Latin Jazz Conversations: Jovino Santos Neto (Part 4)


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Every musician carries a tool box around to their gigs—it's not a physical collection of devices, but rather the sum total of their experience. Each performance arms them with another piece for their tool box, providing some insight or technical development that allows them to bump their performance to another level. In some cases, the tool might be small; it might just be a simple observation that sparks their curiosity. On the other hand, it could be a major musical milestone that signals an artistic evolution for the individual. Regardless of the size of the impact, the tool sticks with the musician, allowing them to call upon the lesson learned in the future. Experience supplies the bulk of the tool box, giving the musician the necessary insight to build a quality musical product.

By the time pianist Jovino Santos Neto stepped into the role of bandleader, he had a massive tool box, filled with the treasures of his vast experience. Neto spent his childhood immersed in classical piano and the era's modern pop music before diving deeply into progressive rock. His interest eventually led him to jazz fusion, where he found a Brazilian connection among artists like Airto Moreira and Flora Purim. On his way to pursue a career in biology, Neto took got sidetracked at the house of legendary composer Hermeto Pascoal, becoming an integral part of his band. Pascoal's music stretched Neto's artistic foundation, introducing him to completely new ways of composing and performing music. He traveled around the world with Pascoal, filling multiple roles as pianist, flautist, road manager, producer, and more. After fifteen years, Neto decided to turn his attention towards composing and a serious study of Pascoal's larger works, so he found a home at Cornish College Of The Arts in Seattle. Soon after his move, he connected with Moreira and became a member of the percussionist's group Fourth World. Neto stayed with Moreira's group for three years before placing his full attention upon his Seattle based quartet. The group recorded several albums, developing a fluid and exciting style that led to a Latin Grammy nomination in 2004 for their recording Canto do Rio. He connected with Adventure Music in 2006, allowing him to return to Rio and record with local musicians, resulting in the album Roda Carioca (Rio Circle). Rising in prominence, Neto earned a grant to study the music of Northeastern Brazil, giving him the fuel to create the vivid and exciting album Alma do Nordeste (Soul Of The Northeast). The pianist relied upon his wealth of experience to continually create a diverse collection of exciting and beautiful music.

By the time that Neto became a bandleader in the early nineties, he was ready to make interesting artistic statements. His string of successful albums proved that fact, getting better with each step forward. In Part One of our interview with Neto, we looked at his early steps towards music, the influence of rock, and his discovery of jazz. Part Two of our interview led us into a discussion of the connection between Brazilian music and jazz fusion, as well as his early connections with Pascoal. In Part Three of our interview, we dug into his time with Pascoal's group and looked at the heavy influence that the composer played upon Neto's artistry. Today we delve into Neto's time with Airto Moreira's group Fourth World, the development of his Seattle based group, and his long string of albums as a leader.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: When did you get the gig with Airto?

JOVINO SANTOS NETO: It's funny—it was another coincidence. When I went to Brazil to get my master's degree in biology, I ended up bumping into Hermeto; when I moved to Seattle to study conducting, the same week that we got here, Airto and Flora (Purim) were playing at Jazz Alley. I knew them already—I had met Airto a couple of times. I had appreciated his playing enormously since I had lived in Canada. So I just went to see them. They knew that I had left Hermeto, so immediately Flora said, “Would you like write some music for me? I've got a new record that I'm going to do. I need some new music, would you like to write something?" So she gave me a week to come up with something—I wrote a suite and I sent them a demo. She said, “Great! Come down here and let's record it." So I went to Santa Barbara.

They had Fourth World, which was a quartet, but their group was breaking up. Gary Meek, who played flute and keyboards, was leaving. So I joined Fourth World in Gary Meek's place, along with Gary Brown, José Neto, Airto, and Flora. I started in 1995, so I had a whole year studying at Cornish. Then I was on the road with them from 1995�, three years.

LJC: How was that experience different for you?

JSN: It was very different, but I also learned a lot. Working with Airto, there's a lot of freedom and improvisation. That was a band where I was playing only keyboards, no piano. So Airto helped me a lot to learn how to navigate the whole thing about using keyboard pads or sound carpets, as he calls them. It's just like playing with texture. I was coming from Hermeto's band, where everything was written and composed, and then we would have this explosion of improvisation. Airto's band was not really that; no one was really reading anything. We had to learn the music by rehearsal. It did inspire me to write a lot of music. At the same time, the band was not getting together to rehearse that much, because people were living in different places. It was a big production.

We did a lot of tours, but I found that our repertoire at that time, it was shrinking. There were a lot of songs that were not working, and instead of working on them, we just dropped them from the repertoire. Then we'd pick up something older and work on that again. In 1996, I already had my Seattle band taking off—we had our first record that Airto was a part of. It was mutually agreed that it was not going to go on. It was O.K.; I'm still friends with all of them today. Airto is on my new record. I learned a lot from them, and I think it was good. It was a very constructive collaboration period, but it ran its course. Playing with Airto, he's got such an amazing rhythmic sense. And his ability to choose sounds is very inspiring to work with. He can choose sounds and find the right grooves and the right instruments. It's very, very inspiring.

LJC: Back in Seattle, you had a quartet at the time.

JSN: Yea, I started with a quartet. The quartet had actually started in 1993, the moment that I got here. Two months later, I already had a demo tape with those guys! It was the same guys are still playing with me today. They were all associated with Cornish—Chuck, my bassist, was the head of the jazz department. I was just practicing at school; I had no piano at home so I would go to school to practice. All of a sudden a head would pop into the room or look through the window, and say, “Wow!" Some people would just go out again, and then some people would say, “Hey, can I bring my instrument in and play with you?" I would say, “Sure!" So that way, I got to know Chuck, Mark, and Hans Teuber—at the time, they became the people in the quartet.

