THE DOZENS: MILTON NASCIMENTO by Ted Gioia

Milton Nascimento rose to fame a few months after “The Girl from Ipanema” earned its Grammy as “record of the year.” Was Nascimento’s arrival on the scene the signal that the age of bossa nova had come to an end? Certainly no other individual did more to bring Brazilian popular music into the modern age. In time his influence would expand beyond the borders of his home country, inspiring jazz artists, world music performers, and singer-songwriters. You can hear his impact on artists as diverse as Pat Metheny, Bobby McFerrin and Esperanza Spalding.

 Milton Nascimento

From the start, Nascimento was an outsider. Although he was born in Rio on October 26, 1942, he was raised in Minas Gerais, where mining, industry, coffee cultivation and dairy farming dominate the economy. When he moved back to Rio at the peak of the bossa frenzy, his sound was so different from what others were doing that few knew what to make of this impassioned, idiosyncratic performer, who played bossa songs with the “wrong” chord changes, and whose work ran counter to the prevailing tastes of the day. Yet his success with his song “Travessia” at a high profile music competition brought him a wider audience, and—in short order—a recording contract with a US label.

Even after he became a star, Nascimento continued to defy expectations and maintain his outsider status. The music industry wanted to make him into a slick pop star, the jazz world was ready to embrace him as a fusion star, he might even have crossed over into politics as other world music performers (including his Brazilian contemporary Gilberto Gil) have done—but Nascimento’s own vision was harder to categorize. In a series of landmark recordings, he created a body of work that was both radical and traditional, expansive but minimalist, Brazilian yet global. His works are maddeningly difficult to categorize, and for all the influence they have had on others, Milton Nascimento still sounds like no one else.

Below are twelve essential tracks from Nascimento’s career. They span forty years, and include at least one track from five different decades. The diversity and range of musical settings are striking, but perhaps all too fitting for an artist who first big hit was a song whose title translated as “journey.” Milton Nasicmento has certainly brought listeners along on his journeys, as the songs below testify.


Milton Nascimento: Courage

Track

Courage

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar)

CD

Courage (A&M 0814)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Herbie Hancock (piano), Eumir Deodato (organ), Airto Moreira (percussion),

Jose Marino (bass), João Palma (drums) and orchestra

.

Arrangement by Eumir Deodato

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, December, 1968, February 26-27, 1969

Albumcovermiltonnascimentocourage

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

"Although Nascimento speaks little English," Ralph Gleason writes in the liner notes to this release, "he sings it with assurance and with articulation." In truth, the heavy production hand of Creed Taylor is felt at every point on this project, and the decision to have Nascimento sing in English on this US debut was just one more sign of how this artist was being groomed for crossover success on the pop charts. Taylor had been a behind-the-scenes player in the bossa nova fad, and no doubt saw Nascimento as Brazil's next great musical export. So we get the slick arrangements with a very 1960s-AM-radio flavor, and a commercial orientation to every aspect of the production. Yet there is something powerful here that seems to subvert the pop sensibility, a deep and almost spiritually charged vocal from Nascimento that cuts through the glittery trappings and grabs the listener's attention. His guitar is not credited on the liner notes, but it can be heard in the background anchoring the track. This artist soon switched directions, but this recording remains essential listening for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of Nascimento's career. And, because of his against-the-grain performance, this track has aged much better than your typical late-60s crossover fare.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Tudo Que Você Podia Ser

Track

Tudo Que Você Podia Ser

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals) and Lô Borges (guitar)

CD

Clube da Esquina (EMI Odeon Brazil 792696)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals), Lô Borges (guitar), Wagner Tiso (organ), Toninho Horta (electric guitar),

Tavito (12 string guitar), Beto Guedes (bass), Rubinho (congas), Luiz Alves (shaker), Robertinho Silva (drums)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges

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Recorded: No info given, album released in 1972

Albumcovermiltonnascimentoclubedaesquina

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

What The White Album was to American rock, Milton Nascimento's Clube da Esquina was to post-bossa Brazilian music. Like the Beatles, Nascimento and company created a double-disc masterpiece with a fresh sound that nicely balanced visionary compositions with crisp, under-produced textures. This was music that made its own rules up as it went along with a boldness that still inspires imitators today. "Tudo Que Você Podia Ser" is a classic track, which starts with just soulful acoustic guitar and Nascimento's soaring voice. Soon other instruments enter, at first with occasional colors—check out Tiso's subtle organ notes, Horta's guitar, and a growing cascade of percussion sounds. Surprise! . . by the midway point this song has morphed into a simmering dance number. Give credit to the whole band, especially co-leader Lô Borges, but Nascimento's bittersweet vocals are what will grab you here. They are a soothing counter-balance to this musical tempest, holding everything together even as the energy level elevates. Welcome to the magical world of Milton Nascimento on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, when a song could start in one dimension and end up in another place completely. But this was more than changing a tune in midstream, it was altering the whole landscape of what we now call "world music."

