Three decades of brazilian instrumental music
In the future, when a researcher takes on the essential task of writing about the history of Brazilian instrumental music, a chapter will certainly be devoted to the group Pau Brasil. There’s nothing more fair. Much like earlier exponents of the genre such as Tamba Trio and Zimbo Trio, or bands led by great composers and improvisers such as Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, fortunately, still in activity, Pau Brasil became a reference for many generations of music enthusiasts and musicians.
This box set collects the group’s recordings made over the last thirty years. Looking back to its legacy, it is easy to see that the music of Pau Brasil reflects, full of personality, the aesthetic concerns and the structural changes of the modern instrumental music produced in Brazil – a genre which some prefer to call Brazilian jazz. Featuring different lineups, Pau Brasil embodied the search for a modern music essentially Brazilian in character, which uses improvisation without resorting to the clichés or standards of American jazz. To achieve this, its musicians searched for new musical forms, creating a unique and original repertoire.
The importance of this São Paulo-based musical group was immediately recognized by both music critics and audiences. Its debut album, Pau Brasil (1983), won positive reviews from major Brazilian press outlets, as did its later recordings. Soon that success reached Europe, where the group made extensive annual tours through major festivals and jazz clubs, in addition to concerts in the United States and Japan, exporting what is best in Brazilian instrumental music. Today, with an even broader and more diverse musical experience, Pau Brasil continues to be active and creative with the same good humor that colors its entire work.
At the end of the 1970s, the São Paulo music circuit was much smaller when compared to the large number of cultural institutions, theaters, nightclubs, and bars which today maintain a regular schedule of concerts and musical performances in the largest metropolis in Latin America. Yet even though the number of venues was limited in those days, the city experienced a time when instrumental music was at its most effervescent.
“We were living in a period of transition, still struggling to get rid of military dictatorship”, Marlui Miranda recalls. It was during that time that she blossomed as a singer, composer, and performer, but it was only in the 1990s that she joined Pau Brasil. “When the military government ended, many artistic expressions emerged as a great force. People were able to think more freely. So, all the creative thinking in Brazilian music began to spread.”
Venues featuring instrumental music and jazz concerts at that time in São Paulo were generally alternative and able to keep ticket prices accessible to the public, made up mostly of university students. The circuit included the Guiomar Novaes Hall at Funarte (National Foundation for the Arts), the Auditorium at MASP (the São Paulo Museum of Art), and surely the most underground among all, the Lira Paulistana Theater, which stage was set up in the basement of a store in the Pinheiros neighborhood. Early in the 1980s, two other newly opened and better-equipped spaces came to expand the city’s circuit: the São Paulo Cultural Center and the Pompéia neighborhood unit of the Social Service for Trade (SESC).
“At that time, there was a very cultured student stratum from the University of São Paulo and Pontifical Catholic University who used to go and listen to all that music,” recalls saxophonist Teco Cardoso, who before joining Pau Brasil in 1988 had long been part of that music scene, playing with well-known instrumental music groups such as Pé Ante Pé, Zonazul, and Grupo Um. “Those audiences were in tune with experimentation, they listened to composers such as Cage, Stockhausen. I myself worked with pianist Felix Wagner playing radical music in different formations at MASP,” he remembers.
1978 is considered a landmark year for musicians and fans of jazz and Brazilian instrumental music. The organization of the first São Paulo International Jazz Festival in partnership with the Swiss Montreux Jazz Festival, held at the Anhembi Convention Center, proved that Brazil had the potential to host a large event of the kind. The festival sparked the creation of a new and growing audience who developed a taste for those genres of music.
“The festival proved, mainly to the Brazilian audience most unfamiliar with that style of music, that jazz became a symbol of quality in music, regardless of rhythms, harmonies, and improvisations, or whatever they may be,” pointed out an article by Décio Bar, Regina Echeverria, and Tárik de Souza in the magazine Veja (edition of September 20, 1978).
This pioneer festival highlighted the country’s rising instrumental music scene at the time. Playing on the main stage, alongside jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, George Duke, Larry Coryell, Philip Catherine, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin, there were Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal, Victor Assis Brasil, Paulo Moura, Luiz Eça, group Azymuth, Raul de Souza, Wagner Tiso, and Márcio Montarroyos.
The group Pau Brasil did not exist yet, but some of its founding members already played together, having performed at the first Jazz Festival in different ensembles and bands. Pianist Nelson Ayres accompanied veteran saxophonist Benny Carter on opening night. And, in a series of parallel concerts featuring Brazilian artists, bassist Rodolfo Stroeter and drummer Azael Rodrigues played with Pavilhão A, a short-lived group that showcased the electric guitar of the legendary Lanny Gordin.
“With Brazil’s political opening, we were on the way to get released from dictatorship, a period that many call the ‘years of lead’. Again, there was a need for expression. Many thought the festival would never happen. But it did and was a success as well,” Rodrigues recalls. Later, he also made an appearance at the 1980 Jazz Festival with group Divina Increnca alongside Stroeter and Roberto Sion as a guest saxophonist.
