The colorful and exciting sound of Brazilian music seems to be a perennial favorite not only with jazzers but also World Music fans into sublime, guitar-centric music. A good example of the elegance and music magic of contemporary 21st century Brazilian music is Sorte!, a short but sweet, six-track, 29 minute CD featuring music by John Finbury and lyrics and vocals of singer Thalma De Freitas. Well known in her native Brazil as an actress and vocalist, Ms. Freitas is a natural in the style of 1960’s favorite Astrud Gilberto—the great voice on many of Jobim’s classic early tracks. Writing and performing for over 40 years, John Finbury is a gifted American keyboardist and composer, that is said to have shocked the Latin music scene with his 2016 album Imáginario. As he tells mwe3.com “The reason I may have “shocked” the Latin music community, or rather “emerge from obscurity” is because my song “A Chama Verde” from my album Imaginário was nominated in 2016 for a Latin Grammy for “Song Of the Year.”
From the following interview, reflecting on the unique World Beat approach on his three recent albums, John tells mwe3.com, “I think my compositional style is consistently ‘me’ in all three records. I like lush chords, key indeterminacy, chord substitutions, uneven bar lengths, time and key changes, vamps, and of course, moody ballads. I know that I am on the right track with my compositions when the mood is strong.” Speaking about the notion of an American from Boston writing music in the Brazilian Bossa Nova music domain, John also explains, “American composers have been working in Brazilian genres for a long time. Burt Bacharach certainly knew how to adapt Brazilian music in his songs. I tend to listen to my own chestnuts and explore new music by listening to the work of the musicians with whom I am working.” A fine band backs up John’s music and Thalma’s vocals on Sorte! including guitarist Chico Pinheiro, bass ace John Patitucci and the legendary Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. Lyrics in both English and Brazilian accompany the red-hot looking CD packaging. Recorded in NYC and produced by Emilio D. Miler, Sorte! is one of the most intriguing Brazilian World Beat albums of 2019. www.greenflashmusic.com
mwe3: Growing up in the Boston area, what era did you grow up in? Was it the Beatles’ era back in the 1960s and was rock an influence and how about pop and R&B?mwe3: Growing up in the Boston area, what era did you grow up in? Was it the Beatles’ era back in the 1960s and was rock an influence and how about pop and R&B?
John Finbury: I was born in 1952 and grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which is an old industrial shoe town 35 miles northwest of Boston. The Beatles most certainly rocked my world and provided the real-time soundtrack to my adolescence. I was 12 when I heard them in 1964 at the Boston Garden. Well, you couldn’t really hear them over the screaming… I took up drums in middle school and began playing garage rock and The Ventures with my friends. Yes, I played “Wipe-Out” at a ‘battle of the bands’ and played in rock bands right through High School culminating in a gig at The Bitter End in NYC in 1969 with Ten Foot Clearance, a band led by the terrific B3 player Matt Carlbach. I had tickets to see Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock on Sunday… he played at 9 AM on Monday, but I never made it and I lost the ticket! Rock, R&B and pop music was a daily companion as was the 1969 Boston zeitgeist. I went to a lot of memorable shows in Boston including The Velvet Underground with Nico, Van Morrison, The Band, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. The legendary Charles Laquadeira and WBCN was my radio station, introducing America to the British blues invasion. I had a high school mate, Robin Jones, who had a trunk of blues records and he introduced me to the American blues guys like Muddy Waters, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, B.B and Albert King, the Chicago Now three record set and that music was and remains part of my sound-world, and vinyl collection.
mwe3: So how did your tastes evolve from rock and R&B into your current mix of jazz, classical and more then, Brazilian music?
John Finbury: My father was a huge influence on my ear and musical taste. He was a fine musician; a violinist who abandoned that difficult fretless instrument when he heard his contemporary, the Hungarian prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin, play with the BSO, and he realized his dreams of a solo career were unrealistic. After World War II and his participating in 11 marine landings in the South Pacific, my father took advantage of the G.I. Bill and became one of the first music composition students at the Schillinger School in Boston, the precursor to what is now Berklee School of Music. He was a songwriter in the American Songbook tradition. I have the lead sheets to his compositions in my piano bench… for example “Soon There Will Be A Wedding Cake” and “Time Flies”. I must admit I lifted a bridge or two in some of my early jazz/blues compositions. My mother knew the lyrics to the songbook. They loved jazz and the songbook was their soundtrack. My parents would take us to jazz clubs like Lennys on the Turnpike in Saugus and Dave McKenna, the regular jazz pianist at the Copley Plaza, and always to clubs when we went to NYC. I remember a Dinah Washington show, and Mort Saul riffing the newspaper. My father played all the iconic classical and jazz records. He brought home new vinyl every week and the living room stereo was always going in the evening. I have his vinyl collection. At the same time I was listening to Steppenwolf and Dylan and I was also hearing Bach, Beethoven, Bill Evans, Monk and Brasil ’65. I remember my father sitting at his piano… a beautiful Steinway “O” and wincing in search of tensions as he played jazz chords. That Steinway O is now in my living room and I’ve got to say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Unfortunately, my father died in 2001 and didn’t hear my new stuff, but my mother did.
