In keeping with the French’s long-standing reputation for recognizing good music (while producing little of their own), some of the better Brazilian sounds in town can be heard at Jules Bistro when the Choro Ensemble is dans la maison. There’s a precedent for this: About the time the French were embracing the exoticism of Josephine Baker, they also fell for the choro music of Pixinguinha, the first Brazilian musician contracted to play abroad. The Jules crowd is probably seduced by the Choro Ensemble for much the same reason: Their wistful Dixieland sound is incongruous enough that it has to be felt before it can be understood.
Choro is to bossa nova and samba as ragtime is to bebop and later forms of jazz, although it actually predates ragtime by a few decades. It began in the mid 19th century as a Brazilian take on European dance music like polka and waltz, but its identity really came together when Pixinguinha added Afro-Brazilian percussion to the mix. After a couple decades of heavy circulation at home and abroad, choro became an endangered genre in the ’50s, when bossa nova broke out as Brazil’s calling card. More to the point, the older musical form was assimilated into emergent ones—”Chega de Saudade,” the inaugural bossa nova tune by Carlos Jobim, is a camouflaged choro. The Choro Ensemble is alone in their rescue-and-recovery mission in New York, but there’s a full-scale choro revival in Rio, where pubescent Cariocas with naval rings and tribal tattoos are reportedly bumping and grinding to Brazil’s golden oldies.
The music at Jules is authentic stuff, played in a style you would have heard in Rio cafés in the ’20s and ’30s, with the traditional instrumentation of that period: clarinet, cavaquinho (a small, ukulele-like guitar), bass guitar, and pandeiro (Brazilian tambourine). The Choro Ensemble’s neo-trad approach commits the group to covering lots of Pixinguinha, who’s referred to as “our divine master” without a hint of irony. You’ll also hear classics by Jacob do Bandolim, like “Noites Cariocas”—you’ve heard it before, or will feel like you have, even if you haven’t.
Ze Mauricio lays down the shuffling Afro-Brazilian rhythmic base on pandeiro, while Pedro Ramos picks a wicked cavaquinho (You can’t help thinking that players of miniature guitars necessarily become highly skilled because they can’t derive any big-time phallic power from their instruments). Choro’s exuberance makes it sound simple, but that’s deceptive: Guitarist Gustavo Dantas manages contrapuntal complexity worthy of Bach and throws in some tricky chord substitutions to keep Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen sharp in her improvisations. Choro means “crying,” and probably refers to the lilting or weeping qualities of the lead instrument. To risk some racial profiling: The music’s yearning Portuguese melodies and speedy, virtuosic runs are not such a stretch for an Israeli schooled in klezmer, which can also be simultaneously plaintive and frisky.
With the preponderance of all varieties of Musica Popular Brasileira today, choro can sound anachronistic, especially in the hands of young players. But this untimeliness lends it that irresistibly spooky feeling of something forgotten, or not yet arrived. Like all Brazilian music, choro is infectious—it’s easy to listen to and, taken with a glass or five of bordeaux, makes for a surefire Sunday-night recovery from the weekend.