Nelson Ayres was already an admired pianist in the São Paulo jazz scene in 1969 when he moved to the US to complete his musical training. At age 22 he entered the Berklee School of Music in Boston to study composition and arranging. “I was the first Brazilian student at Berklee, not counting Victor (Assis Brasil), who never went to class,” he remembers, referring to his saxophonist friend.
After returning home at the end of 1972, Ayres organized an arranging course at the Pro Arte school to share the knowledge he acquired in Boston. The students’ enthusiasm was such that they quickly started the Nelson Ayres Big Band, composed of some of the best players in São Paulo at the time, such as Bolão, Lambari, Buda, Edson Alves, Roberto Sion, and Hector Costita.
A precursor to the best big bands in São Paulo today, such as Banda Mantiqueira or Soundscape Big Band Jazz, the Nelson Ayres band remained active for some eight years, regularly appearing at the Opus 2004 club on Mondays. However, as everyone knows, it’s difficult to maintain a big band anywhere in the world.
“If you have an 18-piece big band, you face 18 problems”, the former leader remarks. “You have to write the arrangements, make the copies, take the scores, and set up the stands. As we also worked on many recording sessions at that time, it was rare to see the band play with the original lineup and without at least one guest performer sitting in. After a few years, I got tired and decided to stop.”
Ayres’ frustration with the band did not affect his desire to play. So he formed a trio in 1978. “Rather than playing with seasoned performers, I started playing with younger guys at an early stage in their careers, who had a lot of grit and time to rehearse and bring new ideas. Then I met Rodolfo and Azael.”
With only 19 and 22 years old at the time, the bassist and drummer had already showcased their rising talent in the São Paulo music scene. Alongside pianist Felix Wagner, they had created the vanguard trio Divina Increnca. Also Stroeter was a student of the renowned bassist Zeca Assumpção, who played in the Nelson Ayres big band. Rodrigues studied music at the University of São Paulo, where he met the musicians of the irreverent group Premeditando o Breque, with whom he also played.
Ayres’ newly-formed trio started making regular appearances at the Lei Seca bar in the Santo Amaro neighborhood. “The bar was modern, the first in São Paulo to adopt a consumption card and have young waiters,” recalls saxophonist Roberto Sion, who shortly afterwards was invited to join the trio. Being from the same generation as Ayres, both were friends since the 1960s when they began playing together. “There was an exchange within the group. We brought experience while Rodolfo and Azael brought energy. We made young music at that bar”, Sion remarks.
The Nelson Ayres Quartet performed at the Lei Seca every Thursday for nearly two years. During that time, the group rehearsed frequently at Ayres’ house on the banks of the Guarapiranga reservoir. The quartet’s repertoire reflected the leader’s experience in the US: jazz standards like Angel Eyes (by Matt Dennis) and Forest Flower (Charles Lloyd), or a jazz version of the classic pop Isn’t She Lovely (Stevie Wonder). Later on, Argentinean saxophonist Hector Costita started sitting in with the musicians and soon was also invited to join the group
The quintet started developing a repertoire of its own, in addition to growing closer to the rhythmic diversity of Brazilian music. It began playing compositions by Ayres, Sion, and Costita that were recorded on their individual albums released on Som da Gente label in 1981. Also the repertoire included an arrangement by Ayres of Ary Barroso’s classic samba Na Baixa do Sapateiro, which soon became one of the most popular tunes played in its performances.
“The quest for a Brazilian identity and an original repertoire was a common ideal at the time,” Rodolfo Stroeter remarks. He came up with the idea of calling the group Pau Brasil, a term with a double meaning: it is the name of a rare tree (Brazilwood) found in Brazil, whose wood was a valuable economic resource during the colonial period; and it is also the title of the Oswald de Andrade’s modernist manifesto (Manifesto da Poesia Pau-Brasil) published in 1924. “I always read a lot. In those days I was even divided between making music and studying literature. I loved Oswald’s and Mário de Andrade’s books. I believed we could borrow the ideals of the Brazilian modernist movement and bring them into the instrumental music.”
The term “Brazil” in the group’s name could also serve as a marketing tool. All its five members agreed that Pau Brasil had the potential to build a career abroad, following the example of Hermeto Pascoal or Egberto Gismonti. Just as Ayres, Sion, and Costita had already made several performances in the US, as the most experienced in the group, so Stroeter went on his first tour through Europe in February 1981 playing with the Symmetric Ensemble, also composed of pianists Lelo Nazario and Felix Wagner.
“Pau Brasil was also an interesting name because we intended to export Brazilian music”, Stroeter says. “The only problem was that in some places in Europe it was heard as ‘Paul Brasil’ as if it was the name of a person. Then they would ask us: ‘Which of you is Paul?’”, the bassist tells, laughing.
