If ever a record could be likened to a comet streaking across the musical stratosphere and a long time coming at that, this one by Mark Levine, Off & On: The Music of Moacir Santos (Left Coast Clave Records 2009) would be just that. Moreover, in personifying this album, as are comets that streak past, this one would be Kohutek because it is a rare gem of a record. There are several reasons for this.
Primarily this is one of the few occasions in recent times that Moacir Santos, the rarer of two modern Brasilian masters’ music is being honored. Think Brasilian music in North America and the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim comes to mind first. Few if any artists and aficionados of the music will even recall the name of Santos. Not that he is obscure by any stretch of imagination. In fact, Moacir was a teacher and mentor to such luminaries as the guitarists, Baden Powell, Oscar Castro Neves, Joao Donato and Dori Caymmi.
Santos was born in Pernambuco, in arguably one of the culturally richest parts of (northeastern) Brasil. He began performing at three years of age and like few before him, completely inbibes the primeveal Afroethnic culture of the region. In a short period, his music acquired a singular sophistication about it, while retaining the visceral northeastern quality—in its rhythms and especially in its melodies.
Moacir Santos’ approach was melodic – in the top of the melody and its bottom—the bass lines he wrote for the lower melody. This lent an exquisite aire to his melodicism—one where the heavy surdo and pedal point was softened into unheard of melodic lines while still retaining the underbely of the bass structure. No one-not even Jobim, for all his lyricism had done this before. There is something more about Santos. The sounds he heard came from deep African canticles—also shared by Haiti and Cuba (via Haiti). Therefore, this record by Mark Levine becomes not just an offering of love and respect, but also an authentic document to Moacir Santos’ music.
The repertoire on this record is mixed. There are familiar tracks such as the superbly affectionate and primal maracatu “April Child.” Several other classic Santos creations include “Suk-Cha” and “Nana.” Others, such as “Early Morning Love” and “Kathy” may be lesser known. Everywhere the arrangements are invention and deep feelings. Santos’ angular approach to rhythm and his jazzy approach to instrumentation sends the music soaring high.
This is a highly courageous attempt at creativity by Mark Levine. To bring a musician’s work out into the open—and that too one from relative obscurity is commendable. Mary Fettig occupies Santos’ reeds chair and she does a star turn. She is superb on soprano and the fluttering beauty of the flute—especially contrasted with the contrapuntal, bellowing on the bass clarinet on “Suk-Cha” is memorable. Michael Spiro is ever so elegant—again. John Wiitala on bass and drummer Paul van Wageningen complete what is truly a magnificent group.
Tracks: Nana; Early Morning Love; Off and On; April Child (aka Maracatu); Suk-Cha; Kathy; Jeguie; Tomorrow is Mine; Haply Happy; What’s My Name (Aka Odudua *which is Toruba for “Oldest Living Ancestor”); Luonne (Aka Sou Eu); A Saudade Mata A Gente.
Personnel: Mark Levine: piano; Mary Fettig: flute, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Michael Spiro; percussion; Paul van Wageningen: drums; John Wiitala: bass.