AS ANYONE who got hooked on Talking Head David Byrne's compilations of the cream of Brazilian music will tell you, Brazil makes some of this world's most effortless, moving and memorable pop. The United States is finally catching on and catching up to what the rest of the world already knows.
Brazilian composer and artist Milton Nascimento contributed three of the 18 tracks on Byrne's first of three compilations, "Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics Vol. 1". Sarah Vaughn interpreted a trio of Nascimento tunes on her recent "Brazilian Romance" album. And the Manhattan Transfer chose his "Viola Violar" for their "Brasil" album. A superstar in his own country, Nascimento recently released an album in the States, on Columbia. It's called "Miltons."
It's a perfect summer record that will still sound great by wintertime. An album for waking up to, for making love to, for falling asleep to while it whispers in your ear. It's one of those records that makes an impression right away, but demands -- and rewards -- repeated listenings. Deceptively simple and airy, swirled through with dark, sensual currents, you can't "get it" all at one sitting.
Nascimento, 48, has been writing and singing for more than two decades -- "Miltons" is the 23rd album in his career, if only his third U.S. release. He warms to odd subjects in his songs: The album opener is addressed to the actor River Phoenix, whom Nascimento thought he'd like to meet after seeing him in a movie. Another is about that vital, but lately much maligned fluid, "Semen," in which Nascimento calls his song the seed of life. The accompaniment -- intimate, subtle, natural -- is Nascimento on guitar with his haunting, luminous voice, percussionist/vocalist Nana Vasconcelos and American jazz star Herbie Hancock on piano and synth bass.
There's only one catch -- it's all sung entirely in Portuguese. Which is only natural for Nascimento, as it is his language, and Portuguese is a liltingly rhythmic and lyrical tongue -- especially when sung. But this is America, and excellent as "Miltons" may be, it's hard to imagine such an effort crossing over onto a U.S. pop chart.
We tend to like our artists filed under easy-to-read definitions. And Nascimento's music is as elusive as a wave hitting the shore of his native Rio de Janeiro. You can't pin it down -- "Miltons" is catchy and weightless as pop, with the improvisational unpredictability and passion of jazz, and the grace and elegance of classical music.
Similarly, an interview with Nascimento must transcend several barriers. He's tired at the end of a day of interviews and meetings, and after a brief hello, he turns the phone over to Lizzie, his interpreter, who repeats the questions and translates his replies.
Nascimento on the album title: "It can be understood as 'many Miltons,' of course. But the word also means 'a thousand tones' in Portuguese. As in musical tones, or colors."
On his American ambitions: "I'd like to develop a solid career here, and travel and collaborate with several people here. Especially Miles Davis. That's my dream. Whenever Miles wants, wherever I am, I'll stop whatever I'm doing and walk . . . . But it's difficult, because the radio will only play things sung in English. So I will write and sing in Portuguese until I find someone to work with me to write lyrics in English like the people I have in Brazil that I've been collaborating with for years. They are very good friends, and it's important to me that a musical collaboration starts off with a friendship."
On the relationship between Brazilian and American music: "Brazilian music is becoming more popular here because Brazilian music is one of the most creative in the world, and things here as well as in Europe are getting very repetitive -- is that the right word? This is making the artists try to find other options. Of course, Brazilian music has been influenced by American music and vice versa. This exchange is good as long as it's done in a sincere and honest way."
On River Phoenix: "I have a kind of a sixth sense that many times I have met people, or even without meeting them I can look at a person and feel that they have something special about them. I was watching the movie 'The Mosquito Coast,' and I was impressed with the actor, and I wanted to write him a letter as a fan with the hopes of one day meeting him. But when I sat down to write the letter, the music and the words came together. So what was supposed to be a written letter turned into a song. We have spoken on the phone, and I was right about him being a special person."
Soon the interview is over, with really nothing startling said. There's nothing left but to go back to the music. But that is, after all, as it should be. Musicians say all that needs to be said through their work, and through his songs, Nascimento speaks more eloquently than most of his contemporaries. You might even find yourself learning a few new words.