Talking Sensorial with Mafalda Minnozzi

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    Photograph by Murilo Alvesso

    Earlier this year – in July to be precise – I critiqued an amazing recording by Mafalda Minnozzi. The album was entitled Sensorial, a word that perfectly captured the rapturous manner with which the repertoire on the album has been interpreted by Miss Minnozzi. The dictionary meaning of the word is rather dry. The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, describes it as an adjective: “relating to sensation or the senses.” But when you listen to Miss Minnozzi’s music not only does the grammar become tactile, the very word comes alive all because of the absolutely lyrical way in which Miss Minnozzi wakens the lines of the songs. This speaks to a very special grasp of her art. I said, then of her art:

    “As a vocalist, her technique is sublime; she sings not simply with facility, but with faculties, employing anatomical jurisdictions that only a handful of the top singers [in any style] do; and that includes nasal and chest voices – with potent “diaphragmatic breathing’. Her vocal range is incredibly rare and she is capable of flying into the nether regions of falsetto before swooping down to the basement of contralto. With all of these technical abilities at her command it is also incredible that she knows exactly when to employ a range of these. Along with all of this is her ability to phrase with distinction while employing her emotions to dig into the meaning of each phrase, bringing a special whispering beauty to soft dynamics to the songs…”

    Somehow it seemed appropriate to want to know more about how this came to be so we talked at some length about her music, the music of Sensorial and of her love for Brasil… and for life in general. Here is part of the interview:

    Raul da Gama: What brought you to music; and when did this happen?

    Mafalda Minnozzi: My life’s story could be the subject of a book, actually it will be, but more on that in the future! Music was my best friend as an only child because more so than school, my primary social interaction was working in my parents’ restaurant from the age of 7. Music gave me wings and I noticed that if I sang for the customers, I would get attention. Of course when I started to create my own stage by climbing on top of the tables and asking for tips, I found the attention irresistible! Somehow I had a natural gift and this led to me winning song competitions locally and eventually nationally on my way to a career from Roman night clubs and Italian TV to theaters in Europe before my travels to Brasil.

    RdG: Does Opera inform your music? [Somehow, I sense an attempt to add dramatic elements into your “vocalastics”, which is a word I’ve coined for vocal gymnasts like you. And I also sense that you have “listened” deeply to opera.] You are, of course Italian, which makes you a cultural relation of Verdi and others, to say the least…

    MM: Although I never formally studied it, certainly!  Opera requires a conductor in front of an orchestra who reads the singers breathing as the determining guide for motion in the music. This is something that cannot be easily applied to groove based jazz or popular song with roots in dance. If you are singing a Samba you can only stretch out so far as an interpreter until you are “expelled” from the groove. It was a learning experience and it still is but I believe that I was able to bring some of this dramatic DNA from my Italian roots into my approach to jazz and Brazilian music. Back in 1996 when I was invited to come to Brasil, it was as a representative of Italian song. I was surprised and even thrilled that there was such a love for Italian song there, but I also discovered that only a small portion of the public understood the lyrics. I became a proponent for Italian song there and when I presented the great lyricists like Bardotti, Mogol, Tenco and Fossati, I found myself dramatically emphasizing the meaning of the lyrics for those who couldn’t capture the nuances. On Sensorial you are probably hearing these experiences and “dramatic elements”, as you call them. Of course, through the appreciation of a Miles Davis or João Gilberto, I have also learned to appreciate the drama in silence and minimalism and I consider myself fortunate to be able to express all these elements in the search for my own voice.

    Photograph by Murilo Alvesso

    RdG: What attracted you to the USA? [It’s a hard place to live in for an European; especially an artist]

    MM: Of course the music attracted me and thanks to my association with my guitarist/arranger Paul Ricci, who comes from the jazz and Brasilian music scene in NY, my time spent there on the streets and in the clubs happened naturally. The warm reception I got from both the music community and from the burgeoning creative scene established by the new Italian immigrants, made me feel at home and artistically stimulated by the energy of the city.

    RdG: Tell me why you were seduced by Brasilian music? And when?

