:: These reviews were originally published
:: in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


Journeys to the popular front

Flávio Chamis shows his lighter side in Especiaria.

Daniella Thompson

13 February 2007

Courtesy of Flávio Chamis

What is the difference between a Lied and a pop song? The boundaries are not always as clear-cut as one would expect, and in that no man’s land between the erudite and the popular, beautiful flowers grow.

Flávio Chamis cultivates this plot of land with fruitful results. Having begun his career in the classical music realm, Chamis has been Music Director of the Villa Lobos Ensemble in Vienna, Leonard Bernstein’s conducting assistant all over the world, and Music Director of the Porto Alegre Symphony Orchestra.

On the composing front, Chamis has created solo, chamber, and symphonic pieces, as well as jazz and popular Brazilian music, writing his own lyrics for the latter.

Flávio Chamis and Leonard Bernstein (courtesy of Flávio Chamis)

Chamis’ first popular album, Especiaria (Spices), was recorded in 2003 at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, his home town since 1994 (his wife, Tatjana Mead Chamis, is associate principal violist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra). The CD was released at the end of last year by Biscoito Fino.

One would expect a sophisticated album from a classical musician, and Especiaria doesn’t disappoint. The twelve tracks—six vocals and six instrumentals—were arranged by the composer and produced by jazz trombonist/percussionist/arranger Jay Ashby, who has a close affinity for Brazilian music.

Like good spices, the musicians participating in Especiaria hail from all corners of the globe. The principal vocalist is Joyce; the drummer, her husband Tutti Moreno. The third Brazilian heard here is trumpeter Claudio Roditi. Two Israelis, pianist Alon Yavnai and clarinetist/saxophonist Anat Cohen, join Cuban-born violinist Andrés Cárdenes (concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony), German-born harmonica player Hendrik Meurkens, and three Americans from Pittsburgh: Jay Ashby on trombone, Marty Ashby on guitar, and Dwayne Dolphin on bass.

On the face of it an entertaining jazz album, practically every track here carries a hidden meaning, a hidden structure, a pun, a private joke or reference. But not to worry, the composer doesn’t leave you in the dark; his liner notes explain the essential points.

To begin and close the play[ing] in proper fashion, we are presented with a prelude and a postlude of the theme “Estrela.” The prelude, a leisurely excursion of voice, piano, and violin, sets out on a journey of discovery, navigating by the composer’s inner star:

A estrela solitária
Estrela passageira
Estrela que sou eu apenas

Navigation and exploration are a constant theme that takes on different aspects. “Samba Pra Quem Sabe,” a bouncy jazz instrumental in samba rhythm, possesses an unexpected symmetrical form, passing through five keys: C, Eb, Gb, A, and C. At one point, the piano, playfully off-key, quotes the line Se você disser que eu desafino, amor from “Desafinado” (Jobim/Mendonça).

The title track “Especiaria” was written five days before the recording to supply Joyce (and the album) with a lighthearted song. The lyrics allege that the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, bored with his bacalhau, set off in his ship to find spices and thus discovered Brazil.

“E Dai?,” for piano trio, demonstrates that even when the rules of compositions are broken on purpose, the results are highly listenable. Among the hidden references here is a tip of the hat to Tom Jobim’s “Brigas Nunca Mais.”

“O Intrínseco da Vida,” for voice and piano, ruminates on the journey of life in brief, three-line stanzas:

É navegar

“Soroco’s Song,” for piano and rhythm, was inspired by João Guimaraes Rosa’s short story “Sorôco, Sua Mãe, Sua Filha,” whose narrative revolves around a journey and a song.

“Two Note Samba” speaks (or sings) for itself. A tribute to Tom Jobim and based on his “One Note Samba,” the song puns both lyrically and musically: Me desculpe o tom, que é bom [...] Minha alma canta assim sem direção [...] Do, si, do, si, doce exato assim como nós dois. It all ends with a hearty gargalhada from Joyce.

Hendrik Meurkens’ harmonica takes center stage in “Tristan Blues,” which is based on the Tristan chord. If you’re not a Wagner fan, take heart—this is a yearning blues, not an opera. As Chamis points out, the Tristan chord is almost a personification of the blues scale.

“Modinha Fora do Tempo” is another pun. Not only was this modinha written more than a century after the genre’s heyday, it’s composed in an atypically asymmetrical 5/4 compass. The theme of voyage returns in the final lines:

Caminhei mil léguas
Por caminhos meus
Só pra te dizer
Que eu apaixonada
Não me esqueço de você

Chamis characterizes the jaunty instrumental “Qual o Que” as a samba-bossa-pop whose fast harmonies reflect his life as a Brazilian in the USA. Piano and clarinet enter into the urban spirit of things with gusto.

The final vocal is “Deuses do Ceu,” a contemplative song focusing on the inward journey:

Deuses, que assim como eu
Riem, choram e rezam e crêem
Crêem que eu ainda serei
Tudo aquilo a que vim

“Estrela” returns as an instrumental postlude, in which the voice is that of Claudio Roditi’s muted trumpet.

The journey continues.

Listen to Flávio Chamis presenting Especiaria on the KRCT FM program Cantinho Brasileiro (128 and 48 kbps).

Flávio Chamis: Especiaria
(Biscoito Fino BF 668; 2006) 51:42 min.

All compositions by Flávio Chamis

01. Prelúdio: Estrela
02. Samba Pra Quem Sabe
03. Especiaria
04. E Daí?
05. O Intrínseco da Vida
06. Soroco’s Song
07. Two Note Samba
08. Tristan Blues
09. Modinha Fora do Tempo
10. Qual o Quê?
11. Deuses do Céu
12. Póslúdio: Estrela


Copyright © 2007–2008 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.