In conversation with mark levine
By Tomas Peña
Though he began his career as a bebopper, Mark Levine has forged a remarkable career in Latin jazz. A graduate of Boston University, and a respected pianist, composer, educator, and author, Levine's interest in Latin jazz was stoked by a visit to see Tito Puente play at the world famous Palladium. Eventually, Levine moved to Los Angeles, where he honed his skills by playing with a variety of Latin bands. Over the years, Mark has performed with some of the most renowned names in jazz and Latin jazz: Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Tito Puente, Harold Land, Blue Mitchell, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Bobby Hutcherson, Carmen McRae, Bobby Shew, and others. More recently, he's distinguished himself as the leader of The Latin Tinge. He's also the author of The Jazz Theory Book (a virtual bible for jazz pianists), The Jazz Piano Book and the Drop 2 Book. Levine currently resides in the Bay Area, and teaches a course in World Music at the Jazzschool in Berkeley.
Congratulations on the release of Off & On—The Music of Moacir Santos (Left Coast Clave Records). You seem to have struck a chord. The reviews are excellent.
Thank you! If nothing else, I will be happy if Moacir's music becomes better known. Maybe it will even inspire Blue Note Records to release the recordings that Moacir made in the 70s [Maestro (1972), Saudade (1974), and Carnival of the Spirits (1975)].
I am sure that there are plenty of collectors who would love to get their hands on those recordings, myself included!
eBay and Amazon.com in Japan are a good place to look. Oddly enough the prices fluctuate between $14.98 and $304.00 dollars for a collector's copy. The albums have a mysterious way of disappearing and reappearing, but if you look hard enough you can find them for a reasonable price.
You played an important role in the making of Saudade, and you toured with Moacir as well.
Yes, I worked with him and fell in love with his music. I rehearsed with Santos' working group, but only performed with him on one ill-fated tour. At the time, the Brazilian music that was popular in the U.S. was along the lines of Brasil '66, Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, and others doing the Bossa Nova style. What we played was strikingly different. One casino manager went so far as to call it 'jungle music' and told us to go home half-way through the tour.
How did you meet Moacir?
Luis Gasca, a Mexican-American trumpet player who was touring with Mongo Santamaria, introduced me to Moacir. Prior to that, I had never heard of his music.
For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with Moacir Santos, tell us a little bit about him, and explain why his music was so important.
Moacir was a great Brazilian songwriter—I think probably the best one of all, with all due respect to Antonio Carlos Jobim and everybody else. But he wasn't just about Bossa Nova and Samba. He grew up in Pernambuco in the northeast region of the country, and was exposed to a backwoods area. He also traveled a lot, and played with a lot of bands in that area. So he was exposed to music other than just Bossa Nova and Samba, which is why he uses a lot of rhythms that are unfamiliar to this country. Eventually he moved to Rio and São Paulo, where he became a conductor and a movie writer.
He composed soundtracks for films. I understand that he was also a teacher.
The list of those who studied with Moacir is a Who's Who of Brazilian music: Sergio Mendes, Nara Leão, Flora Purim, and Eumir Deodato, among many others. So he was a tremendous influence that way, and his music was a tremendous influence in general. Harmonically he was way ahead of any other Brazilian songwriter and his music is strange, in that it has nine-bar phrases and seven-bar phrases, and it wasn't uncommon for him to superimpose one rhythm on top of another. So he was extremely important.
And musically-speaking, he was ahead of the curve.
Yes, very much so.
What prompted Moacir to move to the U.S., and why do you think fame eluded him?
When he came to the U.S., it was the time of Sergio Mendes, João Gilberto and other Brazilian musicians, many of who moved to L.A. The rumor is that Sergio Mendes encouraged Moacir to come to the United States, but I don't know that to be true. Aside from the fact that Moacir recorded the Blue Note albums, everything else was wrong.
The problem was Blue Note was seeking another Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. I don't know if you have ever heard the first track from [the album] Maestro, but it's definitely not a commercial track. There is this long monologue where he talks about coming to the United States and it just wasn't what Blue Note was expecting. After he fulfilled his three-record contract, Blue Note just sat on the recordings, and he was kind of stuck in the U.S.
He worked in the movie industry on the West Coast, composing soundtracks for films.
He did a couple of things in movies. Nothing memorable.
During an interview conducted in 1996, Moacir said that he was a ghostwriter for a ghostwriter! To the best of my knowledge, the only film he ever received credit for was Final Justice. He composed the soundtrack and orchestrated the music.
