Note from BBT: A black man playing piano. Well, if you’re in the United States, numerous black pianists would probably come to mind. Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Nat King Cole, Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson…and that’s just a few that come to mind. This goes without mentioning the many famous black pianists in the world of Jazz, Classical and R&B music or the thosands who aren’t as famous coming out of the Gospel world and the black church. And this doesn’t even consider black women pianists.
Yes, black people and the piano go way back and they are some of the most legendary and creative masters of the black and white keys. But that’s America. In Brazil, it’s quite a different story. In fact, trying to make a list of black Brazilian piano players and the task becomes quite a challenge. I recently did a report on the “father” of Bossa Nova that died relatively unknown in 2010, Johnny Alf.
There’s also the versatile Dom Salvador who played everything from Jazz, Samba-Jazz and Samba-Funk to Soul and MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). I read somewhere that the great Sérgio Mendes is also of African descent, but I think anyone sees Mendes as black. Singer/musician Carlos Dafé is a keyboardist from the 70s Brazilian Soul movement and belongs on this list. But beyond them, the pickings of Afro-Brazilian pianists, keyboardists or organists is slim pickings. I can’t forget the wonderful work of the Maranhão state native Tania Maria who made a name for herself outside of Brazil with her mixture of Jazz, MPB and Pop.
But still, where are the Afro-Brazilian piano players? After reading this, I know someone’s probably gonna post a comment saying that I forgot this or that artist, but the point is, even if people manage to come up with a few more names, the fact remains that there simply aren’t that many black Brazilian piano players, whether men or women. You can find plenty of Afro-Brazilian guitarists as well as numerous white Brazilian pianists, but very few black Brazilian piano players.
I know that part of the reason for this is that, generally speaking, piano doesn’t play a huge role in the music of Brazilian Samba, which is the genre where one will find hundreds if not thousands of Afro-Brazilian musicians. Traditionally in Samba, you find an acoustic guitarist, a cavaquinho (ukelele) player, a number of percussion instruments and sometimes some wind instruments, but a piano, keyboard or organ are rarely heard on samba albums and CDs.
Now when you start getting into derivatives of Samba, such as Samba-Jazz and Bossa Nova, and even further as you venture off into Brazilian Instrumental Music, you start to hear more pianists and keyboardists, but again, most of them are going to be white. Some of these names include people like Luís Carlos Vinhas, Luís Eça, João Donato, César Camargo Mariano, Walter Wanderly, Eumir Deodato, Ed Lincoln, Hermeto Pascoal and Wagner Tiso. In my explorations of Brazilian music, I came to discover at least a little about the music of all these artists and what the Brazilian groove was all about.
But again, where are the Afro-Brazilian piano, keyboard and organ players? I’m sure there are more than the few I mentioned above but if I don’t know about them it’s because of two reasons. One, there aren’t that many of them and, two, if they exist, they aren’t very well-known. I will add to this list the names of the great arrangers and composers Moacir Santos and Érlon Chaves, both important musicians in the history of Brazilian music, but even though I was familiar with their work, I didn’t know they were actually pianists.
In recent years, I’ve noticed a few new great Afro-Brazilian piano/keyboard players who are creating some exciting music. One of them, I’ve known for a number of years, but mostly for his dance-oriented music. These days, he’s doing more on the instrumental and Jazz-oriented side and I will need to do a piece on him in the future.
Today, I want to discuss Amaro Freitas, a pianist from the northeastern state of Pernambuco. I came across Freitas after reading an article about his participation in a music festival last year some time. I later checked out his debut CD Sangue Negro, which means ‘black blood’, and I was intrigued from the very first track on his CD. That first track, “Encruzilhada”, presented a distinctly frevo rhythm, a style popular to the Brazilian northeast, specifically in his home state of Pernambuco.
As the album went on, I also heard traces of other rhythms such as baião and maracatu, two more rhythms of the northeast of which I have never bought any albums of the genres in their pure form although I have music by artists who have incorporated the styles into a more contemporary setting. The Freitas CD was the first time I had heard them in the arrangement of Jazz.
After having worn out that first CD, I started checking out collaborations of Freitas with other artists such as Xenia França, Milton Nascimento and rapper/singer Crioulo. (In video below, Freitas and França cover the Alf classic “Eu e a Brisa”). Just from the fact that Freitas wore a large afro and called his album Sangue Negro, I knew I needed to learn more about him. I soon came across another article featuring Freitas and his girlfriend in a piece about the growth of what’s being called amor afrocentrado (Afrocentric love), something that’s still new within Brazil’s black community. I will get to that piece in the future, but first I want to just introduce Freitas and learn a little about how he got into piano and Jazz in a country that automatically passed on the idea that every black musician should be playing a cavaquinho and singing Samba.
First, taken directly from the Freitas website:
“Pernambuco’s culture naturally overflows in the style of Amaro Freitas, a 27-year-old pianist and composer who is one of the great revelations of recent Brazilian jazz.
