Book Review: Rita Lee’s Candid and Brutally Honest Autobiography

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By Ernest Barteldes

Rita Lee: Uma Autobiografia

Globo Livros

$ 8.99  Kindle Edition(in Portuguese)/ $ 38 paperback

The music of Brazilian rock superstar Rita Lee Jones has been part of my life as far as I can remember, starting from when her signature song “Ovelha Negra” hit Brazilian airwaves in the mid-1970s until pretty much present day, even if I haven’t yet listened to her 2012 release Reza (“Prayer”).  I have attended her shows over the years (including her last NYC appearance in 2003), and her music has been part of the soundtrack of my life along with every other musician or band that I have admired over the years.

When I heard that she had released an autobiography I was a bit curious but didn’t really make a point of reading immediately. However, my mother so kindly bought it for me as a Christmas present and I could not resist to crack the tome and find out what it was all about.

Like with any rock biography, readers tend to want the author to go straight to the stories behind the music, but since this is also her own story, we spend a few pages learning about Lee’s childhood and her relationship with her parents,  two sisters and extended family in a large house in Sao Paulo.  I was actually surprised to learn that she had quite a stable family life – she went to Communion with her family, and had a pretty normal life save for the horrible story in which Lee was raped with a screwdriver at seven years of age – and that the culprit was never caught.

When we get to the 60s, things get juicy, as she describes her years with Os Mutantes and their relationship with the Tropicalista movement started by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. We also learn the ugly side of the band and the way she was unceremoniously ousted from the band once the two Brandao brothers decided to take the band into a Yes-inspired progressive direction, and then we follow her entire career with details on the recording of every album she made all the way to her retirement, when she decided to stop touring and dedicate herself to family and a quieter lifestyle.

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The book is highly personal, and she does not gloss over the darker moments of her life, including her infamous 1976 arrest for drug possession while she was pregnant with her first son Beto Lee, her addictions and especially the self-destructive behavior that almost destroyed her relationship with husband and longtime songwriting partner Roberto de Carvalho. She is brutally honest when it comes to her disdain to the Mutantes reunion and also her detractors – especially late rock critic Ezequiel Neves, who openly hated her and printed his vitriol in the press with impunity, even spreading rumors about her health.

It is a very good read – it is not yet available in English, but it surely deserves to be translated even if it only reaches a small audience of her die-hard fans who did not have a chance to learn Portuguese, as suggested by the English lyrics of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” – which she recorded with Os Mutantes, by the way.

Ernest Barteldes’ Annual Christmas Music Wrap-Up is Back!

By Ernest Barteldes

 

For quite a few years I ran an annual wrap-up of the new Christmas music on NewCity over in Chicago, but attentive readers might have noticed that it didn’t happen back in 2014. I got a number of emails about it not only from publicists but also from music fans who looked forward to my annual list of must-haves and albums to ignore.

As I have stated before, the new editor who took over the music site (their publisher used to run it himself, but he seems to have wanted to delegate power to other people) pretty much turned his back on long-time contributors  so a review I had already written ended up unpublished. After confronting both the publisher and the new editor over the article I pretty much gave up on dealing with so-called “visionary” individuals and decided to start – for better or worse – this music blog.

Anyway, enough kvetching, it’s time to look at some of the selections for this year:

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Jazz pianist David Benoit is one of the most talented contemporary pianists of his generation, and his third Holiday-themed album “Believe” (Concord Music) is one of the best I have heard in a long time. Sticking strictly to a straight-ahead format, he goes through a number of standards, masterfully bringing together the Charlie Brown TV specials with “Guaraldi Medley,” a beautiful tribute to the pianist who helped introduce a generation of kids to jazz. Vocalist Jane Monheit joins the trio rounded out by drummer Jamey Tate and bass player David Hughes to create the kind of album that is not your usual classic radio stuff, but something you could hear anytime.

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Thirty years after its bandleader’s passing, The Count Basie Orchestra has continued to make music without any sign of slowing down. Currently under the direction of trumpetist William “Scotty” Barnhart, they have recently collaborated with the likes of Tony Bennett and Ledisi, the latter of whom is a featured performer in “A Very Swingin’ Basie Christmas (Concord), a fabulous piece of music that is sure to be spinning when Renata and I spend our annual Christmas retreat at home away from everyone else that annoys us.

