Friday, February 13, 2015

Luiz Bonfa: Solo in Rio, 1959

This is a sterling recording of the Brazilian guitarist and vocalist issued by the Smithsonian Folkways label and consisting of thirty-one mostly short pieces, the first seventeen of which constituted the original recording and the rest being unreleased tracks, showcasing Bonfá's technically brilliant playing and his earnest and warm vocals.

There are pieces that use samba, calypso, bolero, bossa nova and other "Latin" styles, but Bonfá was very much influenced by classical and jazz musics, as well, naming one of the pieces on the record after the pianist George Shearing (and the tune definitely swings) and another after Chopin.  Much of what makes this album so enjoyable is that Bonfá had such versatility in his playing and composing.

As Anthony Weller, who wrote the very helpful and informative liners, noted, Bonfá was a virtuoso, but didn't feel the need to overtly display his talents unless it was in the service of the piece and there are so many examples, including the opening "Pernambuco," the cover of the Cole Porter chestnut, "Night and Day," and the strangely-titled "Murder," being just a few examples.

The highlight for this listener, however, is the first of the unreleased pieces, the amazing "A Brazilian in New York."  On this lengthy piece, he starts with a fine classical-like melody and then adds a "Don't Walk-Walk" refrain to refer to the contradictory nature of city life's pacing and his playing is just beautiful.  When it's time to cross the street, he launches into an amazing representation of trying to make his way through the busy thoroughfare.  Uttering the word "homesick," he offers an interpretation of that feeling, with rapid runs and complex rhythms.  What follows are representations of Brazilian dances, a piano and orchestra, a samba, and then a return to the unfamiliar chaos of New York and the "Don't Walk-Walk" refrain.   This is a masterpiece of playing and storytelling.

Another highlight of the unreleased pieces is Bonfá's "Samba de Orfeu," a short (1:16) piece that marks the only time he recorded the work solo, though he made ten other versions with a band during his career.  Otherwise, there are alternate takes of album pieces that show how easily the guitarist could alter a piece by changing tempo, rhythms and feeling.

The music was recorded by Emory Cook for his own label and the remastering and editing provides for a very crystalline sound that doesn't, though, remove any of the warmth and intimacy that is a critical part of the recording's great charm, especially because Bonfá evidently did not record solo very much.

Solo in Rio, 1959 is an album that proves to provide renewed interest with each listen because of its diversity in styles and the fact that Bonfá's virtuosity is such that it meshes so well with the stylistic, melodic and rhythmic components that can be the focal point of repeated listenings.  Just listening tonight after having heard the recording a couple of weeks ago, there are different elements that come through by shifting that focus.  That's the hallmark of a master and a masterpiece.

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