Friday, September 13, 2019

Indy Jazz Fest 2019 opens with a salute to a specialty genre — the bossa nova

The tributary of bossa nova, an import from Brazil, contributed some much-needed fresh water to the jazz mainstream about six decades ago. This year's Indy Jazz Fest got off to an ingratiating start Thursday night at the University of Indianapolis with a salute to the popular genre.
Bossa nova highlight: Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla sang together with the band a couple of times.

Overlaying jazz phrasing on samba rhythms, bossa nova (Portuguese for "new wave") enjoyed a vogue as the turbulent 1960s plowed their course through American culture.

The originators of the genre — songwriters, guitarists, and singers — became known here, and tenor saxophonist Stan Getz enjoyed a significant boost to his stature as an American bop and post-bop master through his creative association with them. The blend of silk and strength in his tone and his natural lyricism flourished under the bossa nova sway.

Rob Dixon, a saxophonist with stature all his own and a ubiquitous performer and bandleader hereabouts, led the concert. He assembled a band that worked through ten tunes smoothly. Besides Dixon, the ensemble consisted of Sandy Williams, guitar; Scott Routenberg, piano; Brandon Meeks, bass, and Richard "Sleepy" Floyd, drums. All are known for their consummate professionalism in other jazz precincts, and it was fun to enjoy their compatibility in this music.

Rob Dixon, jazz mayor of Indianapolis, presided.
In my view, bossa nova was a godsend to jazz vocalism. I have a notable lack of enthusiasm for most jazz singers. What the Brazilian import allowed was a stylistic lift, a new approach to phrasing over the eighth-note pulse with an unconventional pattern of accents. With wistful, often sad lyrics emphasizing the less "belting" manner of jazz singing, the voice was able to enjoy a new playground, free of show-biz aspirations. True, being comfortable with Portuguese (with English versions interpolated in most bossa nova performances) was a new challenge; otherwise, the rewards were manifold for American singers sympathetic to the genre.

I can't judge the authenticity of their Portuguese, but singers Julie Houston and Rebecca Rafla exuded charm and lyrical warmth in their performances Thursday. Two of the songs — the megahit "The Girl from Ipanema" and an audience-participation finale — brought them together in front of the band. There were ample chances to savor their solo enchantments as well: Houston's "Manha de Carnival" (the theme from "Black Orpheus") expressed an individuality and emotional involvement that Dixon nearly equaled in his florid soprano-sax solo. Rafla's opening pair of songs, "Agua de Marco" and "Corcovado," exhibited comparable expressiveness as well as a freedom in her phrasing that avoided anything unidiomatic.

As the singers took a break, the men played a favorite of jazz musicians, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Triste." There were excellent solos all around, with Routenberg introducing bluesy hints that received ensemble confirmation in the coda.

The performance was typical of every song's shapeliness in execution, with the endings sounding both fresh and well-coordinated. The singers deserve much of the credit for this effect. Kudos to the protean musicianship of Rob Dixon for inspiring the pleasurable effect of the show, with crucial assistance from two singers (with Houston's estimable flute-playing to boot) who knew what they were doing and clearly believed in it.

[Photos by Mark Sheldon]

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