    MM: Because it allowed me to see beyond and to be free from the things I least liked about popular song in Italy as I didn’t relate to the “market driven” popular music there. I felt locked into predictable song forms and a perhaps overly dramatic style of arranging that the industry projected on a singer like myself. Undoubtedly, this is why American jazz and why singers like Piaf, Billie Holiday, Sinatra and Caterina Valente were the beacons of my formative years in Italy as I searched for an expressive freedom. When I arrived in Brasil in 1996, I felt like I was set free as I began to play with the rhythms and melodic genius of Brasilian music. There is something that happens beyond listening to the records or going to a conservatory when you are playing with some of Rio de Janeiro’s top musicians or are invited onstage to stand amid the drums of the Mangueira Samba school rehearsal till dawn on a hot night before Carnaval. I knew this was like a trip to heaven. I could start to apply all the colors that my voice was developing and through the bodily expression of the grooves, I could reach for a spiritually deeper place via the sounds and the philosophy of the music. Over the many years there, this led to some great collaborations with legends like Martinho Da Vila, Guinga, Paulo Moura, Milton Nascimento, Leny Andrade, André Mehmari and so many more, with hopefully more to come.

    RdG: What was living in Brasil like?

    MM: It was and still is something I’m very grateful for as I continue to work, live and perform between Italy, NY and Brasil, pandemic permitting. This period of isolation spent in my studio in São Paulo has been very productive even though living in Brasil has its social, economic, political and ecological challenges due to its contradictions. Being that I put my music in the center of my being, my heart beats stronger when I’m in Brasil because music is so entrenched in the DNA of the culture… so it’s all worth it.  I love the energy of the very vibrant culture where the young have a voice with a daring eye toward the future. In Brasil, cultures and styles mix in music and in society more so than the more static musical and cultural concept that I find entrenched in Italy.

    RdG: Who were your teachers? What did you learn from each one?

    MM: Looking back on my more than 30 year career, I never would have become the singer I am today if I didn’t have the luck and discipline to follow the lead of my maestros. First off, Gustavo Palumbo who trained some of Italy’s greatest singers was my first vocal teacher in Rome and he prepared me with the same rigor of the training of an athlete. It was a year and a half of careful and meticulous construction so that I could sustain the force of my voice and control its impact in lessons that I use to this day.

    With Paul Ricci

    Another formative experience was with the professor of dance Marco Ierva at Rome’s IALS school. There I learned how to contain all the explosive energy I felt on stage and the 3 years of studying theater in Italy with Roberto Malafante helped me to project a lyric in song.

    Of course I learn every day from the great legends of voice as well as the newcomers and Paul Ricci has been and continues to be a guide and a professor to me.

    RdG: How much do you think that the [sights and sounds of the] street informs your music? I mean no matter where in the world you live, surely life on the street is essential to breathing life into music?

    MM: Both the “Bossa” from Rio and “Jazz” from America were born in urban settings and by nature are influenced by the streets although each culture has its own sounds and scenes. If I hadn’t lived for over 20 years in Brasil, it would have been impossible to come to the conclusions I did on Sensorial. I absorb all of it. The poetic beauty of “Morro Dois Irmãos” is as much a part of the melody as it is of my contemplation while walking those streets in Leblon for months under that mountain at daybreak. The streets are full of both opportunity and of injustice and artists are motivated by a desire to create a sense of balance to this often chaotic reality. Jazz is a truly advanced art form in the way it can be an expression of humor or drama, of a community or of an individual, but always guided by the need to adapt or improvise and that is also the philosophy of the streets. Those same elements could be found in a song by Cartola or Noël Rosa in Rio so I see these common elements as the human experience. There are things “in the wild” that belong to the music that can only be found through living it. As you concisely put it, life on the street is essential to breathing life into music!!

    RdG: Tell me specifically when you thought of making the album Sensorial? I mean, what did you want to do differently about the music of Bossa Nova and its influence on Jazz [and vice-versa, of course]?

