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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Brazilian Jazz Project

Damn the Drummer, Where's the Composer?
For drummer Deppenschmidt to suggest that he be given credit for the Jazz Samba project at this stage in the game, let alone bring suit in a court of law over it is, in my view, a highly debatable issue that flies in the face of the most inescapable element of all: the qualities of bossa nova itself and those of its creators.

There is nothing like refutable subject matter to shake away the lethargy of summer from one's bones and get the old creative juices flowing again.
This is why I simply could not resist a swipe at a recent controversy surrounding the American origins of bossa nova that has lately resurfaced in the June 2004 issue of the publication JazzTimes.

In a highly informative article, "Give the Drummer Some," writer David Adler discusses the seemingly (at first glance) far-fetched notion that it was the concept of Buddy Deppenschmidt, the drummer, and Keter Betts, the bassist—both of whom were featured on the milestone 1962 Verve album Jazz Samba, alongside legendary tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd—that first brought American jazz musicians together to play and record the then unknown Brazilian rhythms.

According to Mr. Adler's research, Getz was the only one of the original group members to have reaped the full artistic and financial benefits from his involvement in the pioneering music venture.

Sadly, in Byrd's case, it took a lengthy lawsuit against Verve Records for him to recover some form of monetary compensation for his trail-blazing efforts. He even lost out to Getz in the coveted Grammy Awards category for Best Solo Jazz Performance of 1963, which gave Byrd further cause to protest his continued lack of recognition.

Adler goes on to give a detailed description of the Charlie Byrd Trio's State Department-sponsored visit to South America and Brazil in 1961, specifically to Salvador da Bahia, where Byrd, Deppenschmidt and Betts were treated to the infectious live sounds of native-born players and the unique voice of Bahian singer João Gilberto (via newly bought record albums).
A cryptic, chance meeting with a "mysterious" woman admirer led to an informal dinner invitation for Deppenschmidt, who was suitably impressed by the charming young girl's musically talented family and their helpful instructional insights.

This and other personal recollections by the drummer encompassed what he would later remember as a virtual on-the-spot master class in basic bossa nova rhythm-playing.
Putting these strictly historical aspects aside for the moment, the main focus of Adler's essay became the resultant campaign launched by Deppenschmidt to produce an album of new Brazilian songs which eventually led up to the initial appearance of Jazz Samba on LP—followed more currently by court action and a subsequent four-page press release outlining the above chain of events.

His version of the way things were, however, differed markedly from that of several other participants in the event, including the bassist Betts.
In Mr. Adler's words: "According to Deppenschmidt, Charlie Byrd was in fact reluctant to record bossa nova. For a time it became the drummer's pet project to change Byrd's mind. It took him and Betts about six months to win the guitarist over."

Dissenting opinions seemed to have gravitated as well toward Byrd's late wife, Ginny, "who convinced her husband to do a Brazilian record. But Deppenschmidt insists it was he who asked Ginny to aid his cause, and that she too was initially unmoved."
As to the participation of Stan Getz: "Deppenschmidt insists that Getz's involvement was also his idea. Joe Byrd (Charlie's youngest brother), for his part, says it was Ginny who suggested Getz get the call."

Intriguingly, the drummer had a substitute sax-player waiting in the wings had Getz decided not to show: the equally celebrated Paul Desmond, well known for his timeless turn with pianist Dave Brubeck's jazz band.

How that potential match-up might have affected and influenced the introduction of bossa nova to the North American jazz scene is a question left unanswered by the author.
And, further along this same path: "Byrd did not know Getz well, although Betts had become friends with the tenor giant during his tenure with Dinah Washington. According to Deppenschmidt, Getz had never played with Byrd's group until the day of the Jazz Samba sessions.

"Betts, on the other hand, remembers Getz sitting in with the band at the Showboat Lounge in D.C., where Byrd and the trio had begun workshopping the bossa nova material. Deppenschmidt is sure that Getz's visit never happened; Betts counters with equal vehemence that it did," and so on.

The matter of who was responsible for what, when and how is a moot issue, at this point, coming as it does more than forty years after the fact.

Most of the key players associated with bringing the bossa nova beat to this country have almost all passed on. Indeed, the revered names of Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, Vinicius de Morais, Laurindo Almeida, Herbie Mann, and countless others will always be remembered in hallowed halls for their priceless musical contributions long after we mere mortals are dust.