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Wayne Shorter (with Milton Nascimento): Ponta de Areia

Track

Ponta de Areia

Artist

Wayne Shorter (soprano sax)

CD

Native Dancer (Columbia CK 46159)

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Musicians:

Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Milton Nascimento (vocals), Herbie Hancock (piano),

Wagner Tiso (electric piano, organ), Jay Graydon (guitar), Dave McDaniel (bass), Robertinho Silva (drums)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento and Fernando Rocha Brant

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Recorded: Los Angeles, September 12, 1974

Albumcoverwayneshorternativedancer

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

The leader of the date is Wayne Shorter, but vocalist Milton Nascimento almost steals the show with his catchy melody and sweet wordless vocal. Nascimento has an angelic falsetto, which he demonstrates to good effect on this track. But Shorter adds a surprising twist by matching the sound of his soprano sax to the timbre of Nascimento's voice. The result is five minutes of blissful music-making, a fresh take that ignores the expectations of Weather Report and Blue Note fans, and reveals instead a different side of Wayne. Folks like Pat Metheny were obviously listening. This whole mixture looks forward to Still Life (Talking) and Metheny's other Brazilian-oriented 1980s projects. But this music doesn't need later events to validate its importance. Its own merits are eminently accessible, even on a first hearing.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Pão e Água

Track

Pão e Água

Artist

CD

Clube da Esquina 2 (EMI-Odeon 791606)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals), Lô Borges (vocals), Toninho Horta (vocals),

Beto Guedes (mandolin), Nelson Angelo (vocals), Flavio Venturini (piano), Pipo Spera (charango), Zé Eduardo (drums), Nenê (percussion), Novelli (bass)

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Composed by Lô Borges, Marcio Borges and Roger Mota

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Recorded: Rio De Janeiro, 1978

Albumcoverclubedaesquina2miltonnasimento

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The two Clube da Esquina double albums stand out as defining statements of Milton Nascimento's aesthetic vision, and remain key milestones in Brazilian post-bossa-nova popular music. Nascimento here is completely liberated from the previous efforts to package his music for crossover success. Instead he embraces a raw, under-produced sound, and the performances seem aimed at personal transcendence rather than radio airplay. As a result this music sounds very fresh and immediate a generation after it was recorded. "Pão e Água" features some of the finest rhythm section work you will hear on any popular recording from this era. Motown fans talk about the Funk Brothers, but the Clube de Esquina gang deserve the same degree of reverence. Nascimento is inspired, his vocal an invocation of higher powers. A glorious moment in Brazilian music—it's a shame this recording is still so little known outside of Brazil, and available in the US only as an expensive import.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Ofetório

Track

Ofertorio

Artist

Milton Nascimento (idealization, arrangements and conducting)

CD

Missa dos Quilombos (Verve 314 513 034)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (idealization, arrangements and conducting),

Celsinho Moreira (guitar), Paulinho Carvalho (bass), Flávio Venturini (keyboards), Frank Colon (percussion), Jorginho do Atabaque (percussion), Darcy Jongueira (percussion), Caboclinho (percussion), Robertinho Silva (drums, percussion, percussion arrangements), Sérgio Santos (chorus), Edir Passos (chorus), Alexandrino Ducarmo (chorus), Gil Amâncio (chorus), Marquinho Preto (chorus), Olga Gomes (chorus), Elisete Gomes (chorus), Elizabeth Gomes (chorus), Paula Vargas (chorus)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento, Casaldáliga and Pedro Tierra

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Recorded: The Church of Our Lady Mother of Men, Caraça, Minas Geraes, February 1982

Albumcovermiltonnascimentomissadosquilbombos

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Quilombos were settlements by runaway Brazilian slaves and free-born natives of African origin. They first appeared in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the most famous group of quilombos, Palmares, lasted for almost a century as a self-sustaining political entity. Milton Nascimento celebrated the resilience and independence of these colonies in his mass Missa dos Quilombos, recorded in 1982. The combination of African-style percussion with liturgical singing is mesmerizing here—but this mixture eventually contributed to the work's prohibition by the Vatican, which had long battled against assimilation of Candomblé elements into Roman Catholic ritual. On this recording, however, Archbishop Hélder Câmara participates, and it is not hard to link Nascimento's composition with Câmara's liberation theology. The "Ofetório" is my favorite part of this vibrant work. The large chorus, which might weigh down a lesser rhythm section, makes the most of Nascimento's expansive melody. This piece is rarely heard yet, like Ellington's "Come Sunday," it is perfectly suited for a secularized and trimmed-down combo performance.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Anima