    MM:  I was reaching a sort of plateau through the 3 CD’s I made in duo with Paul. We dove deeply into what we could explore with just guitar and voice and it was at times a kind of a jigsaw puzzle but honestly, it has been a fabulous experience. I believe we both felt like the time came that we would be able to project the language or dialogue we developed onto a group setting. Maybe I waited so long because I was careful in wanting to make an album that wouldn’t be obscured by iconic versions of these great songs. The idea behind Sensorial was to bring an individual approach to the arrangements in hopes of provoking the players and the listeners into reconsidering how these brilliant songs could be interpreted. I wanted to be sure I could put my over 20 years of living and touring throughout Brasil into my own story on these songs. After finally making the decision, the actual act of recording was so organic. While we were performing in NY, Paul got the players together with me and we carved out 2 afternoons for 13 songs, ran through a couple of takes each and recorded it without a hitch as if I was waiting 20 years for it to happen … and I was! 

    All 13 songs were also captured live to video so the sense of risk and spontaneity of the sessions is there for all to savor. It wouldn’t have been possible without the great talents of the players and the perfect setting the studio provided. Our pianist Art Hirahara had toured a couple of times with us in Italy and played Birdland and Mezzrow with us quite a bit before the recording so his contribution was essential in expanding the harmonic language of the arrangements without taking away from the backbone of the duo language. Percussionist Rogerio Boccato also had shared the stage with me and Paul on several occasions. His fluid way of grooving while also listening and adapting to the lyricism of my vocal style was important in the way everything fell together. Paul’s old friends and associates Victor Jones, Will Calhoun and Essiet Okon Essiet heard me and said “Let’s go” and Harvie S, who is a master at vocal accompaniment, generously embraced the project too. To answer your question about what I wanted to do differently, I think I wanted to create a setting where I could explore and express myself in a possibly more explosive way than many Jobim based Bossa productions. After all, the composers gave us these beautiful gifts and I wanted to give something of my own to the songs. The arrangements and choice of musicians, composers and even tempos, all served to this end. After all, Bossa is the love child of an affair between Samba and jazz and I wanted to see how I could give something back to the language, departing from the streets of NY.

    Looking and feeling Sensorial

    RdG: How did you pick the songs? Tell me about each one, if you can.

    MM: I’m very focused on the lyrics before I incorporate a new song. Sensorial is graced with several songs with lyrics by Vinicius De Moraes as well as Chico Buarque, Jobim and Sergio Bardotti. I also think it’s important to choose a nice variety of tempos and moods and languages with tunes here sung in Portuguese, English and Italian with a couple of tunes in the “language” of vocal scat. Between Paul and me, songs seem to come to us. If we can find a way to make it our own through some harmonic or dramatic idea then we proceed to learn from it.

    A Felicidade  We wanted to kick off the album with something that declared a more visceral intention to these songs so I could reach inside and deliver the urgency of these lyrics. That is what that almost strident long high note is about in the heat of the moment. My love of João Bosco’s contribution to Brasilian music is certainly reflected in the guitar groove.

    Vivo Sonhando Drummer Victor Jones is so versatile that Paul had the idea to mix this classic Bossa with a groove that could easily have worked at Motown. Art played such a great solo that set me up in a vocal scat so I could play off of him and those great ears.

    Morro Dois Irmãos Chico Buarque is ubiquitous in Brasil but not so much in jazz so we adapted this poetic tune about a mountain in Rio to flow with a slow simmering Afro-Brasilian pulse. At the end I was so taken by the beauty the band created that I imagined a seagull floating over the mountain. In the video you can see the look of surprise on Victor Jones face as I spontaneously finished with the sound of that bird flying away.

    E Preciso Perdoar [Lonnie’s Lament] A beautiful song by two lesser known composers from Bahia that João Gilberto introduced to the world. The spiritual nature of this lyric and the mantra of the underlying slow African influenced afoxé groove conjured up the spirit of John Coltrane in the imagination of my arranger Paul Ricci. This was a beautiful element of recording with these players in NY. All at once we could interpret Coltrane and João Gilberto in a very organic sense. Essiet’s bass has all the earth-like qualities of Jimmy Garrison so I could improvise coming from a bluesy tonality not usually associated with Brasilian music. For me it’s all one thing …Sensorial!!!

