PREVIEW/INTERVIEW: Jaques Morelenbaum (CelloSambaTrio - Pizza Express 24th April)

Jaques Morelenbaum
Photo credit: Sara Deidda

Brazilian musician JAQUES MORELENBAUM enjoyed long associations with Antônio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso and Egberto Gismonti, and has gained during a stellar career at the highest concert hall level, international renown far beyond his homeland of Brazil in his collaborations with the pianist-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Portuguese fado great Mariza. Touring in Europe this month, the cellist plays an exclusive London date in the intimate surroundings of the Pizza Express Jazz Club. Ahead of the London gig, interviewed by Stephen Graham, he recalls his life changing work with Jobim and Veloso and expresses his admiration for João Gilberto and the great Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar.

LondonJazz News: What was the most inspirational thing about touring with Jobim from this distance of time?

Jaques Morelenbaum: Jobim represents the supreme gift I was so lucky to receive in my life among a few other with great relevance. He was a real master, but also the best, and funniest, friend; and sometimes he acted also like a father. Paulo Jobim [Tom’s son], a great friend was my band mate so this sounds very natural for me. Jobim’s music is a total inspiration and identification for my Brazilian cultural roots. When I began playing with Antônio Carlos Jobim I was 30 years old, and my last concert with him, his last concert, happened on my 40th. So, at that time, during a quarter of my life, I had the opportunity to play his outstanding music, perform side by side with one of the most interesting and inspiring personalities that have ever existed, and learn so much from the maestro about life and music. That’s why I bring with me in my memories those times as the best possible, and every day I am still surprised with little or huge details that this music still reveals to me.

LJN: What did Caetano Veloso most want out of you as a musical director and how daunting for you was that to achieve?

JM: At the risk of appearing to be presumptuous, but not being it at all, Caetano wanted me to be myself. He is a fantastic creator, however totally self-taught. After working with pop bands for decades, I guess what he was looking for in me was someone who could help him not only expressing his pop feelings about music, but also his deep and complex erudition in intellectual and cultural terms. Besides giving me all the freedom I could desire, he collaborated a lot with my job, giving me signs of what he expected from the arrangement, even in terms of timbres, form and the aesthetic. After that, I had his total confidence to do what I wanted, and during 14 years working together, he has never suggested one single dot of change on what I wrote for him. He also trusted me as a record producer, so I could expand a lot my knowledge about this kind of art. My first work with him was Circuladô (live) in 1992, which differently from previous projects I had taken part in, we did not use a single score. We created collective band arrangements with enough freedom to change our parts and arrangements at every concert. My second one was Fina Estampa, and then I admit it was really daunting writing for posterity arrangements for someone I’ve idolised as an artist since my earliest childhood. Also it was all about remakes, I mean, new versions of old, and very well known, material, and suddenly I was there, with an orchestra in my hands, so much responsibility, and I wanted to be better than I really am.

LJN: What’s the fundamental meaning of the spirit of samba to you in terms of how it makes you feel as a player?

JM: Samba is the spirit and soul of Brazilian music, joining its African and European roots and origins. It is for Brazilian people, in my opinion, what jazz is to American, and rock and roll is to English, people: a vast field for us to plant and grow our ideas of freedom and expression. I love playing samba, because I am sure then that I am Brazilian, and I am bringing to my listeners what I most appreciate from my homeland.

LJN: As a composer what inspires you most and how often do you write? It would be great if you can describe the last piece that you wrote and give us an idea of how you did it, just a hint of some of the little details so we can imagine the process.

JM: I do not write original compositions very often. However, I think the arrangement craft is very similar to the composition, because composers also impose certain limitations for themselves in order to make this craft more thought-provoking and challenging. My last piece, ‘Nesse Trem Que Eu Vou,’ ("in this train I take") was conceived during a train trip, and through my dreams and daydreams, while listening to the train ‘samba’ engine rhythm, I have established that my music would take me to other places like the train. I began to scat a melody, and it became more and more defined as the landscape vertiginously changed. When I finally got home I gave the melody the harmonic treatment that for me would clearer describe my desires in music.

LJN: How do you think differently about composition after working with Ryuichi Sakamoto? Was that a turning point working with him?

JM: For sure! Working with Jobim taught me a lot about economy of expression elements, in order to achieve a maximum of beauty and comprehension. With Sakamoto I have learnt a lot about breathing, about how silence can be so expressive, about how music reflects what life is all about.