Influenced by the master of frevo, Capiba, Moacir Santos, Hermeto and Gismonti, but also by the great jazz piano references such as Monk, Jarrett or Corea, he released his debut album Sangue Negro in 2016 and immediately won over the critics, who found in him a new life for jazz piano.
Far beyond the always predominant samba jazz, Amaro Freitas turns to the Northeastern culture and translates the sounds of frevo, baião, maracatu, ciranda or maxixe into the language of jazz.
Contracted by London record label Far Out Recordings, the pianist, accompanied by Jean Elton (Contrabass) and Hugo Medeiros (Drums) has performed in important clubs, such as: Ronnie Scott’s (UK), Duc de Lombards (FR) and Unterfahrt Jazz Club (GE), to international festivals, among them: Autumn in Jazz (Casa Da Música/PT), Buenos Aires (ARG), Rio das Ostras and MIMO (BR).”
The piece below I actually discovered and translated back in November of last year, but in finally coming to post it yesterday, I discovered that one of Freitas’ influences, the great Chick Corea, recently passed away (February 9th). I’ve known Corea’s work from several sources, including his time in Miles Davis’ band and my introduction to his keyboard work in the band Return to Forever, which in turn introduced me to two other important Brazilian musicians, singer Flora Purim and percussionist Airto Moreira. Chick was a giant in the Jazz world and he will be missed. But the creativy of his work will continue in younger musicians such as Amaro Freitas.
Amaro Freitas – the genius of the piano that the Brazilian state didn’t kill
By Fred Di Giacomo
In the Complexo do Salgueiro, the evangelical boy with black skin and a smile on his face was called João Pedro. He was fourteen and we will never know if he would become a jazz pianist, UOL columnist, scientist researching vaccines or the next president of the country. João Pedro – who could be called Ágatha, Neymar, Djamila (Ribeiro), Milton (Nascimento) or Amaro – was another black child murdered by the Brazilian State this on May 18, 2020.
Fourteen years earlier, in Nova Descoberta, an evangelical boy with black skin and a smile on his face was named Amaro Freitas. His dream was to play the drums, but as this was the most disputed instrument by the kids of the local Assembly of God church, he ended up following in the steps of his father and settling for the keyboard.
“Brazil is several realities. We have a lifestyle that goes from European to African lifestyle. Within the same city, we can observe different realities during the pandemic. I am in a city called São Lourenço da Mata, with 112 thousand inhabitants, in the Pernambuco forest area, which is where my parents live. They have a grocery store here. I was raised in Nova Descoberta, which is a periphery in the north of Recife, and what I see is a very cruel reality.”
The low and calm voice – alternating between laughter and complex explanations of music theory – comes from a 28-year-old who has seen, lived, more than much today. Voice and charisma, which would go perfectly well with a pop singer, leave the musical body of one of the most impressive Brazilian pianists alive, author of two albums praised by international critics – Sangue Negro (2016) and Rasir (2018) – and that has just released the benefit EP, Existe amor with Milton Nascimento and rapper Criolo. On the record, Amaro metamorphoses into a man’s orchestra only making, on the piano, the soft bed for Criolo and Milton on the tracks “Cais” and “Não existe amor em SP”. The album completes two songs arranged by the celebrated Arthur Verocai. “Together we celebrated a great sound party,” says Amaro.
Responsible for revealing Freitas to the general public, his version of “Não existe amor em SP” is divided into three parts and begins with a lyrically mesmerizing melody, which plays with the minimalist classical music of the French composer Yann Tirsen (famous for the soundtrack of the film Amélie Poulain) as the voice of God, aka Milton Nascimento, sings. In the second part, the octopus man plays jazz a la Christian Scott & Robert Glasper on the piano, which serves as the home for the versatile voice of rapper Criolo. Tirsen and Erik Satie come to mind when we hear the almost romantic sounds that nest Milton’s magic on the track, but the influence of lyricism and flirting with European classical music has its roots in the gospel of the years when Amaro played in the neighborhood church. Yes, Amaro’s lyricism sprang up in the clay streets of Nova Descoberta, where he learned his first lessons following in the footsteps of his father who even performed at dances before limiting himself to the music of praise permitted by the congregation.
“I have a lot of bregas in my head,” recalls Amaro thinking of the sound that came from the neighbors’ house when he lived in a clay house studded with bullet holes. As much as Amaro’s parents (both amateur musicians) only listened to music of worship at home, his rendezvous provided other references. “I think the church has a thing of lyricism in the sense of worship, even a little whitened, very European. Many brega singers come from this church. And then, in brega, you notice another kind of lyricism, focused on suffering with a certain naughtiness, a certain swing on the street and with the African part that comes with the rhythm.”
Amaro says that he had no relationship with traditional music of Pernambuco as a youth, but echoes of his ancestry reached him through the forrós, raps and funks he heard in the streets of Nova Descoberta: “A neighbor on the other hill, had such a loud sound system that played Racionais MCs on Sunday and everyone on Córrego do Eucalipto (street) was obliged to listen together. “
“Gospel, brega and (rap group) Racionais (MCs)”? Beautiful, but how do you come up with your sophisticated jazz compositions that the prestigious American magazine Downbeat said are “built of cells arranged in intricate patterns, like a cross between Nik Bãrtsch’s band and the Matthew Shipp Trio”?