Paulo Bellinati was already a fan of Nelson Ayres and Roberto Sion when he went to Switzerland to study classical guitar at the Geneva Conservatory of Music. “I arrived there in 1975 at age 24, thinking to become a classical musician, but such a pretension lasted only for a few months,” he remembers. “I soon learned that the music of Brazil was my business. So I bought an electric guitar and went out playing.”
Two years later, Bellinati’s instrumental group was already well known in Switzerland with its repertoire of Brazilian music, most of it made up of original works. The experience he gathered over almost a decade by playing at dances throughout Brazil, especially in Northern and Northeastern capitals, allowed him to deeply know a variety of popular rhythms and folkloric expressions such as maracatu, frevo, or bumba-meu-boi.
“At that time, I was already studying Brazilian music without realizing it. Only in Europe did I find that I already knew much of that musical genres”, Bellinati says. In a certain way, he had began creating abroad something his future Pau Brasil fellows would also search for years later: an original body of Brazilian instrumental music. Yet despite the success his group found in Switzerland, Bellinati began to feel that something was missing in his music. “A maracatu has to be played just right. Just as Brazilians forget how to speak Portuguese properly when they live in Europe for a long time, the music can also acquire a foreign accent.”
Shortly after returning permanently to São Paulo at the beginning of 1981, Bellinati went to a Pau Brasil concert at the Guiomar Novaes Hall. Aside from hearing its music for the first time, he could finally meet Rodolfo Stroeter in person. They had just missed each other weeks before: even though the guitarist had made arrangements for Symmetric Ensemble to play in Switzerland, he had already returned to Brazil by the time the trio’s European concert tour began.
Not long after that, the members of Pau Brasil returned the visit, going to the Penicilina bar to hear Bellinati, who was playing electric guitar with bassist Nico Assumpção’s group. There is no need to say how much they enjoyed the music: once, when saxophonist Hector Costita couldn’t play a gig, Bellinati was called to replace him. And when the Argentinean announced that he would leave Pau Brasil to lead the 150 Night Club Big Band at the Maksoud Plaza Hotel, he was invited to join the group full-time.
“By the time I returned home my guitar playing was on point and still deeply influenced by jazz. But over time me and Rodolfo were bringing the group closer to Brazil. As a side note, one of the first birthday gifts Rodolfo gave me was the book Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade,” the guitarist remembers. Bellinati much contributed with his compositions and instruments to build the Brazilian musical identity which Pau Brasil had been searching for.
Rodolfo Stroeter’s memory isn’t precise when he recalls the early days of Pau Brasil. Something very understandable, since for almost two years in the early 1980s he was also the bassist for two other inventive instrumental groups in São Paulo: Divina Increnca and Grupo Um. He even played with all three on the same night at the Thomas Jefferson House in Brasília.
“Those groups made a different kind of music from each other and had different attitudes as well. Pau Brasil always had a more direct communication with the public. The connection between the musicians flowed easily from the stage to the audience,” Stroeter remarks, adding that he and his fellow Pau Brasil members shared the same musical goal despite their different backgrounds.
“We knew the path we wanted to follow: creating a music that expressed the Brazilian musical language and personality, to which each of group members contributed with his own creative inputs. That has always been a mark of Pau Brasil, regardless of who was the music’s composer. It had to do with its anthropophagic attitude: all contributions were mixed together. A few compositions came to the group already fully developed,” the bassist remarks.
In this phase Pau Brasil used to play at the alternative stage Lira Paulistana to a loyal audience. Having opened its doors in 1979, the theater was set up in the basement of an old furniture store at Teodoro Sampaio Street in the Pinheiros neighborhood with only 200 uncomfortable wooden bleacher seats. But the informality of the place, its accessible ticket prices, and a schedule attuned to the latest trends in music allowed Lira Paulistana to serve as a gathering center for a generation of daring, innovative musicians.
This generation was labeled by the press as the Paulista Vanguard, whose representatives also included song-based groups such as Rumo, Premeditando o Breque, Língua de Trapo, and Sossega Leão, composers like Itamar Assumpção and Arrigo Barnabé (whose band Sabor de Veneno did not play at the Lira Paulistana Theater because the stage was too small to accommodate all its members), as well as singers like Eliete Negreiros, Tetê Espíndola, Neuza Pinheiro, Vania Bastos, Suzana Salles, Virginia Rosa, and Ná Ozzetti.
Although those names remain the most remembered, whoever had the luck of frequenting the Lira Paulistana (as well as the Guiomar Novaes Hall, the Auditorium at MASP, or the São Paulo Cultural Center) knows that practically the same audiences that were interested in those artists also attended the concerts of a new generation of instrumental-based groups appearing on the São Paulo music scene. Besides Pau Brasil, they included D’Alma, Pé Ante Pé, Freelarmônica, Banda Metalurgia, Acaru, Alquimia, Papavento, Syncro Jazz, and the already mentioned Grupo Um and Divina Increnca.
