Moacir Santos’s story is as dramatic as his music. Born into the rural poverty of Brazil’s northeast in the 1920s, Santos was taken in by a family that afforded him music lessons. But fleeing abuse at their hands and dreaming of broader horizons, he ran away at 14. Santos played saxophone in marching bands and ballroom orchestras, eventually settling in Rio de Janeiro. There, he encountered Brazil’s bossa nova revolution and studied with European composers. By the late 1950s, he was composing for Radio Nacional.
Although Santos is a towering figure of large-ensemble jazz, he is virtually unknown in the United States. You’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of his definitive 1965 album, Coisas, or three lovely but lesser recordings he made for Blue Note shortly after moving to California in 1967. The new two-CD Ouro Negro saves us from a fruitless search while demonstrating the music’s staying power. It gathers leading Brazilian jazz players for a mostly faithful re-creation of Coisas, along with tunes from the Blue Note dates.
Santos, now 77, was unable to play. But his voice is these compositions, his instrument the shifting ensembles of seven to 14 musicians. “Coisas” means simply “things,” with these pieces numbered one through 10. Yet they’re no trifles; they’re fully formed compositions blending Brazilian rhythms with jazz harmonies to explore memorable themes.
Disc one begins with “Coisa #5,” which marries African and martial rhythms in support of a melody so appealing it’s been covered on some 100 Brazilian recordings. As elsewhere, Santos assigns urgent, percussive riffs to trombone and baritone sax and sets melody and countermelody in woodwinds and brass, often floating flute or trumpet improvisations above it all. Yet there’s no formula. “Coisa #6” bears the harder edge and bright horn work of Cuban music; “#1” mines the two-beat at samba’s core. The Blue Note material bears further charms—specifically “Jequi‚” whose unexpected resolutions evoke the enigmatic beauty of Wayne Shorter’s writing. When Milton Nascimento—one of several guest vocalists—sings on “#8,” slight suspensions of rhythm evoke his own work, and occasionally the addition of electric guitar or bass alters the balance. But these subtle alterations don’t diminish the music’s power or focus.
The history and majesty of large-ensemble jazz spans not just genres but continents. A decade ago, American audiences rediscovered Afro-Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill, whose music is now played at Lincoln Center. Now it’s Santos’s turn in the spotlight.