“I got a Chick Corea DVD that changed my life”, repeats Amaro a story that has already become a classic. The virtuoso played the keyboard in the church band, when one of the members gave him a live DVD of the pianist who played with the legendary Miles Davis band. See what Chick Corea was doing with the keys blew away the teenage Amaro, then 15 years old, the age that the young João Pedro will never reach. The discovery of polyphony, complex harmonies and improvisation increased the mysteries that music seemed to impose on the boy who faced the piano as other kids face the kites with cerol (wax string), the naked ones in the field or the dawns playing video games: “Childhood? The period of passion is the period of formation. [I saw] A world of adventures on those keys. A hidden mystery … the black and white treasure.”
Translation of above post: Amaro Freitas: “It is with great sorrow that I receive the news of @chickcorea’s passing. He was the reason I got into instrumental music, his records made me dream and believe that one day I would make a living in music. Sacred Master, thank you for so much, your songs, our meeting and your teachings will always be in my memory, my hero, the greatest of all today I experience your mourning and your arrival to a new dimension.”
Bitten by the jazz mosquito and starting to play Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Amaro signed up at the Conservatório de Música de Pernambuco (Pernambuco Conservatory of Music). A victim of Brazil, he had to leave classes six months later because his parents didn’t have the thirty reais he needed for enrollment. Amaro went to turn around. He worked in telemarketing; started playing at dances, weddings and parties. The relationship with “secular” music and the possibility of living on music was not something that the pastor of the Assembly of God welcomed, which ended up taking away miracles from the church keyboards.
“I told the elder of the church that I was working with music. And he said, ‘But, brother, you don’t want to work as an electrician, do you?’ (laughs) And I had spent a lifetime on the keyboard, I never touched electricity.”
When he started to study jazz (and later graduated in Phonographic Production), Amaro finally came into contact with Brazilian Popular Music, the Northeastern rhythms and Brazilian jazz musicians such as Moacir Santos, Hermeto Pascoal and João Donato. “When I was thinking about going into music, I wanted to study at the academy. But I saw the program at UFPE (Federal University of Pernambuco) and it was a very European thing. The Frenchman who came to study at the University of Pernambuco would find the same thing that he would study in France. The university didn’t offer the richest thing that is Pernambuco culture.”
Already playing piano in bars, Amaro met jazz bassist Jean Elton who becomes a great friend and with whom he spends hours listening to music. Then came drummer Hugo Medeiros, a conservatory professor. The impressive trio with whom Amaro recorded “Sangue Negro” (more “romantic and lyrical”) and “Rasif” (a journey through the northeastern rhythms that Amaro and his partners accelerated and reconfigured polycritically) was complete. “Rasif is an album where I pay homage to my state, to my city, and, in a way, there is this acceleration of rhythms and this game of polyrhythm – influences of what I was hearing: Vijay [Iyer], Craig [Taborn], Cecil Taylor, Thelonious [Monk], musicians who worked hard on the rhythm.”
From Nova Descoberta to the world
In 2020, Amaro had already done two successful tours abroad, in 2018 and 2019, and planned a third, when the plans were frozen by the coronavirus [watch a video of Amaro playing “Bella Ciao”, sent to a theater in Italy who would receive his performance]. “The reception of the international tour was incredible. I could understand that music is something ancient and strong that breaks several standards. It’s as if I wanted to arrive in another galaxy and had to take many light years, but the music would be that wormhole capable of connecting my ship with another universe in minutes.” In Munich, the musician had to face racist glances while walking the streets of Germany, while he was cheered by the European public every night.
For when the pandemic loosens, Amaro has another record with his trio triggered, and also the project for a solo album playing with a “prepared piano”. For the time being, he enjoys the success of his most popular musical project, the beneficent “Há Amor”, led by singer Milton Nascimento and rapper Criolo. “Milton is, as Criolo says, that being of light that only his presence already infects us. He’s the person with the most beautiful look I’ve ever seen. (…) With Criolo, we had a lot of fun. In some moments I sat at the piano and he played around with some rhymes, creating on the spot. Who knows, maybe something will come out of that?”
Was the rapper from São Paulo the first to record lyrics based on Amaro’s intricate melodies?
“I met Amaro through Milton Nascimento,” Criolo reveals. “When Milton met him, he was enchanted. He has a great affection for Amaro. When I got there [at the recording studio] Amaro was already at the piano, warming up. And we kind of met and understood each other in the eyes.”
“Another important thing about the record is that it is about the meeting of three generations of black people”, says Amaro, “who were there being full and allowing themselves to connect and let the beauty of the art that exists in each one emerge.”
Milton, Criolo and Amaro, three black people who managed to escape, as young people, the killer bullets of the Brazilian state and its meat grinder machine. João Pedro, Ágatha and thousands of others were not so lucky. It makes us imagine what a rich garden Brazil would be, if we didn’t insist on killing our roses when they are still budding.