Track

Anima

Artist

CD

Anima (Verve 813296)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals),

Marco Antônio Guimarães (percussion), Bento Menezes (acoustic guitar), Artur Andrés (flute), Paulinho Carvalho (electric bass, vocals), José Renato (vocals), Marilene Gondim (vocals), Tunai (vocals), Tadue Franco (vocals), Tavinho Bretas (vocals), Maria de Fatima (vocals), Décio Filho (percussion), Paulo Santos (percussion)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento

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Recorded: No information given, album released in 1982

Albumcovermiltonnascimentoanima

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Anima marks one of the highlights of Milton Nascimento's career. On the title cut, he somehow creates a music without passport or lineage. You can try to fit this into the history of Brazilian music, but it really sounds more African. Or maybe it's pop or some new type of jazz. You might even be forgiven for labeling it as a crazy takeoff on the minimalism of Terry Riley and Philip Glass. But toss all the labels out the window. This is Milton's universe, and he has created an individual soundscape out of his own personal musical journey. He enlists the group Uakti to help out with their unusual homemade instruments, and layers shimmering, echoing vocals on top of a hypnotic rhythm. This is magical stuff, the sonic equivalent of pixie dust. In fact, the whole Anima project marks a milestone in modern world music. It's a shame it isn't better known.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Nos Bailes da Vida

Track

Nos Bailes Da Vida

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar)

CD

Ao Vivo (Polygram Brazil 817307)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar),

with band including Wagner Tiso (keyboards), Hélio Delmiro (guitar), Paulinho Carvalho (bass), Robertinho Silva (percussion, drums), Nenem (drums, percussion)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant

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Recorded: São Paulo, November 1-3. 1983

Albumcovermitonnascimentoaovivo

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Most of this live album is weighed down by tepid orchestral arrangements. But on "Nos Bailes da Vida," Nascimento decides that a 39-piece band isn't big enough for him, and enlists the enthusiastic São Paulo audience to be his accompanists. This artist's performances have always struck me with their charismatic (in the old, sociological sense of the word) and quasi-ritualistic quality—sometimes made explicit, but usually just felt behind the surface of the music. This radiant, transcendent side of Nascimento comes to the fore on this track, and the sing-song quality of the melody adds to the effect. Imagine a soundspace that serves as meeting ground between an anthem for the African diaspora and nursery lullaby for a toddler, and you will get some idea of the territory Nascimento is staking out here. An uplifting performance!

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: San Vicente

Track

San Vicente

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar)

CD

MIltons (Columbia 45239)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Herbie Hancock (piano), Nana Vasconcelos (percussion),

Robertinho Silva (drums)

.

Composed by Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant

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Recorded: Rio de Janeiro, no date given (CD released in 1989)

Albumcovermiltonnascimentomiltons

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

This song, from the outstanding Miltons album, opens with Nascimento singing plaintively over a rubato guitar accompaniment, the music matching the dreamlike ambiance of the lyrics. Coração Americano, acordei de um sonho estranho. That gently tinkling piano in the background is Herbie Hancock. In the second chorus the tempo solidifies, and Hancock no longer accompanies but pushes the rhythm. Nascimento responds by raising the intensity of his vocal. At the 3-minute mark, the song seems to be coming to a gentle conclusion on one of those beautiful arcing vocals in the stratosphere that Nascimento delivers so well. But this is only an April-in-Paris fake-out. After a brief pause, the piano-guitar vamp returns, then the energy level kicks up into high, high, high gear. Hancock delivers one of the most spirited solos of his career, a real gem. There are so many aspects to this pianist that it's easy to forget at how good Herbie is at delivering an old-fashioned groove. Remember "Watermelon Man" and "Cantaloupe Island"? Well, this is similar, though less R&B-ish and more diatonic, but above all more Brazilian in feeling . . . yet still intoxicatingly intense. This sounds like a Herbie Hancock who grew up in Minas Gerais instead of Chicago. There is no reprise of the vocal, but that was a wise decision. After all, how could you top such a piano outing? This one will hit you like the third caipirinha on an empty stomach.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Nozani Na

Track

Nazoni Na

Artist

CD

Txai (Columbia 46871)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals),

Marlui Miranda (vocals, guitar), Caito Marcondes (percussion)

.

Composed by Hector Villa-Lobos and Roquette Pinto

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Recorded: Probably recorded in New York in 1990 (CD released in 1990)

Albumcovermiltonnascimentotxaijpg

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Deep in the traditions of African music—both homegrown and transplanted to the Americas—is the implicit assumption that sound trumps theory. Artists as different as John Lee Hooker, King Oliver, Bob Marley and Ornette Coleman remind us there is a certain level of expression that cannot be fully captured in the mathematical models of music-making that we inherited from Pythagoras and the Greeks. This is my own personal interpretation of harmolodics, which I view as an anti-theory of sound creation, one all the more valuable for its unwillingness to be reduced to rules.

