Latin Jazz Conversations: Jovino Santos Neto (Part 1)


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For many modern musicians, jazz is not the first port of entry—they actually travel through several different styles before settling into jazz. A number of musicians start instrumental studies firmly rooted in classical music, building technical and artistry skills. While classical music may seem like a totally different world than jazz, they both occupy the art music space, making it a small leap from classical to jazz. Even more artists get their musical interests kickstarted through rock and pop, following the music's raw energy into instrumental studies. As their skills progress, they inevitably get into more complex examples of rock, which almost always leads to fusion. The prime musicians in this style are deeply connected to traditional jazz, and in many cases, they even have an exposure to Latin music. There are a number of different entry points, but in the end, all paths lead back to jazz.

Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto would spend a major piece of his life performing in some extremely interesting and challenges jazz settings, but his journey towards that genre followed a unique path. Born in Rio de Janeiro on September 18, 1954, he grew up in a humble neighborhood, far from a connection to the world of professional music. Neto spent his childhood noticing music, but didn't start playing until his family purchased a piano to support his sister's music studies. Taken with the instrument, Neto also started taking lessons, quickly becoming attached to the music of Bach. As he hit his teen years, the popular music of the day captured Neto's attention, inspiring him to transfer his new interest to the piano. Radio and local concerts fueled his fire, leading him towards more challenging progressive rocks groups like Yes, King Crimson, and more. Although Neto maintained his deep love for music, he choose biology as a career, taking him to McGill University in Montreal for collegiate studies. Music simply wouldn't sit on the back burner though, and Neto soon found himself performing with a local rock group. His musician friends introduced Neto to fusion, and once he heard Weather Report, Chick Corea, and more, jazz was a steady part of his life. Every step that the pianist took in the future would lead him closer to a life entrenched in jazz.

These early experiences set the stage for a prodigious career that would cross between jazz, classical music, Brazilian traditions, and more. Neto would become an important piece of legendary composer Hermeto Pascoal's band, as well as a major bandleader with a creative spirit and insightful sense of artistry. In the first part of our extensive interview with Neto, we look at his early entry into music, his movement towards progressive rock, and his introduction to jazz.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You were born in Rio—how did you initially get interested in music?

JOVINO SANTOS NETO: I grew up in the Western suburbs of Rio, which was kind of like a low—middle class neighborhood, and I didn't have any professional musicians in my family. The kind of situation that I grow up in, there was music around you . . . whether you were aware of it or not. I just remember being aware of people singing on the radio stations and playing music. One of the first things that I remember was the way that certain tunes stayed in your head. They would actually stay with you. Some of them would just go in and out, but others you just kept singing for a while, even after it had finished on the radio. I remember specifically being aware of that, thinking, “It's funny how this music is still playing in my head, but it's not playing on the radio anymore!" That was a long time before I even tackled an instrument.

LJC: What was some of that music that was floating around you at the time?

JSN: Mostly Brazilian songs—we're talking about the late fifties and early sixties here—so the Brazilian popular music at the time was very rich. You heard this stuff on the radio. You heard the old sambas and the carnival music. The old sambas still are sung today and you hear the bossa nova stuff. I wasn't even aware of it, but that's what it was.

LJC: You didn't start playing piano until you were twelve, right?

JSN: Around that time, my sister was learning piano. For lessons, she used to go to a friend's house who had a piano. My sister was younger than me—she was around ten. Around that time is when my father went ahead and purchased a used piano for the house so that my sister could have lessons in our house instead of having to go somewhere else. I saw that instrument there, and I thought, “Wow, that's very cool." The rest is history.

LJC: What were you studying early on?

JSN: I had a classical teacher, and so the stuff that she gave us was stuff that you give to kids to learn. A lot of it is totally forgettable, but I did get one of the coolest things. I started playing it right away and I'm not done with it yet—that's Bach's inventions for two-parts or three-parts. I kind of picked that up and because I liked it, and then I went ahead on my own. I didn't stay just on the ones she told me to learn, I continued looking for them. I was never very good in the sense that I wasn't a child prodigy. I was not giving concerts of that music, I just liked it. I played it for myself.

Slightly later, when I was more like fourteen years old, I started to hang out with the middle school and high school crowd. I started to go to social things like dances and heard all the rock and roll music that was coming out around then. It became important for me because I liked to listen to that on the radio, so I would try to play it on the piano. I would try to figure it out by ear, which had nothing to do with the music that I was learning by reading from a paper. So it was a combination of those two things.