One of the best tracks is “The Christmas Song” fronted by the fabulous Ledisi, who keeps her New Orleans roots on a very traditional arrangement. Things also stay in the Big Easy with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” led by pianist extraordinaire Ellis Marsalis, the legend who happens to have fathered some of the greatest jazz bandleaders of their generation  say what you will about their individual personalities, but you must admit their talents are unquestionable and undeniable.

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I am not one to say much about someone trying to introduce a new Holiday song to the canon, but Rebecca Angel and the band led by her bandleader father Dennis Angel actually pull it off with their single “My Favorite Time of the Year,” a groovy, bossa-inspired tune with a sincere vocal that might just make it into the canon, specially thanks to the smart arrangement and an honest vocal delivery.

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One of the most anticipated Holiday albums to me is Broadway Cares’ “Carols for a Cure,” when the casts of several shows in town come together to come up with a mix of classic songs, original and parodies.

 

Unlike recent releases, there are no obvious celebrity voices, which makes for a better n overall an enjoyable experience –  except for the presence of Perez Hilton on “Happy All The Time” with the cast of “Elf” – I mean, what is a goddamn blogger doing on a Broadway album? Makes no sense to me, but since he is being featured for the third time in a row I must be missing something. Among best tracks this time around are “We Three Things” with “At This Performance,” which takes the classic tune to a whole new jazz-tinged direction. The best original is Chicago’s “Christmas in Fishnets,” which chronicles the routine of performers at the Great White Way during these festive days. Also notable is the mostly acoustic “Mary did You Know,”  a poignant folksy tune that asks Jesus’ mom about her expectations on the baby she held in her arms on that first Christmas.

These are all great albums – just check them out, all of them will make for a joyous season.

 

 

Album Review: Badi Assad/Hatched

By Ernest Barteldes

I’ve been following Badi Assad for about fifteen years, from the time she was doing more avant-garde instrumental-oriented music right into her shift into the pop-jazz-fusion material she started putting on her records, going from 2005’s Verde up to Hatched (QuatroVentos),  in which she reinvents pop hits in her own way – the tunes are still recognizable, but her personal imprint combined with her signature acoustic guitar chops – are undeniable.

It was fortunate that I was oblivious of most of the tunes on the disc so I could appreciate the music without any bias, approaching them from a completely fresh point of view. She kicks off with Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man” with a bossa-nova vibe that contrasts to the much faster paced original.  She transforms “The Hanging Tree” (from the Hunger Games soundtrack) into an acoustic funk that showcases her guitar and vocal chops, leaving the original recording as floundered Joe Cocker did to The Beatles on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

My favorite recreation was her take on Lorde’s “Royals” – Assad plays it double tempo, with Simone Sou’s strong percussion as a backdrop to the Assad’s fluid guitar and Rui Barossi’s upright bass.

I am looking forward to catching this material in a live format. The last time I saw her perform was during the Verde tour, when she played accompanied solely by her guitar – it was great, but I would love to see her stretching it live with a band behind her.

Not that she needs it at all – she is highly engaging on her own.

If you happen to live anywhere near where she’s touring, do not miss the opportunity to hear her live. I have already told my friends in Fortaleza – the only major Brazilian city she is playing in at the time of this writing – to go to the show.

And a note to my readers in Chicago – the publication there that I have contributed there for over a decade has a new music editor who thinks he is the last Coca-Cola in the desert. He is doing the usual house cleaning that commonly comes with change in the masthead, so you will not be seeing my byline there for a while. The solution? Subscribe to my feed, because I have not forgotten you.

Musical Blends: New Orleans Meets Brazil + Music of Turkey and Greece/ CD reviews

By Ernest Barteldes

Carnival Caravan

On the EP “Carnival Caravan”  (Self-released) the Scott Kettner-led Nation Beat embarks on a very interesting  musical trip that blends the sounds of New Orleans with  Northeastern Brazil ‘s traditional beat of Maracatu – that is immediately noticeable on the opening track “Casa Diamante/Sew Sew Sew,”  a mash-up between an original track in Portuguese with a traditional NOLA tune.