A Little Too Late
But for drummer Deppenschmidt to suggest that he be given credit for the Jazz Samba project at this stage in the game, let alone bring suit in a court of law over it is, in my view, a highly debatable issue that flies in the face of the most inescapable element of all, apparently sidestepped by Adler in his otherwise well-documented piece: namely, that of the solid and incontrovertible qualities of bossa nova itself and those of its creators.

Although each of the album's hit songs is cited and discussed, Adler gives short shrift to the inherent beauty of the works, in and of themselves. He spends far too much time on dry, clinical analysis rather than on the merits of the music.

For example, on "Desafinado," he notes: "What we hear is Joe Byrd, continuing with the chord changes to the body of the tune while the band vamps. Charlie (Byrd) has no choice but to solo over a train wreck. Then bass and drums vamp alone for roughly 24 bars."
And, in the same vein: " `Samba de Uma Nota Só (One Note Samba)' finds Joe Byrd bowing a pedal note on double bass. Getz skirts around the main melody but does not play it; his solo chorus beginning at 1:53 defies belief."

In all fairness the original Verve recording does sound positively prehistoric, with a scrawny and suspect rhythm section reminiscent of two people rattling matchboxes at each other. If this was as the drummer claims his "master class" in Brazilian rhythm-playing, then he definitely needed a few more lessons prior to graduation: at best, it's rough-hewn and all-purpose but hardly the stuff of legend. Bill Reichenbach provided additional percussive support throughout the session.
Stan Getz's winnowing tenor twists and winds its insinuating way on many of the tracks, most notably on the classic "Desafinado" by Jobim, "Samba Dees Days," written by Charlie Byrd, and on João Gilberto's wonderful "O Pato (The Duck)," with music and lyrics by J. Silva_N. Teixeira.
The lack of rhythmic refinement is equally palpable on "Samba Triste," borrowed by Charlie Byrd from the unheralded Baden Powell; it's an elegantly slow choro-like showpiece, a minor-key masterwork both moody and melodic, with Byrd's guitar-strumming more prominent here than on the other sets.

The final items on the disc, "Samba de Uma Nota Só" (Jobim_Mendonça), "É Luxo Só" (Barroso_Peixoto), and "Baia" (Ary Barroso), wrap things up nicely, although the latter two numbers can hardly be classified as bossa nova originals; their inclusion here is more in the way of paying homage to Latin big-bands and wartime Brazilian samba.
In point of fact, the entire record is a bit of a throwback to a much simpler, less complicated musical time period.

I wonder, moreover, if Mr. Adler even bothered to notice that on the back of the original album, just below the main title and cover art, was printed this tantalizing phrase:
Two Jazz Soloists Play Fresh, Contemporary Sounds from Modern Brazilian Folk Music
That kind of innocent, "truth-in-advertising" marketing ploy was only one of the many key ingredients to the album's popular success with listeners.

Almost exactly a year later, however, the difference in approach between this work and its highly touted sequel Jazz Samba Encore! is absolutely astounding, especially in the reinvigorated rhythm session now manned by Brazilian artists.

Getz is noticeably looser, too, as is the virtuoso yet deceptively simple guitar work of Luiz Bonfá, plucking away on the stings of his instrument in a delectable pizzicato effect worthy of Segovia himself. Only singer Maria Toledo's bland vocalize fails to please and is the sole disappointment in a nearly perfect rendering of early Jobim and Bonfá compositions.
But even this minor flaw would later provide the kernel of an idea, the basic template that took hold in the forthcoming 1964 release, also on Verve, of Getz/Gilberto with Stan, Tom, Joãozinho, and, of course, Astrud Gilberto supplying the vocals.

In spite of my earlier criticism about his work, author David Adler does attempt to present a fairly balanced case for both Deppenschmidt and Betts' claims.
He concludes by observing: "But when future historians treat the subject of Jazz Samba, they ought to give the drummer some."

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that modern-day musicologists should give equal time as well to the true progenitors of the genre, i.e. the many native-born Brazilian artists who made it all possible, instead of paying lip service (and devoting precious magazine space) to the implausible assertions of long-retired jazz musicians.

No drummer, bassist, saxophone player, guitarist or singer past or present would ever have gone as far as they had in the music business, and achieved any kind of lasting fame or renown, without the sterling contributions of bossa nova composers and their lyricists.
That's where the real credit is overdue.