LJC: Did you ever get out and play around Rio when you were in your late teens and early twenties?

JSN: I did not have a band until I was about sixteen. Between 1970 and 1972, that's when I was involved more in playing music. I slowly started to get together some kids, either my age or slightly older. Eventually I joined this one band in the neighborhood close to where we live. They asked me to play with them, and it was basically a cover band that did a lot of Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other pop American stuff. I was playing some kind of organ contraption with them.

LJC: What was the Rio musical scene like—were there places for young people to play?

JSN: A lot of those places where dances in clubs. Usually Saturday nights from 11:00 p.m. to 4 a.m. That was the scene, there was a lot of that going around.

LJC: Did you get to interact with any of the older, more experienced musicians?

JSN: Yes, because at that time, there was the beginning of a progressive scene. There were groups that were influenced by people like Cream. There were even groups that were influenced by people like Yes. Then there were people that were influenced by groups like The Rolling Stones. So you would go out and see bands playing—those were some of the real bands that were doing concerts. I would go to their concerts to hear them and also to look at equipment and that kind of thing.

I would also listen to records. I had a friend who I shared a record collection with. His father was a judge, so he had more money than my parents. He would buy 80% of the records and I would buy 20%, but it was a joint record collection. I got to hear a lot of music. He could buy the important records, so we got to hear a lot of stuff that otherwise was not really playing on the radio.

There was one radio station in Rio that doesn't exist anymore, but it were very cool. They licensed this show from the BBC, and they broadcasted it every afternoon as being sixty minutes of contemporary music. That's how it was billed. It was basically live concerts on the BBC featuring the bands that around 1971 and 1972 were happening. It was all the Prog Rock groups like Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Oregon, and so many more others. That's the kind of things that we heard back then and I was very impressed. I never missed it—my school would get right around that time so I would get home very quickly, just in time to catch that on the radio. Then there was also a DJ on another station that would bring new releases from the United States and play them on his show. The radio was really important that time.

LJC: I remember having cassette tapes full of radio recordings at the time . . .

JSN: I had a recorder too. My father got it as a prize or something. It was a little reel to reel tape recorder—it was even before cassettes. So I used that as a way to capture music. I still don't know how I did it—I used little alligator clips and found a way to connect a battery radio to it so I could move it anywhere. I put the clips on the speaker of the battery radio because I had took off the back end. Whenever a band that I like would come on, I was just ready. If I knew that song was going to come on, I would turn on the tape recorder quickly. Sometimes I would miss the first couple of seconds, but I was able to capture the music. Then I would put the tape recorder next to the piano and try to approximate what I was hearing.

LJC: Later on, you left to study biology up in Montreal.

JSN: That in a way was a big decision. Before that, I had already come to the United States for the first time with a friend of mine. I used some odd money that actually I had inherited—it was not a lot of money, but it was just enough to come to the United States and buy gear. So we bought instruments for our band. We bought a guitar, a bass, and I bought a little funky Moog synthesizer. We brought all of that back to Brazil, but it was hard getting gigs with that band.

I had started to study biology in Rio in 1973. It was something I always liked. I didn't want to do medicine, but I always like nature. So I think biology was a natural thing for me to do. After a year and a half of that in Rio, a friend in my class had a brother that was studying at McGill University in Montreal. So I sold my instruments and went to Canada. That gave me money without having to rely upon my parents. I just jumped in headfirst and decided to go. I thought, “What have I got to loose? I'm going to go check it out." I continued my biology studies in Canada and then I had the opportunity to join more of a steady band.

LJC: I heard that that was where you started leaning towards jazz.

JSN: Yea, it was a natural thing. At that time, I was really more into progressive rock—that was the aesthetics that I was into. Moving from British rock to more bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, King Crimson, and Yes. They had this highly structured music. A lot of the musicians that I was hanging around with, they played jazz too. I remember exactly when I bought the first Weather Report album. That was a big transition. Right after that, I got an album from Chick Corea's Return To Forever. It was not the first one with Airto and Flora Purim, but a later one when he had Al Di Meola and Lenny White. For me, that was a natural transition, having that heavily structured music with the instrumental virtuosity and use of electric instruments that I really liked. That jazz-rock period was the beginning for me.

LJC: All the prog rock bands were so into jazz, it was really intertwined.

JSN: The early seventies was a time where a lot of the barriers were breaking down. Then they of course got built up again—it's a cycle thing. The early seventies was a bit of that in many ways—not only in music, but also in film and visual arts. There were a lot of people experimenting with cutting across styles.

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