Like I have written in the past, there are many similarities between the cultures of  northeastern Brazil and Louisiana that putting them together is more natural than one might think. That is evident on  “Carnival Carnival” – just listen to “Vou Cantar Esse Coco,”  an original tune sung entirely in Portuguese with the backing of a typical New Orleans-sounding brass band.  The same goes with “Canto da Ema/All on A Mardi Gras Day,” a  very enjoyable mash-up of the two countries’ sounds. The track begins with with a traditional NOLA “call” and then Fabiana Masili jumps in with her native Fortaleza-accented Portuguese.

The EP is lots of fun and gets you moving from the very first moment. It sounds like everyone was having tons of fun in the studio together  – even if some of the musicians were in different locations.  I am  surely going have this one at hand to get the party started.

Going in a completely different direction is Dű-Sems  Ensemble’s “Music From Turkey and Greece,”  (Arc Music) a lovely collection of traditional sounds from the neighboring Mediterranean  countries. Like Brazil and New Orleans, both countries also share various cultural and culinary traits.

This disc blends original and traditional tunes from both nations. Most of the disc is instrumental, going from slow ballads to more uptempo tunes.  I especially liked the more improvised, seemingly off-the-cuff moments – two examples being “Oud Improvisation,” an inspiring two-minute solo piece by Osman Kirklikçi and Tanju Erol’s “Clarinet Improvisation,” which begins as a solo and then becomes an ensemble piece.

Among my personal favorites were  “Nihavend Mandra,”  an instrumental tune that picks up tempo as it goes along, and “Abacilar Inişi,” one of the few tracks  with vocals by an unidentified female singer (they list various on their website, but I could not figure out who it is since they have various guest artists performing with them) who sings with great gusto.

As of this writing there are no scheduled dates for any shows in North America – I surely would love to have the opportunity to see them up close  – the music is highly captivating and beautifully played

Preview: The Latin Alternative Music Conference 2015

By Ernest Barteldes

It is no secret that I am a fan of outdoor concerts during the warm summer months, but there is one event that I eagerly wait to come around: The Latin Alternative Music Conference, the annual event that takes place all over the city, including shows in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn and other select venues. Though some of the concerts are for participants only such as the various showcases, most are open to the general public – a treat for fans of Latin Alternative artists.

But what exactly is Latin alternative in the first place?  A few years ago, one editor included in an article of mine that it is basically about Latino artists that ‘don’t play salsa.’ Though for most readers back then that might have made sense, I did not really like that definition because rhythms like mambo, cumbia and salsa are actually part of the genre, just not in the traditional sense.  After all, reggaeton is the ultimate blend of a quintessentially North American genre with the sounds of the Caribbean. Aterciopelados is a rock band that incorporates traditional Colombian music into their songs, and Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux (who was by the way first showcased in America at LAMC before she broke out internationally) does not hide her home country’s influence in her rapping.  At least they are no longer calling it “rock en español,” a dreadful label that came to be in the 90s when some Latin bands broke into the pop scene in America.

The LAMC is more than just music – it’s an opportunity for musicians to network with label executives, journalists and ultimately their own peers. When I first attended about a decade ago (has it been that long?) the conference had what I would describe as more of a party atmosphere, but it has since grown up and become one of the principal opportunities to exchange ideas and try to find the answers for questions about the state of the music business today – which has been changing in breakneck speed.

During the entire conference, several panel discussions are held to look at the state of music today and how to stay current in it – I recall sitting at one panel that included professionals involved in crowdfunding, then a novel idea that not many in attendance could understand.  This year, streaming is one of the topics up for discussion. Sure, it is not exactly a new idea, but now that large companies like Amazon and Apple are embracing it, what does it mean for a struggling independent artist who can no longer rely on downloads to make a living? Their music might be featured on NPR, but that is not going to pay their bills – new music comes out at a crazy pace these days, and it’s becoming harder and harder to focus on what the next thing might be (believe me, as I write this I am trying to go through my never ending pile of music to review).