For that reason, when Lira Paulistana’s founder and producer Wilson Souto Jr. (best known as Gordo) began producing outdoor events for larger audiences, or concerts in coast cities of São Paulo State, Pau Brasil was included in the lineup. It was the case of Música Instrumental na Praça, an event held in March 1982 that brought together nearly two thousand people in the Benedito Calixto Square (in front of the Lira Paulistana) to hear Pau Brasil, D’Alma, Pé Ante Pé, and Acaru. And when Gordo decided to found the Lira Paulistana label to record and promote the music of that generation of artists in an independent way, Pau Brasil was also invited to record its first album.
It was much more difficult and expensive to record an album in the 1980s without all the modern technology which is found today. So much that before entering a studio to give birth to its debut album, Pau Brasil had already made a successful tour in Europe. The group was first invited by the jazz aficionado André Francis, the then Radio France producer and Paris Jazz Festival director, who had met Nelson Ayres at the start of 1982 during the Midem international music industry trade fair in Cannes, where the pianist was representing the independent record label Som da Gente, which released his second solo album Mantiqueira.
Besides appearing at the well-regarded French festival alongside the Brazilian groups Medusa and D’Alma, Pau Brasil also played in jazz clubs in Paris and Toulouse, as well as at the headquarters of the Association for Musical Research in Geneva, Switzerland. “A music which digested the influence of jazz without losing its identity,” Philippe Lesage praised in the Parisian daily Le Matin in his review of the group’s concert at the Paris Jazz Festival in October 1982. Always good-humored, Nelson Ayres still remembers the sensation of seeing the Brazilian group being applauded in Paris alongside respected names in the international jazz scene. “That night, it was clear our time had come: if we were there, Pau Brasil must be cool.”
Months later on March 11, 1983, São Paulo’s major newspapers announced the group’s schedule of performances at the São Paulo Cultural Center to offer a preview of its debut album recently recorded on the Lira Paulistana label. Except for the arrangement of Na Baixa do Sapateiro (Ary Barroso), already known to fans of the group, all the compositions were Pau Brasil’s originals, such as Azas dos Ayres (by Azael and Ayres), Jongo (Bellinati), and Europa (Sion).
“At an impressive pace and with a lot of grit and competence, Nelson Ayres, Sion, Bellinati, Rodolfo, and Azael have been making the so-called instrumental music digestible for a wider audience. This statement is not pejorative, but the opposite,” the music critic João Marcos Coelho praised in the Folha de S. Paulo soon after the album’s release in May of that year. “They are far distant from the impersonal and repetitive jazz most Brazilian instrumental groups play these days. The group is not limited to conventional improvisation, but shows marked enthusiasm for searching for new frontiers in jazz,” Okky de Souza wrote in the magazine Veja.
Com ótima repercussão na imprensa nacional, o lançamento do primeiro disco permitiu que o Pau Brasil excursionasse por diversas cidades do Sul e do Sudeste do país, ao longo de 1983, ampliando seu público. E em fevereiro de 1984, o grupo iniciou sua segunda turnê europeia, realizando 20 apresentações na França, na Suíça, na Áustria e na Alemanha. A relação com o músico e empresário alemão Thomas Stöwsand, que por meio da agência Saudades Tourneen já organizava as turnês de Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal e de conceituados músicos do jazz, foi essencial para que a carreira do Pau Brasil pudesse crescer no continente europeu.
Já no início de 1984, em sua primeira viagem ao Japão, o grupo fez seis apresentações em Tóquio. Logo em seguida, ainda em fevereiro, realizou a terceira turnê europeia, ampliando o número de países, com shows na Dinamarca, na Suécia e na Bélgica, além de retornar à França, à Áustria, à Suíça e à Alemanha. Tudo isso, lembre-se, ainda com apenas um disco gravado.
In the first part of 1985, when the group members were planning a second album Pau Brasil faced its first crisis: musical differences saw the departure of Azael Rodrigues. “I left the group due to aesthetic reasons. I searched for a planetary music, while the others wanted to explore our musical roots. But it was a great experience. I learned how important it is to have solid convictions, and I grew as a musician and as a human being,” the drummer observes. He was replaced by Bob Wyatt, an American drummer living in São Paulo.
Rodolfo Stroeter was well aware of the expectations surrounding a new Pau Brasil’s album and believed that the group needed to better define its musical path. “Recording a second album is a really hard task for any artist. You can do anything on the first album, but on the second you define yourself,” he explains. He decided to formulate a project, so he asked Nelson Ayres for the keys to his house in Visconde de Mauá on the Mantiqueira Mountains, where he went with several books and a reedition of the modernist journal Revista de Antropofagia.
