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Latin Jazz Conversations: Jovino Santos Neto (Part 2)

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Jovino Santos Neto Whether similarities are readily apparent on the surface, musical styles share common roots from around the world. We hear an end product that has reached our ears after many different connections with established traditions. We tend to forget that these finely shaped musical products developed through a number of interactions, mostly because we don't obviously see or hear it. Musicians travel though, and they come into contact with countless other artists throughout their lives. Each encounter leaves a mark upon that musician, supplying them with an idea for future use. They might pull these ideas into their music the next day, the next week, or the following day. If the idea was impactful enough, it sticks and someday, it finds a way into the artist's music. In the end, we get thick stews full of amazing music with footholds in a number of musical traditions.

As pianist Jovino Santos Neto moved towards his professional life, he saw connections between all the fabrics of his musical interests coalesce. Raised in Rio de Janeiro, Neto soaked in the traditional music of Brazil, eventually finding his way to the piano. His first teacher introduced him to Bach, a passion that pushed him to deeper musical studies. Neto's teen years were filled with pop bands such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones as well as progressive rock like Yes and Cream. He dived headfirst into this musical world, performing and practicing, but a more practical side drove him towards collegiate studies in biology. He moved to Montreal, Canada, and while attending school, he began performing with progressive rock groups. His musical associations led him to jazz fusion, where he began to notice connections with several aspects of Brazilian music. Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Hermeto Pascoal, and other Brazilian musicians worked with groups like Return To Forever, Weather Report, and Miles Davis, integrating a distinctly Brazilian flavor into the music. The influence of Pascoal stayed with Neto closely, and when he returned to Brazil for graduate studies in biology, he visited the composer. Initially intending to simply pay his respects for the influence that Pascoal's music had played upon his life, Neto spent an afternoon with the composer, who asked him to play on an upcoming gig. After the first performance, Neto continued working with Pascoal and quickly disregarded his aspirations in biology. This began a long association with Pascoal that would become a defining factor in Neto's career.

The deeply embedded influence of Brazilian music upon jazz fusion was a launching point for Neto, deepening his connection to Pascoal. Fortunately, Neto's encounter with Pascoal kept him in the professional music world and sent him towards a lifetime of important music. In Part One of our interview with Neto, we looked at his first connections with music, the influence of progressive rock, and his eventual discovery of jazz. Today, we discuss the natural connection between fusion and Brazilian music, the role of Moreira, Purim, and Pascoal in this influence, and Neto's eventual entry into Pascoal's band.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You mentioned Chick Corea—that early Return To Forever album drew upon Brazilian music a bit. Did that connection of jazz, rock, and Brazilian music click for you?

JOVINO SANTOS NETO: Yea. It started to dawn upon me that some of this music somehow had a relationship to what I had in Brazil. It was actually through the work of Flora Purim and Airto Moriera. I remember hearing Airto's record Identityand Flora's Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly. I had already heard Hermeto Pascoal in Brazil in 1973. I read that he was a very avant-garde guy, so I went to see a concert of his in 1973 before I went to Canada. I remember being totally blown away by what I heard; I was also shocked by the fact that I couldn't really place it in any of the categories I was used to. He had a lot of things that I liked in rock, but he was not rock. He had a lot of things that I liked in Brazilian popular music, but he was not Brazilian popular music. I remember being very impressed by what I heard when I heard Hermeto the first time. Then I heard him again two years later in 1975 with a larger band that included a lot of horns. I remember being blown away by what I heard there as well, and still being entirely unable to categorize it.

LJC: Wasn't that around the time that he did something with Miles Davis?

JSN: He did something with Miles in 1971, and then he went back to Brazil. Around those days, he was going back and forth. He would spend several months in the United States and then go back to Brazil. He had a band in Sao Paulo with four horns—it was a very interesting band. I saw that band live in Rio once; it was just amazing. I was impressed with the energy. Then I saw his name on Flora Purim and Airto Moreira's records when I was in Canada. That started to make a connection for me—I thought, “Wow, what an amazing guy this is." I started to be amazed at that kind of work—Airto, Flora, Hermeto, and their connection with Miles, of course.

LJC: One of the things that has baffled me is that Hermeto is such a major figure in Brazil, but here in the States, we're so unaware of his work.

JSN: I think the reason behind that relates to the same difficulty that I had categorizing his music. I guess the press has the same difficulty. That's why a guy writing for Downbeat can't see what an influence Hermeto has been on Herbie (Hancock) and Chick.

The reason that Chick started Return To Forever with Airto and Flora was that Chick had heard what Hermeto was doing. Before that, Chick was into a kind of music that was very cerebral and very deeply thought-out. He was getting less and less people at his concerts though. Then he heard what Hermeto was doing—it was something that was very almost like folk, but on the other hand, it had the highly sophisticated harmony. In a way, Chick hired Hermeto and Flora to put that kind of twist into the music for the first Return To Forever album. You can see it totally there, where it came from.

