and definitely messed up the double-tonguing part that I had been going over in my mind all day. Luckily, the Orquestra trumpets were covering me up. After a string of improvisation we took it out and Ali played his difficult drum break correctly. The audience loved it, and so did we.
It is always special to come together over something meaningful and difficult, and we were definitely trying our best to get with Spok and the cats. We then played “Vassourinhas”, the most popular and highly played song during Carnival, the equivalent in Recife to Joe Avery’s “Second Line” in New Orleans. Once again the response from the crowd merited another song. Because this night was the 200th anniversary of the US consulate in Recife (it’s one of the oldest in the world) and our Ambassador Liliana Ayalde was in the house, both groups saluted our mutual 200th by playing a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ in the alternating languages of Frevo and New Orleans Jazz. Everyone went home happy and satisfied. It was a diverse and full night of music.
After the concert we met so many interesting people. I had the opportunity to fellowship with Ms. Lêda Alves, the Secretary of Culture of Recife, who sponsored this visit and made it possible. She was so relaxed and dignified that I had to hug on her. Then I signed a number of things and took a pile of pictures with new friends and suddenly, our tour was over.
As the proverbial ‘icing on the cake’, we were invited to a jazz-themed club/restaurant called ‘Mingus’ whose owner, Nicola Sultanum, has one of the most distinctive goatees in the world. Ironically, he was the singer in that blues band that Marcelo played guitar with years ago. Nicola, his restaurant, club, his goatee and his vibration all belong in the “soul” hall of fame. HE TOOK CARE OF US.
As we sat and talked and drank and ate, the overwhelming generosity of our hosts brought us right back to the incredible roll call of positive experiences and people we have encountered in this last month. From every promoter, Ambassador, fan, hotel worker, restaurant owner, musician, student, teacher, ticket buyer, driver, guide, pilot, translator, to old friends and new ones, we have been blessed over the course of these four weeks. And our community of supporters, loved ones, photographers, road crew, sound and production gurus, staff on the road and the staff back at home, kept us safe and of sound mind and body and always in pursuit of the swing. In the words of Frank Stewart “It was glorious.”
As Ted and I walked 6 blocks back to the hotel at around 1:30 am, we talked about the changes we would like to see in the world and other such light subjects. We passed a group of kids playing soccer and speculated on how long our old asses could last in a game with them. After laughing at the thought, I wanted to ask him if he remembered a time about 15 years ago after a gig in Australia, long after everyone had gone home, that he and I went back to get our horns and decided to play ‘Epistrophy’. We didn’t stop until about 20 minutes later and afterwards, we laughed (in the same way that we just did) dapped each other and put our horns away. We caught a ride with someone in a vintage car or something like that…. but I decided not to ask him about that memory, there was too much to talk about that had just happened. Like all that horn Spok played, or that hard double-tonguing that Ted said “reduced him to playing shapes, but Sherman played the hell out of.” (This made me feel better about butchering my part because Ted can play everything). These two days were full!
Ain’t no sense in belaboring it. In the words of Marcos Portinari, Hamilton de Holanda’s manager, “After ‘love’ there is nowhere else to go but down.”
We have planes to catch home.