“I stayed in Mauá for a couple of days. And then I had the idea of making an album that told in an anarchic way the development of the Brazilian music. I wrote the project and, upon returning home, presented it to the group,” Stroeter remembers. At that time, the quintet rehearsed frequently in a rented room on the second floor of a bakery on the corner of Inácio Pereira da Rocha Street and Mourato Coelho Street in Pinheiros.
The initial reaction of the group was one of surprise, but Stroeter got to convince his Pau Brasil fellows to try to meet that challenge. “We wanted to swallow jazz and regurgitate a Brazilian musicality. I mean, receiving musical influences and transforming them in an attempt to give the music our identity,” saxophonist Roberto Sion explains.
Besides, Pau Brasil members also sought out consciously a closer connection with the public, an aspect that made it different from other Brazilian groups of the genre. “I was always concerned about making a music that was close to our audience, that was not hermetic,” Nelson Ayres says.
Pau Brasil’s relative success on the European jazz circuit came quicker than expected, but the investment in the group’s career was not limited to opening new markets abroad. In between international tours, there was also a constant effort to make more concerts in Brazil.
Such an effort to take the group’s music to an increasing number of people also included some performances in places not used to seeing instrumental music or jazz, like an acoustic amphitheater’s opening concert at Santuário de Nazaré Square in Belém do Pará in 1984, or even nightclub gigs at Latitude 3001 or Rádio Clube, two venues in São Paulo that no longer exist.
Pau Brasil has been described by the press as one of the best Brazilian instrumental music and jazz groups on the scene. In a time when festivals were relatively rare in the country, this fact helped the group to take part in events such as the first Free Jazz Festival held in São Paulo in August 1985.
“However, not everything in the Free Jazz Festival caused frustration,” João Marcos Coelho wrote in his review published in the magazine Visão. “The example of Pau Brasil—which well-structured performance correctly favored the virtuosity and creativity of its best member, the guitarist Paulo Bellinati—could well be followed by the other Brazilians present.”
In July 1986, the group appeared at the Campos do Jordão Winter Festival, one of the most respected classical music event in Brazil. Alongside the 106 musicians from the Campinas Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Benito Juarez, Pau Brasil played Pindorama, a kind of suite that brought together compositions from the group’s homonymous album, such as Jongo (by Paulo Bellinati), Só por Amor (by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes, arranged by Roberto Sion), and Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 (by Villa-Lobos, arranged by Nelson Ayres).
At that point, it began to grow clear that Pau Brasil’s music did not easily fit under the label of jazz as it did before.
Pau Brasil already existed for nearly five years when its first album was released, but the intervals between later records—including the conceptual Pindorama (1986) and its derivative Cenas Brasileiras (1987)—became shorter. Based on the diversity of rhythms and styles of Brazilian popular music, such as modinha, lundu, maxixe, samba, choro, baião, or rancheira, those albums are the result of the same aesthetic project.
In between the two albums Bob Wyatt was replaced by the “gaucho” Nenê, who brought a musical background and an intimate knowledge of the Brazilian rhythms that Pau Brasil’s former drummers did not have. For a group that searched for a strong Brazilian identity, having the Egberto Gismonti’s and Hermeto Pascoal’s former drummer was undoubtedly a step forward.
“The arrival of Nenê was triumphant. He brought his compositions and contributed to ‘Brazilianize’ the group’s music even more,” Paulo Bellinati remarks, also pointing out how the drummer’s style raised the intensity of Pau Brasil’s performance to a new level. “Nenê contributed to redefine the group, including its potential to grow on the European scene,” Rodolfo Stroeter adds, remembering that Nenê was already an admired musician in Europe at that time after living a few years in France.
Soon after the release concerts for the album Pindorama in May 1986, Pau Brasil embarked on a new and extensive tour in Europe: forty days through seven countries, including the group’s premiere in Italy. However, a year later, not even the fact that the album Cenas Brasileiras had just been released and praised by Brazilian music critics prevented the group from facing another crisis.
Roberto Sion, who had been complaining about the difficulty to conciliate the group tours with other professional activities, announced his departure from Pau Brasil soon after the recordings. “It was a personal choice. It was another moment in my career when I wanted to do other things. I believed I had already made a contribution to the group,” the saxophonist and composer explains.
His position then was filled by Teco Cardoso on wind instruments, since he had already replaced Sion in some gigs. “Joining Pau Brasil represented a great move forward for me. In those days it was like playing in Egberto Gismonti’s band,” Cardoso says. He entered the quintet in time for Cenas Brasileiras release concerts at SESC Fábrica Pompeia in São Paulo.
Nelson Ayres, who during the 1986 European tour had said to Rodolfo he was considering to leave the group, also made his decision known soon after Sion’s departure. “At that time I was playing with César Camargo Mariano and doing a lot of advertising music. Also, my daughters were still small,” the pianist explains. “It was no longer possible to pursue the group’s goal of opening new markets outside Brazil. Besides the relationship between group members had deteriorated after all that time playing together. I decided to leave and let it go.”