LJN: If your wife the great singer Paula Morelenbaum who you have worked with extensively over the years were to describe you musically in one word what do you think would be the first thing she would say?

JM: Paula is here at my side, complaining about having to choose only one word to describe me in music. After a while she has sent me by Messenger the following sentence: ‘Jaques has no idea of the musical power within him.’ What can I say?

LJN: Turning to the CelloSambaTrio why and when did you decide to form this band and how does the trio function best live? For instance is it on slower material or when there is space for further improvisation?

JM: The CelloSambaTrio came to my mind after listening over and over again to João Gilberto’s 1973 album, which consists of only voice, guitar and light percussion. It has always impressed me so much how it was able to fill the entire sound space with so few elements, and still make us not miss anything else! Also, I loved so much Gilberto’s understanding of samba and the way he dislocates the rhythm in order to create surprises, that I have decided to transcribe some of his recordings to learn his special view and articulation of every song on my cello. I guess in any case, doing slower material, or not so much, playing fast sambas with lots of space for improvisation. in all cases we have so much fun playing this music, and we expect our audiences to follow us.

LJN: Did you hear of the trio's guitarist Lula Galvão and drummer Rafael Barata first of all to think about hiring them?

JM: Lula Galvão was my bandmate on Caetano’s last project that I did which was called A Foreign Sound. I became a great fan of him during this time, and I did not have any doubt about inviting him to join me on the CelloSambaTrio. Ten years before, when Gal Costa invited me to substitute her musical director, all other members of her band recommended this talented guitarist from Brasília to me. However, at that time I have been working for a long time with the guitarist and arranger Luis Brasil, with whom I have recorded Fina Estampa. So I invited him to play with Gal, but I had always in mind Lula’s talent. When we began to record A Foreign Sound I suggested him for Caetano to record Sophisticated Lady, and Caetano loved his playing. When we formed the band for the concerts Caetano asked me to invite him again. For our first European tour with the CST I invited the percussionist Marcelo Costa, my old bandmate from the beginning of my career in the musical group A Barca do Sol, and also Caetano’s drummer on Circuladô and Fina Estampa. For him being so busy, and as he couldn't join us in a next tour, Lula Galvão suggested this young genius of percussion Rafael Barata to me, and he blended so much with our style of music that we kept him till now. His sense of dynamics and particular skills on playing samba made his presence indispensable for our sound.

LJN: As an eclectic artist comfortable in many styles you are in a perfect position to see how different kinds of music suit different atmospheres, people and places. What is it about samba that joins the dots between so many musical styles and why do you think so many great jazz artists from the United States feel so close to Brazilian music?

JM: I could say samba is just universal music with lots of sensuality, swing and beauty. Its rhythm is addictive, and after Jobim and so many others began to treat and complement this rhythm with sophisticated melodic lines and intelligent and inspired harmonic directions, it became irresistible to musicians and music lovers all around the world.

LJN: Do you think film directors have a different sense about music to musicians themselves and if so how hard is to match the two approaches? What specific musical demands for instance in essence did Pedro Almodóvar require of you when you worked with him?

JM: I have worked with Almodóvar only one time, and this was our live performance at his film Hable con Ella (Talk to Her). In this case, we performed the song Cucurucucu Paloma the way we liked to do it, and the way Caetano thought it to us, and Almodóvar was just smiling and enjoying it. I wish some time I can write music for one of his next movies as I am a huge admirer of his cinematography. The answer to your question will vary a lot from one director to the other. Some of them want to be the composer themselves of the whole thing, but as they don’t know how, they invite us then. Some of them like movies with no music at all, and they invite us under a producer’s pressure. I had this funny experience once. And some of them think making music is the easiest thing in the world, so they decide to throw out our hard work very easily and ask for another option, as if that grows on trees. And sometimes we are lucky enough to work with a director who listens to our ideas with an open mind. This is heaven!

LJN: What’s the best and worst thing about touring?

JM: We used to say that playing is not our job. Our job is being away from home and family, dealing with airports, security, traffic jams, hotel receptions, packing and unpacking suitcases, sound-checking, closed restaurants (in Germany and Italy), and not sleeping enough. However, on the other hand, every time we are on the road we miss home badly, and every time we stay a little longer at home we miss the road! (pp)

Jaques Morelenbaum and his Cello Samba Trio play the Pizza Express Jazz Club, London on 24 April.Tickets

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