Sunday, June 17, 2007

"The Best of Milton Nascimento" - Liner Notes

The Best of Milton Nascimento
Compilation Produced and Annotated by Arnaldo DeSouteiro (JSR) for Sony Music - Asia
Liner notes by Arnaldo DeSouteiro

When Milton Nascimento (b. October 26, 1942) made his triumphant appearance in the Brazilian music scene, it was like a breath, or better, a windstorm of fresh air. Sorry if it seems a cliché, but it’s true. And clichés always say the truth.

At that time, Brazilian music was almost frozen in creative terms, paralyzed by the direct (and indirect) effects that the military dictatorial government, which started in 1964, had over the creative minds of Brazilian artists. In 1967, the year Milton did his stunning performance at the “II FIC – Festival Internacional da Canção” (2nd International Song Contest) that took place in Rio, the bossa nova craze was already considered a “dead wave” in Brazil, and its main masters (Jobim, Bonfá, Gilberto) were all living abroad; the so-called Brazilian rock known as “jovem guarda” (led by future pop star Roberto Carlos) was still doing its first steps, and couldn’t be taken seriously by the intellectual figures of the mass-media; and, last but not least, the fathers of a forthcoming movement known as “tropicalismo” (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil) were still elaborating the commandments of their sociological bible.

In such a mix of musical chaos and inertness, Milton Nascimento’s artistry shined. And “Travessia” (later known in the USA as “Bridges”), the song that made him a star, sounded completely new and refreshing. And, to despair of critics that immediately wanted to label Milton’s style, it was not bossa nova, nor rock, nor samba, nor pop... It was Milton’s music. Period. There was an extreme harmonic elegance, but it was not derived from the typical chord sequences used by bossa nova composers. There was also an enchantment lyricism in the melodic lines, but the inner structure of the song was very creative, moving in non-predictable directions all the time. And... there was his warm voice, blessed with an incredible vocal range, unmistakably his own. No one had ever sung like him before. No one did it after either.

Milton arrived in Rio one year before, coming from the State where he had been raised, Minas Gerais, the place where he sung in local pop-rock groups (like the W’s Boys and the Luar de Prata), and played bass in such bossa bands as Evolussamba and the Sambacana quartet, led by the underrated bossa composer Pacifico Mascarenhas. (Since he is internationally acclaimed as the most important “compositor mineiro” {Minas-born composer} few people realize that Milton was born in Rio, son of a domestic servant, and adopted by a middle-class couple that took him to Três Pontas, a city in Minas Gerais, when he was one year old). In Minas, he never had a full-time musical career, needing to work as an accountant to survive.

It’s true that, prior to his landmark appearance at the FIC in 1967, Milton had done some efforts in order to make himself better-known. In June, 1966, he placed fourth in a Song Contest in São Paulo, as a performer, singing “Cidade Vazia”, written by Baden Powell & Lula Freire; three months later, songstress Elis Regina recorded Milton’s tune “Canção do Sal”. But the man/main responsible for Milton’s touchdown was singer Agostinho dos Santos (who recorded the original soundtrack for the legendary “Black Orpheus” movie back in 1959), who, in absence of Milton, actually without his approval, submitted a tape with three of Milton’s songs (“Travessia”, “Morro Velho”, “Maria, Minha Fé”) to the evaluation of that Song Contest committee.

From then on, Milton’s guardian angel became Eumir Deodato, already, at the veteran age of 25, acclaimed as one of Brazil’s best arrangers ever. “I was part of a commission of eleven members that should selected the songs that would participate in the FIC Contest”, tells Deodato. “I remember that year very well because there were more than 3,000 entries and we were supposed to hear each and every one of these songs!!! We used to have a big laundry wicker basket where we would dump the tapes we considered unacceptable. Agostinho dos Santos had sent a tape with three songs by Milton. We started listening to the songs but most of the members thought they were not worth any future listening, so the whole tape got dumped! I remember that I was driving home after the selection work and it was late, like 2 in the morning or so, and I kept thinking about those songs”.

“Next time I went back to the selection work, I started pointing out to the commission the incredible things they had missed by not giving it a better listen. Furthermore, I had learned the songs and was able to play them on the piano. Most of the members, including maestro Lyrio Panicalli, who was the President of the jury, agreed to listen to the tape again. They finally could see that the material was a lot better than thought initially. We ended up selecting all of the three songs! The rest is history,” says Deodato.

