How do you feel about Jazz? As musical genres go, I have mixed feelings. There is certainly plenty of music that would be described as Jazz that I really like – music from Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Miles Davis come to mind. But then I also have some negative associations with this broad genre, ranging from tedious, throwaway elevator music to the esoteric, bordering on inaccessible, modern jazz that seems like very hard work (more of this at the end).
Well today’s Brazilian musician and composer definitely falls into the Jazz category that I like! Moacir Santos was born in a small town in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco in 1924. Moacir’s father didn’t stick around for long and his mother died when he was just 2. Effectively orphaned, Santos was taken in and put through school by a local family, but at the age of 14 he ran away from home.
At this young age, Moacir could already play saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, drums, banjo, guitar and mandolin. He travelled around the northeastern states looking for work as a musician. He settled for a while in Recife and found studio work, gradually building a reputation for his swing-style saxophone playing.
In 1965, Santos recorded the album he is best known for, Coisas. Coisas means ‘things’, and each of the 10 tracks on the album is named with a number: “Coisa nº 1″ , “Coisa nº 2″, etc. I don’t know if it was just a quirk of the production process or more intentional, but it seems very ‘jazz’ that the track order on the album goes like this:
Coisa nº 4
Coisa nº 10
Coisa nº 5
Coisa nº 3
Coisa nº 2
Coisa nº 9
Coisa nº 6
Coisa nº 7
Coisa nº 1
Coisa nº 8
I wasn’t really concentrating during my first listen to the album – the first 2 tracks slipped by agreeably enough, but then came Coisa nº 5. I immediately stopped what I was doing and took notice. Have a listen:
[Looks like the record company have taken down this track from YouTube, so I'm experimenting with this embedded GrooveShark link - there seem to be some display issues, but hopefully you can hear the music!]
For me this is the stand-out track, but the whole album is really lovely – full of all kinds of interesting rhythms and melodies. Coisa nº 5 was later given lyrics and retitled Nanã. It was a huge success and recorded by more than 100 artists, including Sergio Mendes. Personally I prefer the original, but this is also pretty catchy – you can hear it here.
The New York Times described the album thus: “It mixes marches, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, strong melodies, jazz syncopation and bracing harmony of an Ellington-like concision; it gestures at different kinds of Brazilian regional music but is overall a highly original work.”
Sadly it seems that Moacir didn’t receive much recognition for his work until much later in life. In 1967, Santos moved to the US where he worked on new albums and also Hollywood soundtracks (apparently he was only credited for one of the many films he worked on).
It wasn’t until 2004, almost 40 years after its original release, that Coisas was re-issued in Brazil. Moacir died in 2006 after a stroke. In 2007, the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone magazine placed Coisas at number 23 in the list of Greatest Brazilian Albums of all time.
Another really interesting piece of work from a Brazilian artist that perhaps doesn’t fit many people’s stereotypical view of ‘Brazilian music’.
If you’re really not into jazz then perhaps you’ll enjoy this little comedy skit from my youth…