After the departures of Roberto Sion and Nelson Ayres Pau Brasil almost broke up to the point that the group did not even tour Europe in 1987. And to complicate the situation further, drummer Nenê had decided to return to France after spending a time in Brazil. Even so, the group’s survival instinct prevailed.
“Rodolfo suggested that we began composing together. Our idea was to create a new repertoire to mark a new phase of the group. So we decided to invite Lelo in. And so began the reinvention of Pau Brasil,” guitarist Paulo Bellinati remarks.
Lelo Nazario was, in a certain way, a natural choice. Shortly before he had asked Bellinati, Stroeter, Teco Cardoso, and Nenê to play on his album Se… released in 1987. “The recordings were excellent,” the composer and keyboardist recalls. Furthermore, Stroeter and Cardoso had also played with Grupo Um, the vanguard group led by Nazario.
“As Nelson had decided to leave Pau Brasil, Rodolfo called me. The idea was to create a different sound for the group, which music was always mainstream. Rodolfo saw the chance of pushing Pau Brasil towards avant-garde music.”
On the other hand, an invitation to release its first CD on the GHA, a newly founded record company in Belgium, also led to the reactivation of the group. The initiative came from the company’s co-owner Odair Assad, Brazilian guitarist in the acclaimed Duo Assad who lived in Brussels
“Rodolfo thought it would be cool to use elements of electroacoustic music, which was what I made by merging together synthesizers and indigenous sounds. The result was quite different, with beautiful timbres,” Nazario recalls. He observes that during his European tours with the group, playing at festivals and large concert halls, Pau Brasil received an extremely positive response from the audience.
Stroeter also observes that the group’s new lineup worked very well. “Nenê has a freer way of playing that matches Lelo’s style, and Teco understands this language very well. So the group achieved a new organic form, a new unity,” the bassist says, pointing out that the demand for Pau Brasil concerts in Europe was also essential for the group’s survival. “I worked hard for this, seeking the international release of our albums, while Thomas Stöwsand produced our concert tours. We even performed thirty-five concerts in a tour.”
The 1988 European tour, which included concerts in England and Belgium in addition to the countries where the group had been regularly performing, enabled the new lineup—with Teco Cardoso and Lelo Nazario—to hone its sound. This tour also served to try out the music composed for the fourth album, which was not released in Brazil although it had been recorded and mixed in São Paulo at the beginning of 1989.
“When we invited Lelo, it was already clear to us that the group would leave definitively the jazz world. With him on the keys, the improvisations would take a more contemporary approach, would explore different textures,” Bellinati says. In an interview with the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo in February 1989, during the mixing of the album Lá Vem a Tribo, Rodolfo summed up Pau Brasil’s new concept: the repertoire would continue to be based on Brazilian popular music, played in a very free way and in “a non-regional approach.”
Pau Brasil’s new formula—one foot in the avant-garde, another in traditional music—pleased European audiences, traditionally more receptive to contemporary music. In 1991, the group even made two tours across the continent—one in March and another in July. On the other hand, the more the interest in its music increased in Europe, the less the group performed in Brazil.
“Abroad, people drooled over the contemporary music we were making, but here the group was less popular than before. During the 1990s, people still found it strange that Sion and Nelson were no longer playing with Pau Brasil,” Cardoso observes, comparing this period in which the group virtually disappeared from the stages and record stores in Brazil to a voluntary exile.
In 1991, with its very solid new lineup, Pau Brasil received an invitation from the French musician and producer Frédéric Pagès to record a CD on his label Divina Comedia. As a condition, Rodolfo Stroeter suggested making the recordings at Rainbow Studio in Oslo (Norway), where hundreds of legendary ECM titles have been recorded including some of Egberto Gismonti.
“It was an adventure for us to record this album in Oslo in only two days,” Stroeter remembers—he who had been disappointed with the sound quality of the previous album Lá Vem a Tribo. “We rehearsed like crazy and played a series of concerts in Brazil and Europe before going to Norway for the recordings of Metrópolis Tropical in July 1991. I was surprised that the group could sound so good on a record.”
Pagès, who produced the album together with Stroeter, had come to know Pau Brasil at the start of the 1980s when he spent a year in São Paulo. “I wanted to push the group in a new direction,” the producer says, admitting that his musical conception was influenced by Hermeto Pascoal. “Pau Brasil was a group of very talented musicians, but I thought that an external eye could see the potential they didn’t realize they had. They lacked a bit of daring.”
“My albums always tell a story,” Pagès adds, observing that Metrópolis Tropical was conceived as a musical portrait of the city of São Paulo. So he suggested Lelo Nazario and Stroeter to capture sounds and noises from the streets of the city to be used on the recording. “This album is not as easy to listen to as the other Pau Brasil’s recordings, but I think that it is a very strong project, with something special,” the producer points out.