    Desafinado This was so much fun, as the irony of the lyrics suggest! We approached it more like a Samba Jazz tune than a soft Bossa. You can hear the sense of adventure in the band as nobody knew just how we would end it. I was so electrified that I ended up improvising off of the beating of my heart.

    Mocidade This is a rarely performed tune by the great Toninho Horta. I love how the precision placement of the melody in the first part opens up to a lyric soaring in the second part. What more could a singer ask for?

    Samba da Benção Paul and I had already played this arrangement before with Helio Alves but when we showed it to Will Calhoun, his idea to play Nigerian udu drum on it had us in the studio before we knew it! This Baden Powell tune is still so fresh and ready for new ideas and inspirations. The freedom I had to improvise in dialogue with Art could have easily made this a 10 minute song. Irresistible!

    Once I Loved I was so taken by the mood of this song and lyric that I hardly remember singing it but the band really transported me at the end so I broke free to feel so liberated on that long last note. That vocal color really happened from the emotion the band set off in me.

    Triste Here is another example of a tune that generates so much emotion in me that I can’t approach it like João Gilberto or Jobim did. Especially in these times of isolation it’s like an urgent call in me. “Triste viver na solidão (Sad is to live in solitude)!” I don’t know if it’s the Italian drama that you saw in me, but I do know that it is like revisiting a difficult moment when this great lyric takes hold, especially with the provocative harmony that Paul weaved into the song.

    Chega de Saudade This song has always been a celebration and a joy to sing but I learned to appreciate it on a higher level after singing it together with the great Leny Andrade. Here, after a virtuosic bass solo by Harvie S, we set off on a group dialogue that allowed me to do something I love. I always wanted to play percussion and this performance granted the space for me to live out that fantasy with my voice.

    Jogral Another bright moment in Brasil was playing and singing together with composer Filó Machado. This tune written by him and our dear friend José Neto never fails to bring the house down and although it’s a roller coaster ride, the way Rogerio Boccato’s percussion sets the pace makes it feel so easy.

    Un Altro Addio Ever since the 1970’s when the great Ornella Vanoni sang this exhilarating Sergio Bardotti Italian lyric over this song by Toquinho and Vinicius De Moraes, I’ve wanted to add my own sound to this classic. With the help of this great band we brought some NY flavor to the Italian/Brasilian mix!

    Dindi I had already recorded this arrangement in duo with Paul on our eMPathia Cool Romantics CD and in trio with Art Hirahara on our live gigs but it’s such a joy to sing that I couldn’t resist the temptation to hear it fully orchestrated by the band. Another example of the genius of Jobim, you can always come back to this song to discover and learn something new.

    RdG: What are you listening to today? [What’s on your digital device?]

    MM: A lot of Bossa, this is a period where I’m listening to it a lot. I like to also revisit older recordings like for instance ‘Samba – Eu Canto Assim” , the first record by Elis with Dom Salvador and Edison Machado.  Loving my Wes Montgomery and his vocal sense and all of a sudden, I find myself in Norah Jones living room via the internet. To me she is like the “Maga Circe” for Ulysses.

    RdG: What’s next for you [and Paul]?

    MM: I have a trip to Rio planned where the eMPathia duo will record some new ideas and take some deep breaths of the maritime air of Rio, hug Jobim’s favorite tree in the Jardim Botanico and set sail in the Guanabara bay with the idea of recording some new things to video.

    RdG: Please feel free to say anything you would like to about music, poetry, painting, dance…or anything else that you think is important to keep in mind today and tomorrow.

    MM: Since I’m doing this interview during such a complex and unusual time, I want to thank you for the opportunity to open my heart and emphasize that we can make the most of this experience to realign the priorities in our lives. Maybe I’ve used up more words than I should have in this interview but I want to underline that art, music, poetry, painting and culture in general, contains the force to sustain the weight of the world and its people.

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