It was the same thing with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul when they started Weather Report. They called Airto too, because they wanted to have the folky element; that element where people can hum and sing along. It's funny that Airto at that time was still playing with Miles, and he didn't want to leave Miles' band. So Airto did the first record and didn't go on the road with them—he sent Dom Um Romão instead and stayed with Miles for another couple of years.

LJC: The whole Brazilian influence is so buried in the history of fusion.

JSN: Yea, highly. It comes from several sides. It's not really like the bossa nova thing. The bossa nova thing had its own way of influencing musicians through Stan Getz and the cool jazz kind of palette. The bossa nova thing in Brazil was only one side of a wider genre. They also played what people called samba jazz, which is like samba music with more intensity and more energy. The same musicians that would play the bossa nova gigs would also play an instrumental side of it, which was known as samba jazz. Those guys were more like João Donato, Sergio Mendes, people who were more influenced by the Horace Silver kind of thing. Then with the blending of electric instruments coming along—you can see how this blossomed in Brazil and then effected the musicians in the United States that were listening to it.

The influence goes even wider than it's acknowledged, because a lot of people don't even acknowledge it. Herbie Hancock used the bottles on the Headhunters record and that came from having heard Hermeto using the bottles. This was a year before on Hermeto's first recording in New York and Herbie was there. You won't hear Chick Corea saying that Hermeto was a big influence, but I heard him say that. Chick told me that though, he said, “This has changed my life." It's important to see that connection—not only Hermeto as an individual, because he's huge, but it's more of what he brought.

LJC: That's such an issue in the jazz world, not acknowledging the South American and Caribbean influence.

JSN: Oh yea, we know that the whole series of films that Ken Burns did about jazz, it skirted the Latin Jazz influence . . . it's a big can of worms.

LJC: When you left Montreal and came back to Brazil, where was the idea of being a professional musician for you?

JSN: Actually, at that moment, it just disappeared. I had already graduated a few months before in Canada and I was playing with a band. I had a great band, I loved the guys. I'm actually getting ready to post some recordings from that band from 1976. I found some old cassette tapes, so I'm just cleaning the sound and I'll post those. I'm pretty proud of the work that we did; we did very elaborate stuff with multiple meters and everybody was composing. We rehearsed everyday, which creates a very tight sound. It was a fun band.

We started to play more, but I was pretty disappointed with the scene. Back in those days, you had to be a union musician to get some of the best gigs. I didn't have money to be a union musician, because you had to pay the dues and that was quite a bit of money. I was in that kind of limbo. So the gigs we got were pretty depressing dives. I remember being in some weird bar in downtown Montreal with a lot of drunk people, everybody was smoking, and I was playing. I said, “So, this is my life? This is what it's going to be? That's being a musician?" We were playing this music in places where no one was really listening. Somehow, I didn't see that being my life.

At that point, I made a decision that it was better to have music as a hobby, play what I liked where I liked, and do biology as a real job. So I came back to Brazil and decided to go for the master's program at the Research Institute of the Amazon. I came to Rio to do the test so I could go to the Amazon and spend the next few years working in the forest there in the heart of the Amazon. That's exactly when I came back to Rio—November of 1977.

At that moment, I realized that Hermeto was living ten minutes from my house. I had no idea, but while I was away, he had moved from Sao Paulo to Rio. He was living right there in that outside part of Rio where I lived. So I asked a friend of mine to take me to his house—not because I was thinking that I was going to become a musician with him, I was just thinking that I wanted to meet the guy. I liked his work so much; I just wanted to pay my tribute to him. I went to his house on a Sunday and he was there.

It was a very interesting first encounter and an hour later, he asked me to join his band. I said, “What?" I showed him some of the cassette tapes that I had and he showed me some of the cassette tapes of the music that he had just made. Then he turns around and said, “What are you doing this Friday?" I said, “I don't know, I'm just here, I'm just waiting. I have two weeks here before I do to take my test, so I'm here next week." He said, “Do you want to play with my band? I want to play more flute and saxophone, so I need somebody to play piano." I told him, “Listen, I cannot commit to this, I have something else to do." He said, “No problem. You just play this one and then you see what you want to do." Then it was fifteen years later!

LJC: How did that pan out—you must have decided not to go to the Research Institute?

JSN: Yea, that happened just a month after that first gig. I played that one gig and then I played another gig. Then I did a little recording session for a film project that he was doing. At that point, I knew that I didn't want to go to the Amazon. I took the test, I passed, and I got the fellowship for the master's program. But I sent them a telegram and said I wasn't coming; I decided to stay in Rio and work on music. It was crazy, but I did it.


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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
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