For music fans, this year’s attractions are indeed a treat. The fun begins tonight (July 8) at Central Park Summerstage, where three up-and-coming bands will showcase their music – Starting with Electronic music artist Helado Negro (Roberto Carlos Lange, who I’m guessing changed his stage name because of another popular artist called Roberto Carlos), an Ecuadoran native who now calls Brooklyn his home. His sound bears a lot of influence from his former Miami home, but you can hear a lot more in what he does.

Following him is Systema Solar, a Colombian electronic collective that (as I mentioned before) blends lots of their native sounds with more contemporary sounds – it’s not for everyone, but it is certainly innovative.  Closing the evening is Compass, a collaboration between Camilo Lara  –  a frequent collaborator to the LAMC – and Toy Selectah, a DJ and producer with a large resume that includes Morrissey and Calle 13, to name a few.  On Friday (10/7) we go to Celebrate Brooklyn for a three-part set that includes veteran Argentinean band Los Autenticos Decadentes, one of the great luminaries of their country’s pop scene for over thirty years – who apparently are enjoying a comeback.

On Saturday we return to Central Park for another great afternoon that will feature Ximena Sariñana, a Mexican breakout singer who has been crossing over thanks to her efforts in English-language songs such as “Different,” an infectious song about not conforming to expectations.

There is much more going on – just check out the schedule for further details. It is a great opportunity to get out of the American pop box and discover some new sounds. I always have a lot of fun there and am always reporting – so please follow my Twitter feed @ebarteldes for more.

My Brazilian Music Loot: Buying Music on Vacation

By Ernest Barteldes

Whenever I travel abroad I make sure to visit the local music stores to search for music  that is not easily available online or  simply to locate some long-lost  musical gem. That was true last year when Renata and I visited Poland and I went on a quest for records by singer Anna Maria Jopek and rock band Bajm, and it was especially true during our last visit to Brazil. The U.S. dollar is on an all-time high these days, which made travel to the country way cheaper than it used to be. Though this is clearly a disadvantage to locals  since it has made travel (and some other services) far more expensive, it was a huge plus for foreign travelers, who get to get a bigger bang for their buck at hotels, restaurants and shops.

Before I even left to Bahia, I’d read that legendary singer Gal Costa was releasing a new album featuring produced by Kassin (of +2) with tunes by Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Marisa Monte and younger songwriters like Marcelo Camelo. The release date was the very day I’d arrive in Bahia, so I made a point of purchasing it in her native land. I searched a lot of shops near our hotel with no luck, but was finally able to get it at the Salvador airport during our final hours there.  Since this was a new release it was a little pricey, but in the end it cost about as much as if I had purchased it on iTunes. Gal Estratosferica (Universal Music Brasil) is quite refreshing – she allowed Kassin to “ go nuts”  with the arrangement, and the result is a youthful album that seamlessly blends electronic and organic elements around her voice.  You can read my review published a few weeks back on this blog, written while I was still in Brazil. Once in Fortaleza, Renata and I headed to the nearby Shopping Aldeota, a mall that caters to the residents of the surrounding areas (malls are still a central part of Brazil’s social life and are in every major neighborhood) and when to Lojas Americanas, a discount franchise that is ubiquitous in the country. I immediately headed to the music department and raided the bargain section, where I found some great stuff for as little as $3 (10 Brazilian Reais).

One of the first I picked up was Cazuza’s excellent O Tempo Nao Para,  his only live album released in his lifetime (there was a posthumous live disc with Barao Vermelho that is not really good).

 

Cazuza was the poet of his generation, and he wrote many wonderful songs during his brief career, which ended when AIDS claimed him when he was 34 years old.  The album is cathartic – his voice is clearly hoarse, and he had lost an incredible amount of weight. Unlike other artists of his time, he did not hide his condition, but courageously kept on going until he breathed his last. I am a big fan of Caetano Veloso, and among the finds was his “Best of”  compilation  released in the 90s. It is clearly dated since it contains none of his inspired material from albums like “Livro,”  “Ce”  or “Fina Estampa,”  but it is a pretty concise document of his work up to the late 80s with songs such as “Alegria Alegria,”  “Sampa”  and the weird “Shy Moon,”  an English-language duet with British-born one hit wonder Ritchie.

