Down in Rio de Janeiro, his home turf, they have a saying about Jorge Ben. Folks there maintain that "Ben e samba bom" - and they're right. Jorge Ben is a guarantee of good samba music.
Up and now, though, Americans haven't had much of a chance to find that out for themselves. Ben's albums are best-sellers in Brazil, and he's enormously popular in Europe, where he has filled concert halls as large as Paris' Olympia, but here in the States, very little has been heard of him since "Mas Que Nada" - a song he wrote at age 19 and now considers a relic of the bossa nova era.
"Samba Nova" (Island ILPS 9361), Ben's first American album in more than a decade, should help bring us up to date. A compilation of some of the best songs from his recent Brazilian albums, it is a bright, peppy and infectious record, full of the soothingly seductive vocals and syncopated acoustic guitar playing that characterize the work of the fully mature Jorge Ben.
The songs are sung in Portuguess, but that shouldn't deter anyone who appreciates beautiful melodies or the caressnes of a gentle voice. Ben has a sophisticated pop sensibility, and included in many of his songs are not just the samba rhythms popular in Brazil but instrumental touches that are just as common here. The crisp, swinging born arrangement, complete with jazzy saxophone solo, on "Paz e Arroz" is just one example of his willingness to look beyond Brazil for inspiration.
Still, Brazilians tend to rave more about Ben's folksy and frequently humorous lyrics than his impeccable sense of rhythm or his unerring ear for melody - which, after 13 years of consistently fine work they have come to take for granted. Many of Ben's best lyrics are subtle evocations of everyday features of Brazilian life, the "Vendedor de Bananas/Cosa Nostra/Bicho do Mato" medley included here celebrates the humble banana seller, the pretty girls on the beaches in their tangas and the wild animals of the jungle.
Perhaps the strongest numbers are those in which lyrics that recycle the wisdom of Brazilian folk proverts are matched to the traditional samba beat. The animated "Morre O Burro, Fica O Homen," in which a bouncing bass line keeps the samba beat flowing, and the more reflective "O Circo Chegou" are among Ben's most popular numbers - and with good reason. Only on "Oba, La Vem Ela" does he come as close to creating so potent a mixture of words and music.
Though Ben continually flirst with American jazz, to get a real sense of how jazz can be made to work in the Brazilian context we must turn to Milton Nascimento, whose "Milton" (A & M SP-4611) was recorded in Los Angeles last summer with pianist Herbie Hancock, Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter and other jazz players. Nascimento has been very practical about his debut on Herb Alpert's label: he's taken several of his biggest Brazilian hits, translated them into English and re-recorded them in a delightful half-samba, half-jazz form.
The two styles merge most cleanly on "Exits and Flags," in which a heated trombone solo by Raul de Souza is followed by Shorter's extended soprano saxophone soliloquy. On other selections, such as "The People" and "Nothing Will Be as It Was," percussionists Airto Moreira and Laudir de Oliveira, Brazilians who have made successful careers in America and are regulars on the West Coast studio scene, make just as effective a bridge to Nascimento's unassimilated rhythm section.
This abundance of instrumental talent, American and Brazilian, enables Nascimento to concentrate on his vocals, which are soaring, moving and incredibly complex. Two numbers, "Francisco" and "The Call," are spectacular wordless pieces in which Nascimento scats, chants, croons, sings falsetto and generally runs wild; another two, the jaunty "Cravo e Canela" (Clove and Cinnamon) and a ballad called "One Coin" are strongly melodic pieces in which Nascimento shows that he can be a tender, dramatic, even haunting, vocalist in both English and Portuguese.
Other new Brazilian albums that have recently been released in the United States are:
Flora Purim: 500 Miles High (Milestone M-9070). Singer Purim, who recently signed a million-dollar contract with Warner Bros Records, mixes jazz and samba styles on his live album, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. A slower, slightly more relaxed duet version of Nascimento's "Cravo e Canela" is offered here, as is a reading of Dorival Caymmi's pun-filled "O Cantador" in which Purim subtly and elegantly lingers over each lyric and melodic nuance.
Egberto Gismonti and paul Horn: Altura do Sol/High Sun (Epic PE 34231). A fascinating collaboration between jazz flutist Horn and one of Brazil's most talented pop composers. Gismonti's interests range from complex orchestrated pieces, exemplified by "Bodas de Prata," to rhythmic, African-derived incantations, typified by "Salvador," but Horn proves equal to the sudden stylistic shifts.
Dom Um Romao: Hotmosphere (Pablo 2310-777). A samba version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan"? Milton Nascimento's "Escravos de Jo" arranged for horns and cell? Unlikely as it may seem, that is what Dom Um Romao, ex-Weather Report and Sergio Mendes percussionist, has done here. It works surprisingly well, thanks to Romao's cosmopolitan background and the efforts of the joint Brazilian-American supporting cast.
Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz: The Best of Two Words (Columbia PC 33703). The team that was responsible for the bossa nova craze of a dozen years ago is back together again, older, wiser and considerably more sophisticated. Gilberto's lilting guitar and Getz's lyrical sax combine most satisfyingly on Antonio Carlos Jobim's spare, distilled "The Waters of March," but there are also moments of remarkable instrumental refinement on Gilberto's "Joao Marcello" and Jobim's "Ligia."