When Paulo Bellinati heard the CD, almost finished, he thought it strange not to find any of his compositions among the tracks chosen by the producers—especially O Pulo do Gato which was often used by the group to close its concerts. At the time the guitarist didn’t say anything about it, but today he admits that this episode weighed heavily on his difficult decision to leave the group.
“I participated very little in the conception of this album. I wasn’t involved in the repertoire selection nor in the mixing stage. I grew increasingly weary of the situation,” he declares. On the other hand, still in 1991, Bellinati saw his album featuring works by Brazilian guitarist Garoto reach impressive repercussions in the US. “I wasn’t waiting for such good responses. My career as a soloist firmly took off at that time. Besides, my own compositions began to be played by many guitarists,” he celebrates.
After the unexpected departure of Paulo Bellinati in 1991, Rodolfo Stroeter, the only remaining member from the original lineup, saw a situation as difficult as that he faced four years before when Nelson Ayres and Roberto Sion left the group. Once again, he had to replace two members, since drummer Nenê had also announced his definitive departure from the group to focus on personal projects.
“When individual interests arise, if you don’t have a guy who sticks to an ideal, any band breaks up. Since the beginning I sought to turn Pau Brasil into a group of collective creation that could play outside Brazil,” Stroeter says, observing that his ability to bring people together helps to explain why he is the only group member to have been present in all its lineups over thirty years.
Bellinati’s departure left the group’s future uncertain. “It was very difficult to replace a guitarist and composer with a true Brazilian heart like him. There wasn’t anyone with these skills,” Stroeter remarks. But after some months he decided to invite guitarist and singer Marlui Miranda into the group.Bellinati’s departure left the group’s future uncertain. “It was very difficult to replace a guitarist and composer with a true Brazilian heart like him. There wasn’t anyone with these skills,” Stroeter remarks. But after some months he decided to invite guitarist and singer Marlui Miranda into the group.
“She doesn’t play guitar like Paulo, but has a beautiful voice and those indigenous flutes, which would bring a different kind of contribution to the group,” the bassist remembers. At the time, he had began to work with her, playing on and producing her album Ihu: Todos os Sons.
“All Pau Brasil members were very urban. So my story with the group brought together interior and exterior views, the Amazonia and the populated world,” the singer says. “At that time, I was a kind of outsider in the music scene, but they recognized my effort in looking at the other side of Brazil. They understood that my project had to do with the group.”
Marlui also performed as a soloist in Naum Alves de Souza’s Ópera dos 500 with music by Pau Brasil and Nelson Ayres. The production—which involved about 130 artists among singers, ballet dancers, musicians, and actors—was staged at the São Paulo Municipal Theater in October 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of America’s discovery.
In turn, the choice of drummer Zé Eduardo Nazario was more natural, since he had already played in Grupo Um with his brother Lelo Nazario and Stroeter. “Nenê’s departure was keenly felt. He was a great fellow, but decided to change his life,” the bassist says. “Like Nenê, Zé Eduardo had also played with Hermeto and Gismonti. Besides, he and Lelo have a great musical connection. With such a lineup, there was less interaction with the audience, but much internal harmony and integration within the group. We made very dense music and the performances were well integrated.”
Such an integration had to do with the musical complicity and experience the Nazario brothers and Stroeter gathered playing together in Grupo Um a decade before. “Even when there were a few concerts to perform, we rehearsed every day from two o’clock in the afternoon to seven o’clock at night. This was a practice that the boys developed when they both still played with Hermeto Pascoal in the 1970s, and they took it to Grupo Um,” Stroeter remarks.
In December 1993, soon after a lengthy tour through Europe, Pau Brasil once more landed in Oslo, this time to record the album Babel at Rainbow Studio. “It was like playing soccer with a well-prepared team on a really good field with the right ball and a stadium full of cheering fans,” saxophonist Teco Cardoso says, observing that the group was musically mature to make that record.
Among other tracks, the album features Kã Kã by Urubu-Kaapor Indians, as well as Uluri and Olho d’Água by Marlui Miranda, showing that she contributed to Pau Brasil not only as a vocalist and performer, but also as a composer and arranger.
“I always felt it was important to expand my vision of indigenous music in a way that everyone could reach it. I never thought of this music as folkloric,” she says. “Upon joining the group, my idea was to use the voice to double with Teco’s saxophone lines. I wouldn’t be a singer, but just another instrument. I think I fulfilled a niche, because I could be like another performer playing percussion, indigenous flutes, or guitar. For me, playing with them was like being in an amusement park.”
Besides, Marlui’s knowledge of indigenous culture was also an influence on some group fellows. “Simultaneous to Pau Brasil, I also worked with her in a project in which I was introduced to indigenous music,” Cardoso says. Since then he has added indigenous flutes to his arsenal of wind instruments—a feature that sets him apart from other saxophonists and flutists of Brazilian instrumental music. “I was already researching on pife (Brazilian fife) and bamboo flutes at that time, but there is more than just knowing how to play an instrument. You need to know how it works in terms of language. I had the privilege to learn it from Marlui,” Cardoso recognizes.
