Reviewed by Michael Handler
The country of Brazil has brought us many musical treasures over the years. From Getz/Gilberto to Ivan Lins and Airto, Brazil has forever infused Jazz with that soft and swaying samba sound. It was therefore with delighted surprise that my current batch of CDs for review are all from one successful Brazilian singer who bridges the gap between American Jazz and her native sounds and rhythms. Her name is Ithamara Koorax, and for the last few years she's been moving up in the downbeat Critics and Readers Poll as Best Jazz Singer. Her association with some of the best in Brazilian Jazz includes the late Luiz Bonfa, Oscar Castro- Neves, Dom Um Ramao, and the group Azymuth. This lady has singing chops and a list of credits as a singer going back many years, with participation in over 30 CD projects. Four under her own name are reviewed here, starting with:
Featuring Ron Carter, Deadato, Larry Coryell, Sadao Watanabe, Ivan Conti, others. King Records 1996
Having heard some of her later CDs first in this review process, I was struck how Ithamara's voice has matured in the approximate 10-year span these CDs represent. She still displays great vocal and emotional agility and range on this earlier date, singing in both English and Portuguese. Of course, the tunes are great, and captures the wonderful breadth of Bonfa's writing career, from Black Orpheus onward. In fact, the two most performed and recognizable songs from the film are on this CD: Samba de Orfeu and Manha de Carnaval. Ron Carter and Sadao Watanabe shine on the former tune, and represent some of the first real instrumental solos on the CD. Their stature lends a crisp, professional background to this outing, with the addition of acoustic guitar, keyboards, and bass. Manha De Carnaval is a quieter affair with acoustic guitar and percussion.
This CD offers a pleasant mix of up tempo Brazilian Jazz and quiet acoustic guitar and voice tracks. The Gentle Rain, sung in English, is especially pretty, with the theme restated on Coryell's acoustic guitar. Coryell is himself honored with a tune Mr. Bonfa penned for him called "Samblues for Mr. Coryell", the most electric, bluesy and big beat song on the CD. Zoorax scats her way through the head, then Mr. Coryell rips a guitar solo behind that samba beatfun stuff.
If this CD has a center, it's the work of the late Luiz Bonfa. Musically, it's somewhat inconsistent, perhaps trying to cover to much ground, but then how can one really capture the musical life of such a long-standing talent on one CD?
Featuring Deodato, Gonzalo Rubicana, Dom Um Romao, Sergio Barraso, Jay Berliner, and the band Axymuth, more. Jazz Station Records/ Milestone 2000
This CD from 2000 features a "Who's Who" of modern Jazz and Brazilian players as listed above, all combining to give Koorax a wonderful underpinning for her singing. It's a relaxed session, with tunes ranging from Jobim and Joaquin Rodrigo to Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. The treatment is definitely mostly modern (big electric bass, big beats) but the musicianship is first rate. It's great to hear Eumir Deodato (yes, he has a first name.) and the band Azymuth playing so attentively in supporting roles, yet not backing down from playing out when the opportunity comes. Koorax sings in convincingly in English, French, and of course Portuguese. Most of the tunes will be familiar of American Jazz listeners, ("Moon River", "The Shadow of Your Smile", "A Man and A Woman") and both the Brazilian and English songs get new life with Koorax's singing style. Moon River is especially nice, with a sparse treatment featuring Cristina Braga on harp and Jose Roberto Berrtrami's lush yet restrained keyboard work. Other tunes have a pop sound, but the tunes have a nice flow and great production values. This is really a late-night-by-the fire CD, and there ain't nothing wrong with that.
With John McLaughin, Luiz Bonfa, Jurgen Friedrich, Azymuth, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Dom Um Ramoa, others.
Not exactly a Jazz outing, this popish collection of ballads is no less full of fine musicianship. The suppleness and beauty of the second track "I Loved You", for example, really stands out, although it's just keyboards (Jurgen Friedrich) and voice. It turns out the arrangement is by the legendary Claus Ogerman. Another track, "La Puerta", is another piano duo with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Later, on "April in Paris", she teams up with guitarist and mentor Luiz Bonfa. At a mere 2 minutes and 12 seconds, this lovely track left me wanting more. The CD is sung in both English and Portuguese, with dedications to her influences such as Mark Murphy and Jimmy Scott, and also offers a bonus track in Jobim's "Absolut Lee". This one tune offers a great Jazz trio at work, featuring Friedrich again on acoustic piano, Sergio Barrroso, bass, and Cesar Machado, drums-the same trio employed to such good effect on the "Autumn in New York", reviewed below.
2004 Trio: Jurgen Friedrich, piano; Sergio Barroso, bass; Cesar Machado, drums.
This last CD might be the most pleasing for Jazz fansit's a pure, unadulterated
piano Jazz trio date, with singer. And the trio is very, very good. Koorax
gives them plenty of space to evolve their sound, which helps give the entire
date a mature, unhurried feel. In "You Don't Know What Love Is"
the trio plays an entire chorus and second section before Koorax even starts
singing, so the tune belongs to the players as much as the singer. The empathy
between all of them is quite apparent. The CD consists of American and Brazilian
standards, all sung in English. (By 2004, when this was recorded, her Brazilian
accent is less marked but still appealing.) The tunes may be standards,
but the treatment is anything but, with Zoorax playing with the time and
phrasing, teasing us with her alterations to melody and interactions with
the band. This is not a swinging CD, but it's appeal lies in the soft ballad
treatments pulled off so well by the singer and the trio. Besides
some obvious, but no less captivating selections ("You Don't Know What
Love Is", "I Fall In Love Too Easily") there are some surprises,
such as Dave and wife Iola Brubecks' "Unisphere" and Jergen Friedrich's
own "Walking Down the Street". There are 9 tracks, plus an alternative
take of Jobim's "You Were Born to Be Mine" added as a bonus track.
Every tune is dedicated to Kooraz's Jazz heroes, such as Frank Sinatra,
Flora Purim, and Miles Davis/ Keith Jarrett. This lady has good taste.
by Michael Handler
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