Three years after the passing of founding keyboard-player Jose Roberto Bertrami, Brazil’s Azymuth are back on the road and about to re-enter the recording studio. The trio’s surviving founders, drummer Ivan Conti and bassist Alex Malheiros, have been joined by keyboardist Fernando Moraes. Recently on tour in Europe, the new line-up tore the roof off Ronnie Scott’s over two nights last week. Azymuth’s trademark samba doido (crazy samba) – a mix of samba, funk and jazz – is as potent as ever.
Azymuth came together in the early 1970s and made their own-name album debut with Azimuth in 1975. The album has been re-released on LP and CD by London label and Brazilian-music specialists Far Out Recordings to coincide with the recent tour. Azymuth went on to release a string of internationally-successful albums on US label Milestone, starting in 1979 with Light As A Feather, which produced the breakout single ‘Jazz Carnival’, a massive dancefloor hit. In 1996, the group moved from Milestone to Far Out, with eight album releases to date – and more to come.
Despite Azymuth’s roots in samba, at the start of the 1970s the all-electric, high-octane group might seem to have beamed down to Brazil from another planet. Superficially, their music had nothing in common with the country’s late 1950s/early 1960s sensation, bossa nova. In fact, a link can be traced through the ‘hard bossa’ piano trios which emerged in the mid to late 1960s, whose style was more rhythmically aggressive and more overtly jazz-infused than that of first-generation bossa pioneers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and Johnny Alf. Azymuth took the hard bossa aesthetic, electrified it, ramped up the volume, stirred in the funk, and samba doido was born.
Ivan Conti took time out between gigs at Ronnie’s to speak to J&N...
Alex, Roberto and yourself were all born in 1946 – making you just a little too young to be part of Brazil’s first international breakthrough, with bossa nova, in the early 1960s. Did bossa mean much to you as a teenager?
It was important to us, yes. But probably it was the hard bossa nova which came along in the mid-1960s which meant more. I remember once going to São Paulo for a concert to see Elis Regina and some of the hard bossa nova groups. I was about 16. It was a seven-hour bus journey from Rio. I got there, saw the concert, went back to the bus station to sleep, and in the morning took another bus home to Rio. A year or so later, the new style came to Rio, to Copacabana specifically, in the clubs in Beco das Garrafas [Bottle’s Alley]. A little street with a lot of venues. These musicians from São Paulo often played in Beco das Garrafas. We would hang out and listen to them all the time.
We never had any thought of leaving Rio or Brazil
Bossa nova drew strength from the collegiate relationship between its first-generation of players, the way they’d all get together at private ‘reunions’ and show off their new songs. Did that sense of community carry over to your generation?
Absolutely. When I bought some new vinyl I would usually call a friend to come to my house and hear it. Or we would take it to another friend’s house and sit down and listen. Then we might play some of it. We shared ideas. And we could go and jam together after-hours in the clubs in Beco das Garrafas. Compared to today, back then we had more venues where you could do that. At that time, everybody liked to meet each other and play, not for money, to exchange ideas. It was all important.
What music from outside Brazil were you listening to in the pre and early Azymuth years?
Motown, specially for the Funk Brothers [Motown’s house band], Aretha Franklin. Soul and funk became very popular in Brazil in the 1960s. And all the jazz greats, of course. My father was a fan of the big bands, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and their drummers were probably my first deep influence. We mixed all this with samba, which is the root of our style, and, in my opinion, some rock, so we could play harder. Samba, jazz, rock, it was all mainly two or four to the bar, it went together easily. Around that time you also heard a lot of Italian music in Brazil. We took some influence from this, too.
The night we played, the people went crazy for us
North American music was important to Azymuth’s development. But unlike many other Brazilian musicians of your generation, who relocated to the US for the sake of their careers or because of the oppressive atmosphere produced by the military junta, you have always been based in Brazil. Were you ever tempted to leave?
Never. But international touring was important to us. It let us experience many great musicians from the US first hand. In 1977, we went to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Claude Nobs, the founder, invited us. It was the first time a Brazilian group appeared. I think it is important for a musician to come out of your country, especially instrumental musicians, and experience new music, new horizons. We heard Herbie Hancock and Herbie Mann at Montreux. They made big impressions on us all.
The audience at Montreux went crazy. For us, this was a big surprise and very exciting. The night we played, we were the last band on the programme. Just three guys, right after the Don Ellis Big Band. But the people went crazy for us. Afterwards, Claude Nobs said, you can stay for the week. Then we did a tour with Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, coast to coast in the US for three months. That was a real learning experience. I think the band came of age on that tour.
But we never had any thought of leaving Rio or Brazil. Partly because of family, partly because of the place. It’s like, I love London, but I would never leave Brazil.
Why was your first album called Azimuth, but the group itself was called Azymuth?
Actually, Azimuth was just a printing error. We were recording with Marcos Valle and it was the name of one of the tracks on the album he was making. After the session, it was the track which came into our heads most often. So we asked Marcos if we could use the name for our band and he said, of course.
Since Roberto passed away in 2012, you haven’t released any new music. But there are some new projects in the pipeline now. Please tell us about them.
Roberto’s passing was a huge loss, of course. He was a friend and the three of us were together for over 40 years. But people begged us not to stop when Roberto died. We have another album with him which we will release when the time is right. It’s a good album. But first we want to make an album with Fernando. Fernando is a friend, too. He is a big fan of Roberto, and years ago Roberto gave him some tuition. Fernando knows all our songs and all our records, but he brings new ideas to us as well.
In a J&N interview a year or so ago, Criolo said Azymuth were big heroes of his and that he would love to record with you. Has he approached you about that?
Not yet, but anything is possible. I recorded with Madlib in 2008 and it was a great experience. So we are open for everything. We have actually been thinking about doing an album with guest appearances from some of the young Brazilian hip hop DJs and rappers.
It would also be great to tour with Os Ipanemas [the acoustic-roots group and Far Out stablemates with which Conti has regularly worked since 2001]. But it is expensive to tour even three musicians today, and six is even more difficult.
So I guess a tour with a string orchestra is out of the question? Arthur Verocai’s string arrangements for your Butterfly album in 2008 were gorgeous.
That would be fantastic! But we better not hold our breath.