“I was in a state of shock when I got those news”, Milton confess. “At the same time I was very bothered with Agostinho for submitting the songs without my approval, but also very grateful. And the fact that Deodato, someone I also admired so much, had been very supportive to me, it all made me very confused and happy. Then I told them: OK, you won. I will perform in the FIC Contest, but only two of the songs. Agostinho, you will have to sing the third one. And Deodato, you will have to write all the arrangements. That was my sweet revenge”, laughs Milton.

And everything happened like he wanted to. Not surprisingly, all of the three songs were chosen among the 15 finalists. Agostinho dos Santos sang “Maria, Minha Fé”. Milton sang “Morro Velho” (which placed seventh) and “Travessia” (which placed second). Deodato’s brilliant arrangements received rave reviews. Milton was awarded "Best Performer”. Plus: eventually, the successful association between Milton and Deodato led the arranger to show Milton’s works to renowned jazz producer Creed Taylor, then directing, in NY, his own CTI label as a kind of jazz division for A&M Records. “Luiz Bonfá had introduced me to Creed sometime earlier, and I started working for him on albums by Astrud Gilberto, Walter Wanderley and Wes Montgomery. At first, Creed seemed not so much interested in Milton’s songs. But, after I told him that, in California, Sergio Mendes was trying to convince Herb Alpert to sign Milton directly to the pop division of A&M, which was really true, Creed agreed to sign Milton immediately. But with one exigency: I should arrange the whole project”, points out Deodato.

Recorded between September 1968 and February 1969, “Courage” was the wonderful album that introduced Milton’s music to the American audience – actually, basically to American musicians, because, despite the fact that it eventually became a cult favorite, it achieved very disappointing sales at the time of its original release. “His voice has the warmth one automatically associates with South America but it also has something else long absent from the North American musical scene. It has a slight touch of the sophisticated romance of the French pop singers and the Italian romantic crooners popular here in the 30’s. It is an indefinable touch – more a feeling than something specific – but it is present just the same”, the late Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the liner notes for “Courage” with his usual wisdom.

In terms of repertoire, “Courage” includes most of Milton’s songs that became classics and have been recorded over and over again not only by Brazilian artists, as well as by many jazzmen and by Milton himself. Songs like “Travessia” (retitled “Bridges” after Gene Lees added English lyrics), “Rio Vermelho” (that Ithamara Koorax turned into a pop hit in Japan in 1995!), “Outubro” (later recorded by Azymuth), “Catavento” (cut by Dave Grusin) “Gira Girou” (covered by Duke Pearson), “Canção do Sal” and “Vera Cruz”, both recorded by Stanley Turrentine. The list of sidemen was equally impressive: Herbie Hancock, João Palma, Airto Moreira, Hubert Laws, Bill Watrous, Romeo Penque, plus a large string section conducted by arranger Deodato, who also played organ.

Back in Brazil, somehow frustrated with the poor sales of “Courage”, Milton continued to grow musically, recording many great albums for the EMI label; among them, “Clube da Esquina”, which reunited him once again with Deodato in 1972. Two years later, the second chance to conquer the international market came through Flora Purim, then starting a solo career after singing on Chick Corea’s Return To Forever group. Signed as a solo artist by Milestone, praised by Leonard Feather, Flora had been booked to appear at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 6, 1974. And she wanted Milton as her special guest. “I had just recorded one of his songs, “Vera Cruz”, on my album “Stories To Tell”, and I always thought that a performance in such a prestigious festival like Montreux could be the ideal place to showcase Milton’s work,” arguments Flora. Together on the stage, they received a standing ovation after performing Milton’s “Cravo e Canela” (“Cinnamon and Cloves”), embelished by a Ron Carter solo, as documented on the fantastic album “500 Miles High at Montreux”.

Through Flora & Airto, Milton was introduced to Claude Nobs in a private party; completely in love with Milton’s performance, Nobs became one of his most supportive fans, inviting him to return to Montreux as a solo artist several times. The intrepid Brazilian couple also introduced Milton to the royalty of the jazz community then living in Los Angeles, including Wayne Shorter, who was already aware of Milton’s “Courage” thanks to Herbie Hancock. “Herbie gave me a copy of that album and once in a while he used to come to my house to play some of Milton’s songs on the piano. But Flora was the one that showed me many of his new songs. Things like “Miracle of the Fishes” and “Ponta de Areia”. For my personal taste, they sounded so good as the old ones, or even better. Then, my late wife Ana Maria, who also had become a big fan of Milton, suggested that I should do an album with him. That’s how the idea for “Native Dancer” came about,” reveals Wayne. “In two months we selected the tunes, rehearsed in a very pleasant way, with no hurry, and being careful to not over-rehearse the tunes cause we couldn’t lost nothing of Milton’s spontaneity”.

