“Heart of Brazil” Celebrates the Music of Egberto Gismonti

I first heard the work of the brilliant Brazilian composer and musician Egberto Gismonti in 1976, on a duet album with the late percussionist, Naná Vasconcelos. That landmark ECM album—Dança das Cabeças—won numerous awards but befuddled critics. In England, it won as a pop record; in the U.S., as folk music; in Germany, as classical music. People just didn’t quite know where it fit, as the utterly original sound defied categorization. I became an immediate fan of Gismonti’s music, and followed his other ECM albums as well as his import albums on EMI Brasil. I remember once watching a small crowd dance in the KCRW performance studio to Gismonti’s song “Sanfona,” from the album Em Familia. Another album, Infância, remains one of my all-time favorites.

There’s a terrific new album out from the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Eddie Daniels called Heart of Brazil that celebrates Gismonti’s music from the 70’s and 80’s. The album’s producer, George Klabin of Resonance Records, had long wanted to record an album in tribute to Gismonti, but says in his album notes that he “could not find anyone who wanted to take on arranging these complex masterpieces. They said it was like trying to repaint a Picasso!” Klabin finally found a willing artist in 2016 in Eddie Daniels, who was deeply moved by samples of Gismonti’s music that Klabin sent him. Even the tremendously talented Daniels saw the challenges of recording Gismonti’s music—“I freaked out on several levels, one being, how was I ever going to express how ridiculously beautiful this music is?”*

Eddie Daniels (Photo © Paul Gitelson courtesy Resonance Records)

I’ve been a fan of Eddie Daniels ever since I bought a copy of his 1973 album with Bucky Piazzarelli, A Flower for All Seasons. A flute player myself, I was amazed at Daniels’ virtuosity on such a variety of material from Les McCann, Hank Mancini, Pat Williams, Roland Hanna, and others.  His flute version of Jacques Ibert’s difficult piece “Entr’acte” made me a believer. The guy is a virtuoso on every horn. I loved his later GRP albums and, more recently, his Resonance Records album with pianist Roger Kellaway. Leonard Bernstein was a fan of Daniels as well.

The pairing of Eddie Daniels and Egberto Gismonti is felicitous as both artists easily embrace African, jazz, and European classical music. I learned from James Gavin’s liner notes and interview with Egberto Gismonti that Gismonti studied with the great French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, composed and conducted music on tour in many countries, and was interested in the modern music of Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Schoenberg, and others. Gismonti’s music has been performed by classical orchestras, including various Brazilian, Lituanian, and European outfits. I’m reminded of the late Claus Ogerman, Duke Ellington, and—of course—Antonio Carlos Jobim. Daniels, in addition to having been a first-call session player with Billy Joel and Sister Sledge, has worked as soloist with a number of classical orchestras and is totally at home with demanding and complex arrangements.

To me, Heart of Brazil is a musical triumph for Daniels, Klabin, and their collaborators. The 13-song album features all Gismonti originals except for one new composition by Daniels. Many of the works come from Gismonti’s early EMI Brasil albums, songs that have rarely been available outside Brazil and most likely no longer available on LP there either. Daniels plays clarinet and tenor sax, with a rhythm section fronted by Josh Nelson (piano), Kevin Axt (bass), and Mauricio Zottarelli (drums). The great strings group Harlem Quartet augments the songs with depth and color. They play with both classical precision and finesse, but also add swing to it all. Rarely have I heard a string quartet work so beautifully with a jazz quartet. Arrangers Ted Nash, Kuno Schmid, Josh Nelson, and Mike Patterson pull the parts together into one beautiful whole. The album is, quite simply, audio perfection, with audiophile quality recorded sound to boot. Kudos to producer George Klabin and all the folks at Resonance Records for this beautiful new album.

*Quote from album notes by James Galvin

Banner image: Salvador de Bahia naive painting called Maragojipe market by artist Calixto Sales.