Years ago you wouldn’t  have caught me dead with an Ivete Sangalo album, but  I have grown to admire the Bahia-born singer, especially after catching her live a handful of times over the years. Sure, she does not have the vocal chops of the likes of Marisa Monte or Gal Costa, but she rocks when playing live.  I made a point of attending her  May 31st concert in Fortaleza, where she paid tribute to Tim Maia alongside emerging R&B singer Criollo, and I am glad I did, because it was truly a memorable performance.

She has great charisma and completely dominates the stage – it is little wonder that she has become the biggest selling artist in Brazil and plays to sold-out stadiums wherever she goes – an example of this is her “Ao Vivo no Maracana,”  captured live at the world’s largest soccer stadium with guest appearances by Alejandro Sanz, Skank’s Samuel Rosa and others – again a stellar performance and a great album to party to.

It’s hard to find a bossa nova album I don’t have these days, but I was glad to get my hands on “Tom – Vinicius – Toquinho – Miucha Gravado ao Vivo no Canecao,”  a 1974 concert featuring bossa co-creators Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morais alongside guitarist/singer Toquinho and vocalist Miucha (the sister of Chico Buarque and mother of Bebel Gilberto) in an amazing live performance featuring some of the best Brazilian music ever written done by the artists who introduced them to the world.

Disc Review: Gal Costa/Estratosférica

By Ernest Barteldes

Distorted guitars and rock drums kick off Brazilian singer Gal Costa’s 30th studio album, almost making a statement about the fact that the singer is not staying within the bossa nova comfort zone that she is best known to American audiences. The song, entitled “Sem Medo Nem Esperança” was penned by Antonio Cicero and Arthur Nogueira could be described as visceral and daring.

Costa takes full use of her vocal range, allowing her voice to crack at certain points. On an interview with Brazil’s G1 website, she said that she personally chose the tune to be the opener “because of Antonio Cicero’s lyrics that is really about my moment, it’s fuck-tastic. It’s an autobiographical song, it talks about me – it’s as if I were talking to people. Cicero did something that Caetano Veloso knows how to do well: to write for me, to say what is true for me.”

Gal Costa’s more traditional fans will not be disappointed – unlike her previous disc “Recanto” (Universal Music, 2011); she doesn’t really go into much experimentation. There are some hummable sambas, such as the Mallu-penned lead single “Quando Você Olha Pra Ela,” which has a mellow arrangement that reminds listeners of the material she recorded in the mid-70s after her early Tropicalismo phase. Another great moment is “Amor Se Acalme,” a mellow ballad by Marisa Monte, Arnaldo Antunes and Cezar Mendes.  The tune is quite characteristic of Monte’s work: lots of words crammed in a few bars and then long notes on a single vowel – this is certain to appear on local radio stations in the near future.

Some tunes left my head scratching – “Muita Sorte” has a very nice melody, but the mostly electronic arrangement does not do it justice. The same thing can be said about “Por Baixo,” a Tom Zé composition filled with extraneous sounds behind Gal Costa’s sincere delivery.

On the other hand, there are songs that are amazingly written – “Dez Anjos” is collaboration between Milton Nascimento and young singer-songwriter Criolo (who as of this writing is on a Tim Maia tribute tour with Ivete Sangalo) that is melodically and lyrically beautiful. Also notable is “Espelho d’Agua,” a Marcelo Camelo-Thiago Camelo (who frequently write for Maria Rita) rock ballad that has a well-constructed acoustic arrangement.

“Estratosférica” was produced by Kassim and Moreno Veloso of The +2’s, who gave the album a fresh feel without going too crazy on the arrangements. It is quite accessible, reaching out to younger fans without losing touch with her more classic fans – thus the presence of the bonus track “Ilusão à Toa,” a pre-bossa nova era song by the underrated Johnny Alf that could have been part of 2004’s “Todas as Canções e Eu,” which was dedicated to songs of the 1940s and 50s.

Gal Costa

Estratosférica

Universal Music Brasil

Available for download on Amazon and iTunes.