We did the first record (Caboclo), and Airto overdubbed as percussionist, which was very cool. Then things moved on—Hans started to play more gigs with Ani DiFranco, so his friend Harvey Wainapel was suggested. I met Harvey and we did a live record in 2000 (Live in Olympia (Ao Vivo Em Olympia)). Then Jeff Busch had joined the band as a percussionist, so we had a quinteto. Then we continued with that—we made another record in 2004, which was Canto do Rio; it got a nomination for the Latin Grammy that year. Even though we didn't record since then, we've been playing a lot. Harvey lives in the Bay Area, but he does come up whenever we can bring him up. Now we have a new record coming out in 2011; I'm working on that right now.

LJC: You were bringing a lot of ideas from Brazil—were the musicians knowledgeable about that or was that something that you guys working on together?

JSN: It was interesting. I remember when I first brought the recording of my Seattle band to Airto to put the percussion on. He listened to that, and he said, “Hmm. These guys don't sound like the Brazilian guys." But he didn't say that in a bad way. He said, “Wow, that's different." Because in a way, these are all great musicians, and most of them are coming from a solid jazz background. They were not trying to emulate. The only thing that I asked them was not to take anything for granted. I never sat down and said, “Well, this is what you should do." I never did this to any of them. I just said, “Listen, this is how I feel the music. See what we can come up with." That's all.

Those guys worked together and the groove locked in so nicely. I had the experience in Hermeto's group of learning how to play together in an outfit where all the parts connected to each other; I learned how to swing. These guys, without having a solid knowledge of all the great Brazilian drummers and bass players, they found their own way of navigating that groove. In the process, they created something that I think is really unique.

Now, as we go forward after 17 years of doing that together, it's really evolved to a very natural place. We don't have any more set lists. And I keep writing new music! Every year or so, I bring a bunch of new music, we start to look at it, and learn it. But then we go to shows and say, “What do you want to play?" It becomes very natural and very fluid. I'm going through all the tracks now of the new group recording, and I'm just amazed at how interactive we are.

LJC: In 2006, you went back to Rio and recorded an album with musicians from the modern Brazilian scene—what was the inspiration to do that?

JSN: I did a trio gig at the San Jose Jazz Festival in 2004 with Paul Van Wageningen and Peter Barshay. These are people that meet through my friends in the Bay Area and teaching at Jazz Camp. It was our first trio gig together and it was really beautiful, a great show. It was a sold out house. It was recorded by NPR for JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater. The guy from Adventure Music heard that recording and said, “This is beautiful, and I want to put this out." So, he went ahead and licensed the recording from NPR.

Having done that, we started to work on putting it out. But there was a technical issue where some of the tracks had problems. It was recorded in multi-channel, but the mix for broadcast was done on the spot. The multi-channel had some important channels missing. So after we started working, we realized that we could not make a record out of it, for technical reasons. Harvey actually sat in and played a couple of tunes, and his horn was missing.

So the guy from Adventure, who had already paid NPR, returned the tapes, got his money back, and said, “Well, I've got this money here—it's not a lot—what can we do with that?" So I said, “Well, I could maybe go to Brazil, and I could possibly reconnect with my friends in Brazil and make a record there." He said, “Great idea, see what you can do with it." So I ran with that budget, and I came back with Roda Carioca (Rio Circle).

LJC: What was different from playing with the guys in the States that it brought out for you?

JSN: It brought back a nice connection. I was already coming back and playing gigs in Brazil. I would go back to Brazil and play some gigs in Brazil with Marcio Bahia and Dudu Lima. That record actually had Rogério Botter Maio, who was another guy that I had played with in the States—he used to live in San Francisco. Then connecting with people like Joyce, Hamilton de Holanda, and Marcos Amorim—new friends, old friends, it was a good way to have a party for three or four days in the studio and invite your friends over. That's basically how that went.

LJC: A couple of years later, you did some research in the Northeast of Brazil due to a grant you got, leading to Alma do Nordeste (Soul Of The Northeast).

JSN: Right. That connection happened through a friend of mine who works for me as an agent in Brazil. One day she called me, and she said, “There's this new program with the Brazilian State Oil Company gives away cultural grants for artists—is there anything you'd like to do?" I remember just off the top of my head saying, “I always wanted to do something on the Northeast." I jotted down a couple of paragraphs and sent it in an e-mail. That was the end of the year, and I totally forgot about it. Then six months later, she said, “We got it!" I said, “We got what? Oh that!" It was actually a nice grant—it allowed me to go with me and my wife to do a research trip. It paid for everything; all the traveling, food hotel, and everything. And then I came back home, and wrote the music. Actually, most of the music was written in California at Jazz Camp West. After that, I went back to Brazil and recorded it with the guys. Then I went back, pressed the CD, manufactured it, and distributed it. That was a very cool thing. It was my first record that actually came out as manufactured in Brazil; it was not an import there.

LJC: How did you find the music of the Northeast different and what did you walk away with?

JSN: Working with Hermeto had in a way given me a sense of the universe of the Brazilian Northeast, because he was from there and he knew that music deeply from the inside. But I had only known it through him. It was a way to go to the place and experience being there, which gave me even more openings and potential things to do. It was very cool, really beautiful.

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