Recorded on September 12, 1974, in Los Angeles, released in 1975, “Native dancer”, Wayne Shorter’s album featuring Milton Nascimento, became an instant classic. Besides critical acclaim (including a five-star review in “Down Beat”), instant good sales too. Milton sang in five of the nine album tracks – three of them, “Ponta de Areia”, “Miracle of the Fishes” and “From the Lonely Afternoons” represented in this collection. The latter was the only one previously recorded in the USA, by supreme alto sax player Paul Desmond, as the title track of Paul’s “From the Hot Afternoon” album for A&M in 1969. Milton made a small change in the title, but kept the same jazzy spice, doing a superb wordless vocal that is a true lesson in using the voice as an instrument (oops, another cliché), inspiring Wayne’s flights on the tenor sax.

“Ponta de Areia” (with Wayne on soprano, Herbie on the acoustic piano, and Milton’s longtime collaborator Wagner Tiso on Hammond organ) appears on its original version, and would be recorded again by the composer upon his return to Rio in January 1975, when he cut the “Minas” album for EMI. “Miracle of the Fishes” had been previously recorded as the title track from Milton’s “Milagre dos Peixes” album in 1973. However, needless to say (or not?), both recordings sound far superior than its versions done in Brazil, sounding much better in these loose arrangements blessed by Wayne’s celestial tone, as well as by the highly inventive contributions of drummer Robertinho Silva, percussion genius Airto, bassist Dave McDaniel and guitarist David Amaro. Unfortunately, Flora Purim couldn’t do the sessions, because soon after the Montreux concert she had been arrested (by drugs’ use) and was not allowed to left Terminal Island to go the studio.

At the time of “Native Dancer”, Milton was signed to the EMI-Odeon Brazilian label. But, in 1987, he entered a worldwide deal with CBS, that lasted until 1992. From his debut album for CBS, now Sony, “Yauaretê”, we have three songs in this compilation: “Dream Merchant”, “Songs and Moments” and “Heart is My Master”. That album was followed by “Miltons”, in 1988, represented by three tracks that feature percussion wizard Naná Vasconcellos: “Bola de Meia, Bola de Gude” (a radio hit in Brazil), “River Phoenix” (“dedicated to the beautiful actor that fascinated me on the movies The Mosquito Coast and Stand by Me,” says Milton) and “La Bamba” (a surprising wordless rendition of the old Latin standard).

“Txai” (a word adopted by the indians as a form of respect and caring for all those who are allies of the people of the forest”), conceived in 1990, gave us the haunting title track and “Sertão das Águas”. Very concerned with the disrespect to the rights of the Brazilian indians, Milton donate part of the royalties for such organizations as the Alliance for the People of the Forest, coordinated by the Union of the Indigenous Nations.

A live album recorded in São Paulo, in 1991, “O Planeta Blue na Estrada do Sol”, included Milton’s solo performance on “Vevecos, Panelas e Canelas”, an unexpected reading of a song co-written in 1913 (!) by João Pernambuco and Catulo da Paixão Cearense, titled “Luar do Sertão”, made famous by Brazil’s top folk singer Stellinha Egg (Milton sings it with passion, backed only by piano and flute), and “Canção do Sal”, adopted as a jazz standard after Deodato chose it as the title track for Stanley Turrentine’s best-selling album for CTI in 1971, “Salt Song”.

This compilation also brings together a couple of tracks recorded by Milton as special guest on albums by George Duke (“Ao Que Vai Nascer”, recorded in Rio, in 1979, for Duke’s “Brazilian Love Affair”) and Sarah Vaughan (“Love and Passion”, cut in Los Angeles, in 1987, for Sassy’s “Brazilian Romance”, produced by Sergio Mendes). In all moments, in all performances, Milton’s inventiveness abounds through his universal voice. Be prepared for such a spiritually enriching experience!

Arnaldo DeSouteiro
Los Angeles, April 12, 2002

Mr. DeSouteiro is Brazil’s top jazz producer, founder of JSR label, as well as a renowned journalist, publicist, radio DJ and educator – a member of IAJE, International Association of Jazz Education.

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