What's a Russian bass player doing making an album called Sounds of Brazil? Is it just another example of a shrinking musical world, or is Moscow the new Rio? Well, leader Ark Ovrutski says Russian links with Brazil go back two centuries to "Russian urban romantic songs" that were similar melodically to Portuguese songs which are the ancestors of samba and bossa nova. I'll have to take his word for that because googling "Russian urban romantic songs" nets fewer than a dozen hits, all quoting Ovrutski.
However tenuous the link between Russian music and samba, this is an enjoyable, and idiomatic outing. The "enjoyable" part is ensured by Ovrutski and his supporting cast. The two reedmen grab most of the solo time and use it well. Craig Handy is in especially good form on flute and a variety of saxes. Though he wails with a frenetic edge on "Mr. Hindemith" and the opening "2nd Line/Partido Alto," he seems to have mellowed a bit, and shines melodically on the session's ballads--this despite his recent leadership of the anything but mellow Mingus Dynasty band.
The "idiomatic" part is nailed by Duduka Da Fonesca, Jorge Continentino, and Helio Alves, all born and raised in Brazil. Da Fonesca has led numerous New York-based Brazilian groups, and no less an icon than Antonio Carlos Jobim has said, "I love the way he plays." Me too.
All the tunes were written by Ovrutski. They owe more to mainstream jazz than South America, but that's fine. The styles, after a half century of cross-breeding, are synergistic. Samba adds exotic spice to jazz; jazz intensifies samba's already loose swinging vibe. This release is one of the best examples of how successful the merger can be.
"2nd Line/Partido Alto" sets the tone. Ovrutski's firm hand plucks a samba rhythm and percussion layers the feel before the reed duo runs through the bouncy melody. Handy's superb alto solo is all New York, even as the rhythm section remains in South America. Continentino, on tenor, follows Handy's jazzy lead before the two rejoin as the melody returns.
SOB features Continentino on flute as the feel switches to the lighter, happier sound of many of today's Brazilian and Afro-Cuban-influenced small groups. (The Caribbean Jazz Project comes to mind.) Handy too keeps the lighter touch while again impressing on alto. The vibe softens even further as two flutes float together on the gentle "Song for My Mom."
Da Fonesca's jazz chops are on display during his first solo amidst the complex rhythms of "Mr. Hindemith." Alves too impresses with a jazz solo that never loses its Latin appeal.
The session has a wonderful variety of moods and colors. Typical is the unusual pairing of soprano and baritone saxes on the two takes of "Brazilian Carnival."
The CD runs less than 48 minutes. There should have been a couple more tracks, but this is brilliant Brazilian jazz played by exceptional musicians. Highly recommended.