K-Schef’s Los Angeles Adventure to Meet Azymuth

Written by Kyle “K-Schef” Scheffler (host of Beijo Brasileiro, Saturdays 1 – 3 PM)
Videography and editing by Ryan Ogle

It was an unprecedented concert series taking place each weekend of Summer 2019 in Los Angeles, presented by Art Don’t Sleep, featuring Brazilian music legends that had not played the US in a decade.

From Art Don’t Sleep‘s website, the Jazz Esta Morto series originated when the organizers “..sat in the homes of Arthur Verocai and Azymuth. We broke bread with Joao Donato and Marcos Valle. To believe that those humble meetings have turned into this epic series is a dream come true.”

As a Tropicalia fanatic, reading these sentences gave me goosebumps. Most of these artists rarely played the US, and when they did it was almost always New York City. When this concert series was announced, I sent a message to Azymuth’s percussionist Ivan Conti. We went back and forth over the next few months, and finally a week before the performance, he sent me a voice memo granting me an interview.

This confirmation was all I needed to pack my car up and make the 14 hour drive overnight down to Los Angeles. Joined by videographer Ryan Ogle, we arrived in LA early June 1st, the day before the performance. This would make the second time they have performed in the United States since 1995. Before that, they toured the US regularly, but in the last couple decades they had not played in the country at all.

Unsure of whether the interview would take place on Saturday or Sunday, we prepared ourselves and waited on Ivan’s message.

Before the show, we sat down with music historian Allen Thayer in the Los Mirlos neighborhood of Los Angeles. Allen has been heavily involved in the Jazz Esta Murto series, penning multiple articles on Brazilian legends and DJing opening sets.

I asked Allen what made this Los Angeles performance so special: ”Azymuth playing in the US is a moment to celebrate because it does not happen very often… I’m just thankful they’re still playing after losing one of their members. There’s only three of them to begin with, so the fact that they’re continuing on is a testament to the sound that they’ve created that lives on.”

Brazilian music has been historically underappreciated to this day in the United States, with artists like Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Marcos Valle and, of course, Azymuth regularly touring Europe every year, but with only a few sparse dates here and there across the US.

So out of the hundreds of popular groups emerging from the late ’60s and ’70s Rio de Janeiro music scene, what makes Azymuth so revered among Jazz fans?

Thayer stated, “I think they are pretty unique. They’re a Jazz trio, which is not a new format by any means – there were dozens and dozens of excellent Jazz trios in Rio de Janeiro in the 60’s. [But] what makes them unique is that when they came about in the ’70s, [Azymuth] adopted modern instrumentation that sort of put them in the same category of Herbie Hancock, Bob James or a lot of the electric 70s Jazz.”

“Alex [Malheirhos] is playing an electronic bass, Jose Bertrami is playing every keyboard under the sun and Mamao (Ivan Conti’s nickname) is playing everything from Jazz to Funk to Soul to Samba in his [drum] beats,” Thayer continued. “They were very expansive in terms of how they approached music: it wasn’t just Bossa nova, it wasn’t just Jazz, it wasn’t just Punk or Rock or Soul influences… I like to refer to what Mamao calls it – either broken Samba or crazy Samba.”

In stark contrast to most music coming out of Brazil in the ’70s and ’80s, Azymuth had a sound described as “off-kilter” [according to Allen Thayer].

Artists like Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, Joao Bosco, etc. fell into “a revivalist trend in Brazilian music… popular in the ’70s and ’80s. American and international artists wanted something more Bossa nova, and for better or worse, Azymuth was and [is not straight] Bossa nova.”

Clarified Thayer: “I think they stand in contrast to that sort of really futuristic sounding approach to a hybrid of traditional Brazilian genres like Samba, Bossa nova and modern sounds like electronic learning Jazz, Rock and Funk.”

It was time for the concert. Azymuth has sold out the Lodge Room in the Highland Park neighborhood. Backstage, the energy was electrifying. Never had I seen more excitement and joy among attendees of any performance.

Ivan Conti and Alex Malheirhos, the two remaining original band members, are both in their early 70, yet they still play like they’re in their twenties. Not only is their musical style rare, but the fan reception to their performance was matched with enthusiasm I had never seen before in an audience. Only after giving the audience two encores, including a dazzling rendition of “Jazz Carnival”, did Azymuth take their final bow and head offstage.