Babel received great reviews not only in Europe, but also in North America where the album was licensed to Blue Jackel label. “Equally captivating, on Blue Jackel is Pau Brasil’s Babel, a dreamy Brazilian jazz excursion suffused with Marlui Miranda’s high vocals,” Billboard magazine of April 1997 praised, among dozens of positive reviews from the international press.
In 1997, almost four years after the Babel recording sessions, Pau Brasil members received great news. The album had been nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance. The other nominees in the category included pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Pat Metheny, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
“The best part is that it took absolutely no effort. There was no lobbying ever involved. The voting musicians, producers, and engineers chose our album spontaneously,” Lelo Nazario celebrated in an article published in the Jornal do Brasil days later. Referring to Pau Brasil’s work and international career, Nazario explained that Babel combined indigenous music, original compositions, and jazz instrumentation. “We don’t search for exoticism, but the result is very original,” the composer concluded.
Rodolfo Stroeter, also Babel’s producer, had two reasons to celebrate: Pau Brasil’s Grammy nomination and also the nomination of Banda Mantiqueira’s Aldeia in the Latin Jazz category—an album he also produced on Pau Brasil label. “The nomination alone is already a great victory for Pau Brasil, representing the recognition of a work of almost twenty years,” Stroeter declared in the Jornal da Tarde, aware of the small chance a Brazilian album released by an independent label in the US had to win the Grammy for Best Jazz category.
Ironically, at the moment when the group members enjoyed considerable international recognition, Pau Brasil was on hiatus for months. “That group’s lineup could have stayed together, but Zé Eduardo moved from São Paulo, Lelo started doing much more studio work, and Marlui went back to get involved with indigenous culture. In any case, our message had already been delivered,” Stroeter remarks. After Babel’s release he also focused on his work as a producer for Gilberto Gil, Joyce, and Monica Salmaso, among others.
In February 2005, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo brought good news for Brazilian music fans. In the review The return of Pau Brasil, a national treasure, announcing a series of concerts at Crowne Plaza Theater to mark the quintet’s return, critic Arthur Nestrovski pointed out its “extraordinary lineup” featuring veterans Nelson Ayres, Teco Cardoso, Paulo Bellinati, and Rodolfo Stroeter, as well as the newcomer talented drummer Ricardo Mosca.
“The theater was small indeed for the incredible energy the quintet brings out of nowhere in a second. Each musician is a master, playing with a mix of intensity and detachment in successive or combined doses, which only those who are really qualified are able to control. Together, they add to this a lot of joy exploding in good humor at times and in a different state of well-being at other times, which can only be called musical,” the critic wrote.
Teco Cardoso helps explain why joy and humor are part of Pau Brasil’s performances. “In instrumental music it’s very common to find musicians who play for themselves, which doesn’t happen in our case. We play for the audience, we have nothing to prove. To be able to enjoy the audience we also have to be able to enjoy ourselves,” the saxophonist says.
As in earlier times, the group was reactivated again in a spontaneous way. In 2002, after nearly a decade as conductor of the Jazz Symphonic Orchestra, Ayres had started to play regularly again at the Supremo bar in São Paulo. On the night in which he played with Bellinati, they had the idea of reuniting them with Stroeter, Roberto Sion, and Bob Wyatt to play at least once a year. With this lineup, Pau Brasil shared the stage with the Jazz Symphonic in August 2004.
In June 2005, Pau Brasil’s current lineup already including Teco Cardoso and Ricardo Mosca celebrated the group’s twenty-five years with the retrospective album ’2005. This was the re-recording of old material mainly from the 1980s that has never been released in digital format before. “This is a more mature Pau Brasil, without the extra hormones of youth,” Bellinati says with his characteristic humor. This observation leads to the conclusion that the pleasure of playing, composing, and sharing with old partners overcame any possible conflict of ideas and musical conceptions, or even resentment stored up over the years, which are common in any relationship.
Making space in the agendas of Ayres, Bellinati, Stroeter, Cardoso, and Mosca, Pau Brasil returned to the stage in recent years, working on projects that have enriched the music scene in Brazil including: a partnership with singer Monica Salmaso that produced two CDs and a series of concerts in 2007 and 2008 featuring songs by Chico Buarque; the Concerto Antropofágico written by the group and performed with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in 2008; or a creative dive into Villa-Lobos’ music that yielded new concerts and an album released in 2012.
Singer Marlui Miranda says she still feels part of it. “Once you’re in Pau Brasil, you’re always in Pau Brasil, you can never leave it. I always feel close to them, even because of the ties of friendship that remain. The time I was in the group was very rich, we looked for a different vision of Brazil. After all, this is what they seek: they are always in search for the very different Brazils out there.” A perfect definition by someone who knows Pau Brasil both from inside and from outside.