Which brings us to Milton Nascimento, who is one of the most subversive singer-songwriters of modern times. "Nozani Na" is a traditional song from the Mato Grosso, best known for its adaptation by Hector Villa-Lobos. But compare Nascimento's version with the classical composer's and get a lesson in the primacy of sound over notes, aural fluency as a deeper intuiting of music than the printed score. Accompanied solely by percussion and guitar, Nascimento and singer-ethnomusicologist Marlui Miranda (who spent 17 years researching Amazonian music) engage in a luminous duet. If you are a seeker after music that cuts through the noise, and resists reduction to the formulaic, this is a track you need to hear.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Toots Thielemans (with Milton Nascimento): Travessia

Track

Travessia

Artist

'Toots' Thielemans (harmonica) and Milton Nascimento (vocals)

CD

The Brazil Project, Vol. 2 (Private Music 82110)

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Musicians:

'Toots' Thielemans (harmonica), Milton Nascimento (vocals), Oscar Castro-Neves (guitar),

Gilson Peranzzetta (keyboards), Jamil Joanes (bass), Téo Lima (drums)

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Composed by Milton Nascimento, Fernando Brant and Gene Lees

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Recorded: New York, Los Angeles and/or Rio de Janeiro, no dates given (CD released in 1993)

Albumcovertthlelemansbp2

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

I have several versions of Nascimento singing this composition that first brought him widespread attention among the Brazilian public—when it placed second at the 1967 International Music Festival—including his debut recording of the song and his awkward 1968 version in English. But this collaboration with Toots Thielemans is my favorite. Nascimento is in top form, especially when he delivers a wordless vocal in the high register, and Thielemans contributes a lyrical melody statement. My only complaint is that the track lasts only three minutes, and the ending arrives somewhat abruptly. Three minutes might be the perfect length for boiling an egg or generating crossover airplay, but this diehard Nascimento fan would have liked to hear several more choruses.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento (with Herbie Hancock & Pat Metheny): Cantaloupe Island

Track

Cantaloupe Island

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar)

CD

Pietà (Savoy Jazz 17476)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Herbie Hancock (piano), Pat Metheny (guitar).

Composed by Herbie Hancock

.

Recorded: New York, no date given (CD released in 2005)

Albumcovermiltonnascimentopieta

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock have a musical relationship that dates back to the Brazilian star's first US album from 1969, while their later collaboration on "San Vincente," from the 1989 Mlitons CD resulted in a standout track in the career of both artists. Here Nascimento covers a Hancock jazz standard, the hard bop classic "Cantaloupe Island," and invites the composer and Pat Metheny to join him in the studio. Metheny is very comfortable in this setting—indeed the "even eights" sound of Nascimento's Clube da Esquina era recordings exerted a noticeable influence on Pat's own work. Hancock lays back at first, but before the second chorus arrives, he is driving the rhythm. He digs into his personal Blue-Note-meets-Brazil bag that I have heard him use in these types of situations; it is very effective. Even without a drummer, there is hardly enough room for Metheny, but he floats and flutters, and when his solo comes, he digs in with a very earthy improvisation. Nascimento needs no lyrics to express his soulfulness—this track will show how much Mr. McFerrin learned from the Brazilian master. Milton's voice is angelic and devilish at the same time. This song has inspired some hot renditions, including Hancock's simmering original and Us3's manipulation of the same. But Nascimento has added another must-hear version to the list.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Milton Nascimento: Chega de Saudade

Track

Chega de Saudade

Artist

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar)

CD

Novas Bossas (EMI 214817)

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Musicians:

Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar),

Paulo Jobim (guitar), Daniel Jobim (piano), Paulo Braga (drums), Rodrigo Villa (bass)

.

Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes

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Recorded: Various locations, no dates given (CD released in 2008)

Novasbossas1

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Most casual fans will find nothing surprising in Milton Nascimento releasing a bossa nova CD, and covering the classic Jobim tune "Chega de Saudade." Yet those with longer memories will recall that Nascimento did more than any musician to topple the supremacy of bossa nova in Brazilian music. Nascimento's rhythmic sensibility, with its hypnotic even eights (which Pat Metheny and others would eventually incorporate into jazz settings), instilled a far more Africanized sensibility into Brazilian music than anything found in the Jobim songbook. Early in Nascimento's career, even when this artist performed bossa nova songs, listeners were struck by how different they sounded in his interpretations.

But all things mellow with age, and now Nascimento not only records "Chega de Saudade" but delivers it with genuine bossa nova feeling. And he brings Jobim's son and grandson in on the festivities. Don't expect any musical revolutions here, just a bittersweet, relaxed tribute to a classic song, a brilliant composer and a timeless style of music. This track, and most of the other performances on the Novas Bossas CD, will stand out as outliers on the bell curve of Milton's music, but fans of Brazilian music will enjoy this release and want to add it to their collection.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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