The band was greeted by adoring fans and friends alike, everyone wanting a chance to shake their hands and congratulate them for an unforgettable show. Ivan stayed afterwards and signed autographs for a number of concert attendees. Azymuth’s newest member, Kiko Continento, was happy to show us pictures of all his family members that played and still continue to perform with famous Tropicalia/MPB artists.

Backstage, Ryan and I sat down with the current members of Azymuth. They had a very friendly demeanor and enjoyed talking about anything music. By the time we chatted, it was 11:30 PM; the band was due to leave back to Brazil the next morning.

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In 2018, Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad were in Brazil touring their project ‘The Midnight Hour’ when they met with Azymuth, among other Brazilian artists playing the “Jazz Esta Muerto” series.”

K-Schef: What led up to this concert series? How did you meet Ali Ahaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge?

Ivan: We have a great time with these guys in the studio recording; they are fantastic guys. I am so happy about it, both guys are great.

Kiko: We had this opportunity to record this collective project, with ideas shared. Very nice guys, inspiring. Very intense, we spent 3 days recording. Until today!

 

K-Schef: Alex, what bass players influenced you when you were coming up?

Alex: Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius were big influences.

Kiko: Alex developed a method of playing bass [that’s] a melodic way of playing, not just rhythmic.

 

In 2008 American producer Madlib collaborated with Ivan Conti on an album released under the name Jackson Conti.

K-Schef: Ivan, you collaborated with Madlib on the album ‘Sujinho’. What was it like working with him?

Ivan: Madlib is a great musician, a great friend. I met him on a documentary about Brazilian music named Brasilintime, 5 musicians & 5 DJs… Madlib loved the band, he went to my house and asked if I wanted to do something [musically]. I said, “Of course”, what would you like? He said, play whatever you want. And I did! So nice.

K-Schef: So he gave you that free reign to play however you wanted?

Ivan: Yes!

 

During the performance, Azymuth played “Last Summer in Rio” from their 1981 album ‘Telecommunication’. Recorded in the US, inspiration was taken from American Jazz groups.

K- Schef: What were your influences for the album ‘Telecommunication’?

Alex: Well it was a long time ago. Herbie Hancock, as well as progressive rock like Yes [and] Emerson Lake and Palmer. Not just style, but influential sounds.

 

Kiko Continento has a long history playing keyboard both in his own groups, as well as multiple Tropical heavy hitters over the years.

K-Schef: Kiko, what was it like working with Milton Nascimento for 20 years?

Kiko: It’s a history, a life history. It’s interesting. Azymuth is on ‘Clube Esquina 2’ (a 1978 album by Milton Nascimento) and recorded some compositions [written] by Milton. So the two histories are connected. For me, it’s an incredible experience to play with these guys. Milton is like a phoenix, an eagle; so many times he died and came back with new force and inspiration. And these guys play very well, like young musicians. The energy is young but the experience is unbelievable.

 

Ivan: I remember when I was younger, Tamba Trio, Bossa Tres [were] both very important, and a lot of Brazilian musicians are fantastic. Sergio Mendes, Moacir Santos… It’s like a river. You go direct for the sea, you never go back. And Brazilian music comes, American music comes, Italian – doesn’t matter. They come together, and Brazilian musicians are fantastic.

Kiko: The Brazilian music is like a miracle, because the conditions are not very satisfactory… and are difficult. It is not like here [in the US], so it is most difficult to record and create [music]…. Moacir Santos, Tom Jobim and the masters [are] fantastic; these guys are important to peak [into]… the Azymuth music and the secret, the mysterious Azymuth sound. It is sophisticated and popular, its danceable. …It is very difficult to create sophisticated and high quality music. And popular as well, it is difficult. But the same thing it is like a miracle, I don’t know how to play the same thing twice. At the same time, the sounds are experimental. Each concert we play is different, it is not usual, is not preferable, [but] the arrangements change instantaneously. We create, we arrange… like the Jazz spirit: fresh. And together, an ensemble, like a trio. This is very crazy to describe. Crazy samba!

K -Schef: Samba doida?

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