There are still lots of blanks in my knowledge about Moacir's life. Everyday new stuff comes up. For example, people have sent me versions of recordings by Moacir that I have never heard before. Every few days I discover another version of 'Nana.' There must hundreds of versions.
Was Moacir revered in Brazil?
He was very well known in Brazil, but I don't think he made much money. As far as being revered, I think that only happened in retrospect when Mario Adnet produced Ouro Negro (Black Gold) in 2004.
That's a double-CD set that features an all-star cast of Brazilian musicians.
They brought back some of the people from his earlier records, and a lot of Brazilian superstars. Wynton Marsalis was also a featured guest. Actually, it was a tribute to them and what they learned from Moacir.
I understand that just prior to his death, the record label Adventure Music was working on a documentary about Moacir's life. Do you know if it was ever completed?
It's very possible. I know that there is a lot of research going on in Brazil. In fact, there's a guy in Brazil who is writing a biography about Moacir.
Tell me about the making of Off & On and why you chose to mount a tribute to Moacir at this juncture in your career.
It was basically, 'Gee, I should have done this before.' In a way it's better that I didn't do it until now, because I'm more ready now than I was five years ago. You know, The Latin Tinge has three previous recordings, and they are all Afro Cuban in orientation, although they have recorded a considerable amount of Brazilian music, too. But I knew that as soon as Mike Spiro got a hold of the music, it was going to take a left turn and go to Havana [laughs]. Actually, I was hoping that would happen, and it did. The music is a mixture of Brazilian music and North American jazz, but rhythmically it is much more Afro Cuban.
So technically, it falls under the heading of World Music.
To me, this to me is a World Music project. The record has only been out for a couple of weeks and is doing well on the World Jazz charts.
This is as good a time as any to introduce the band.
[Percussionist] Michael Spiro and [drummer] Paul Van Wageningen have been with me from the beginning. In fact, we played our first gig ten years ago in August. The first three CD's were done with a different bass player. Bassist John Wiitala joined the band about seven years ago. The newcomer is flutist, saxophonist, and bass clarinetist Mary Fettig, who has performed with just about everybody in the Brazilian jazz scene.
How did you go about selecting the material?
I became familiar with Moacir's music through the Blue Note recordings, which were recorded in the states. By the way, if you will notice, there are no Brazilian musicians on those recordings. Most of the musicians were the cream of Los Angeles jazz scene. So that was my orientation. I went back to those recordings, listened to them and selected the tunes I liked. The majority of the tunes are from the first two recordings (Maestro and Saudade) and one tune is from the third album (Carnival of the Spirits). That was the music I was most familiar with.
Obviously, the project was a labor of love.
It was a labor of love, and everyone in the band was familiar with Moacir's music. They discovered his music 20 years ago, and were chafing at the bit to do it.
Do you think the project will spark a resurgence of Moacir's music?
I think it's starting already. I am getting a lot of feedback from jazz artists asking, 'Where can I get his music?' Also, I am getting a lot of feedback from Brazil, which I was a little bit afraid of, because of that left turn we took to Havana, though it was really nothing to worry about. With the exception of one local musician (who will go unnamed) the reviews have been very positive.
What was his complaint?
Basically, he expected the recording to be more Brazilian, but after he listened to it a few times he took it back! If I may put my teacher's hat on just for a moment, I teach World Music at the Jazz school Institute in Berkeley, California. My view of World Music is music that combines genres and works. There has to be some commonalities between different genres and what's common between Brazilian and Cuban music is clave. Clave rules Cuban music. If you listen to almost any Brazilian record, everything is in clave, though most Brazilian musicians will vehemently deny it! That said they break some rules in the Cuban sense. All of a sudden there might be an extra bar, or one fewer bar, or the clave gets flipped around, which you are not supposed to do if you are in Havana. Other than that, all the music is in clave and the influences are all from the same part of Africa. To me there are only a handful of people in the world that know how to do that. One is [guitarist] Nguyen Lee, and another is [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Hermeto Pascoal. They are able to put it all together because they understand the things they have in common. Of course, Moacir did it and that's what I am trying to do.
In hindsight, are you happy with the way things turned out? If you had it to do over again, is there anything you would change?
I feel wonderful about it. The release date was September 15th, and the reviews and the airplay we have been getting have been very gratifying. Our last CD [Isla] was also a labor of love, and it was nominated for a Grammy.
The nomination was well deserved. Your recordings stand the test of time.
I think Off & On is the kind of record that will be listened to years down the road, simply because it is the first North American tribute to Moacir's music.
I couldn't agree more. Thank you for speaking with Jazz.com, and long live the music of Moacir Santos!
For more info on Mark Levine visit www.markelevine.com