Faraway jazz Brazilians bring own style to Spoleto series

Brazilian pianist Andre Mehmari will play music inspired by “choro,” an old urban style that is being revitalized.

Dani Gurgel

When most people think of American jazz, they probably imagine saxophones, trumpets, maybe some scat singing and improvised melodies.

Brazilian jazz often includes just as much improvisation, but band configurations can include various woodwinds and other instruments not typically found in American jazz ensembles.

During this year’s Wells Fargo Jazz Series at Spoleto Festival USA, audiences will hear not only the American jazz stylings of vocalist Gregory Porter and the often improvisatory bluegrass group Punch Brothers, but music from faraway lands, including Brazil.

The young Brazilian pianist Andre Mehmari, no stranger to the Spoleto Festival, will offer music inspired by “choro,” an old urban style that’s enjoying a revitalization. Mehmari will play a solo gig June 1 in the Cistern Yard; guitarist Alessandro Penezzi and clarinetist Alexandre Ribeiro are teaming up for five intimate performances in the Simons Center Recital Hall, starting June 6.

“It’s really not jazz,” said Michael Grofsorean, director of the jazz series. “That begs the question, ‘Why are they part of the jazz series?’ Well, there are other forms of music that were the child of the same cultural parents. Choro is a part of that lineage.”

The word “choro” derives from the Portuguese “to cry,” characterized by the wailing of the instruments, often flute, clarinet or guitar.

Heloisa Fernandes, another Brazilian pianist and Spoleto veteran, said the style depends on a musician’s virtuosity and ability to improvise.

Fernandes said the style is an amalgam of European and African rhythms, traditional music, improvised melodies and touches of samba and bossa-nova.

The festival’s first foray into this type of Afro-Brazilian sound was back in 2001, when Virginia Rodrigues performed in Charleston, Grofsorean said. Her boisterous vocals and fun show helped persuade Grofsorean to include more Brazilian music. Rodrigues suggested acclaimed clarinetist Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo, who came in 2010.

In his quintet was Mehmari, who already had appeared in the festival with his own group in 2005. He remembered that experience fondly.

“They loved it!” he said via Skype from his home in Brazil. “They started paying for all our meals because they loved that concert so much. That was something we never experienced before. It was very special. I love Spoleto. I have lots of great memories.”

This year, Mehmari also has a lot of new music coming out, including a new recording called “Angelus” and a live concert DVD, “Miramari.” His Spoleto show this year will feature tunes from his choro- and samba-influenced album, “Afetuoso.”

“Improvisation is very natural to me,” he said. “Since a young age, I never did traditional. I love to improvise. As a composer, it can be sometimes very difficult because you have to be relaxed and very concentrated at the same time. I very much enjoy this. It leaves plenty of space for re-creating music. I always want to keep believing in and expanding the music. ... I believe music can really touch people’s souls.”

Penezzi made his Spoleto Festival debut in 2010 playing along with Mehmari and Proveta. This year, he returns to the stage with Proveta’s protege, clarinetist Alexandre Ribeiro, to perform as a duo.

“Oftentimes, people get lost in the virtuosity of this music,” Grofsorean said. “They forget about connecting people and emotions. (Penezzi and Ribeiro) do it, and together it’s beautiful.”

Penezzi and Ribeiro first met at a famous choro club in Sao Paulo in 2003, Penezzi wrote in an email. Ribeiro would sit in with Penezzi’s band. “He was brilliant,” Penezzi wrote.

Briana Prevost is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.