This writer first came across the music of Vinicius Cantuaria on an album simply called Vinicius, which arrived out of the blue after its release on the Transparent label in 2001. That album kind of stole up on the listener, through the singer's wistful, almost world-weary vocal delivery. Usefully, it had lyric sheets in Portuguese with English translations. Resident in New York for some years, Vinicius sings in English sometimes, but he mostly sings in the languorous Portuguese of his native Brazil.
Vinicius was complex in its arrangements, but it was also a very accessible album, with colour and atmosphere and interesting rhythms, as you would expect from a Brazilian.David Byrne was a guest, guitarist Marc Ribot added some useful atmospherics, Brad Mehldau played piano, Joey Baron played drums, Marc Johnson bass, and the granddaddy of the Brazilian scene, Caetano Veloso was also present. Other albums from Vinicius feature guest appearances from Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson.
Vinicius sang his own songs, and played guitar in a complicated, but under-stated fashion, as well as percussion, drums and keyboards. On that self-titled 2001 record, he included his version of Ela É Carioca, written by lyricist and poet Vinicius de Moreas and composer Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, who wrote Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema).
In a short concert extract heard later on RTÉ lyric fm - I still have the casettte tape somewhere - one heard a different Cantuaria. He seemed to be elaborating bossa nova, or deconstructing and re-building its syntax. His rich, distinctive voice was sometimes quiet in orientation, straining for intimacy.
Although born in Manuas, Vinicius Cantuária grew up in Rio de Janeiro. He formed the Brazilian rock group O Terço in the 1970s, and released six solo albums in Brazil in the 1980s. The hits (see youtube) had the 80s hall-marks, and synthesisers had clearly made their way to Brazil too.
The musician emigrated to the United States in the mid 1990s, where he became a prominent figure in the New York jazz scene. It’s a nice conceit, the heart-throb Brazilian pop star opting for something more anonymous, yet also more adventurous, in a foreign city. How big a deal was it? What was he potentially forsaking, what would he gain? It sounds like a risky business, to stop being a pop star in Brazil and start anew.
But it seems to have worked out well. Guitarist Bill Frisell has been a constant musical accomplice and he and Vinicius have an intuitive understanding of the music. So much so that Lágrimas Mexicanas, recorded in Berkeley and Seattle and released in 2010, solely involved the two musicians. The outstanding track is Calle 7 is Vinicius' homage to 7th Avenue where he lived when he first moved to New York .
Moody, delicately poised and profoundly expressive, Calle 7 was co-written with Frisell and is one of the best things in the whole canon. Both musicians’ guitars seem to send out feelers, gently sparking off each other. Vinicius repeats over and over a simple Spanish lyric in which he asks a girl if she would like to stay the night - ah yes, the old story.
Frisell also features on three tracks on the latest album, Indio de Apartamento. Norah Jones plays piano on one track, while Jesse Owens, who wrote Come Away With Me, Jones’s biggest hit, joins Vinicius on the rather harmless, feel-good duet This Time.
You could imagine Willie Nelson making something of this number, or indeed Jones herself, but the Brazilian is at his best with the bossa nova songs on this latest album. The songs are in point of fact pretty straightforward, without any of the bittersweet, introspective note that characterised some of the tracks on the Vinicius album.
The opener, the moody, Flamenco-tinged Humanos features lush strings and light hand-claps. Pianist and composer Riyuchi Sakamoto guests on two tracks whose economical approach - a few piano notes - tempers the blissed-out bossa nova of Moca Feia.
Vinicius has released some 17 albums in his long career, the more recent of which are to be found on the French Naïve label, including Cymbals and Samba Carioca. Both of these albums include the original lyrics, with English translations, in their inside booklet. Vinicius’ sophisticated brand of chill leaves a lasting impression and the man should come to Vicar Street on one of his European tours.