I came to play the piano in college, which is late for a pianist. I had studied piano as a kid but drums was my instrument, until I heard the Chopin Nocturnes and I really connected with that music and wanted to play them. There began my more serious piano and classical music studies at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge and Boston University.
mwe3: You have a very colorful background and you also made music with your wife around that time too and also soundtrack music?
John Finbury: I met my wife Patty Brayden in 1978. She is a singer and so naturally we began having jam sessions with our friends with Patty singing her favorite Tracy Nelson and Emmylou Harris songs. In 1979 I became friends with Fred Simon, a documentary videographer in Boston who asked me to compose the soundtrack for a project he was doing for WGBH TV called “Portraits From The 2 O’clock Lounge”, which was Boston’s last strip joint in Boston’s ‘Combat Zone’. These were my first professional compositions, which were traditional bump and grind blues numbers with jazzier bridges I adapted or rather that I “lifted” from a few of my father’s compositions. Encouraged by actually being paid to compose music I wrote, I recorded an album’s worth of original rock, pop and R&B songs and pitched them, by mailing cassettes, to NYC and Los Angeles and while, I was told one of the songs called “Come With Me” got close to Rod Stewart, it never happened. Those recordings rested in my attic for the next 35 years until a guy from Fervor Records, an Americana label specializing in supplying synch music, TV and movie soundtracks, heard a song from my early days which I wrote with Patty Brayden called “One False Move and I’ll Blow This Love Apart” and Fervor bought that song and most of my recorded catalogue from that early 1980s period.
mwe3: I read that you became very interested in Jobim’s music back in 2005.
John Finbury: Around 2005 I wrote my first jazz song, “Waltz For Patty”, in what I call my ‘modern era’ and formed my first jazz band with Patty singing lots of Billie Holiday songs. It was then when I began playing and studying the Jobim songbook and began composing Bossa Nova songs. My friend Ned Claflin was a big influence on this new direction as Ned was deeply into the Jobim songbook, the music of Brazil and especially the great Joao Gilberto. Ned speaks Portuguese and is also a gifted lyricist with song credits with Madonna and Marty Sexton, and so we began writing songs together. Ned really encouraged me in this direction and would send me You Tube tracks to listen to constantly. I was inspired and began writing. I would record new music on my piano and send Ned the iPhone recordings and Ned would write the lyrics. With Patty and me contributing as lyricists, we wrote about twenty songs, which I recorded in two albums with the wonderful singer Marcello Camargo: Imaginário in 2016 followed by Pitanga the next year. Remarkably, our song “A Chama Verde” was nominated in 2016 for a Latin Grammy for “Song Of The Year.” How this happened is and remains a mystery as the song had about 250 views on Youtube at the time and we were completely commercial free, unknown with no promotion, social media presence, or even a website. Shakira and Carlos Vives’ “La Bicicleta” had 250 million views at the time, now 1.325 billion, and they deservedly won. That surprise recognition certainly encouraged me to keep writing songs and making records.
mwe3: There are three releases featured on your greenflashmusic.com web site including Imáginario, Pitanga, and the 2019 album Sorte! How does each album reflect your sound and compositional style and how does the Sorte! album reflect your musical evolution and going back even further, can you compare it with your earliest works?
John Finbury: I think my compositional style is consistently ‘me’ in all three records. I like lush chords, key indeterminacy, chord substitutions, uneven bar lengths, time and key changes, vamps, and of course, moody ballads. I know that I am on the right track with my compositions when the mood is strong. The production and instrumentation changes in “Pitanga” feature the introduction of pedal steel guitar, played by Norman Zochar, an instrument not commonly associated with Brazilian music, which I think sounds really beautiful.
Sorte! with Thalma De Freitas writing all the lyrics, is the first album where I completely let go of the lyrics and trusted the poetry and the big ideas that Thalma brought to the songs in her beautiful native Portuguese. With respect to your question of comparisons with my early works, well, there are a few similarities and even a favorite chord progression (I, iii-, IVmaj7, V7sus) in my 1980 song “Come With Me” that found its way into the song “Filha” on the Sorte! album; that chord progression just moves me; I suspect I will use it again.
mwe3: How did you work with producer Emilio D. Miler on the new Sorte! album? Have you worked with Emilio before and did you and he confer on the sound and the musicians chosen to play on it? You have some world-class players on the new album including Airto and John Patitucci on bass. Was it challenging to assemble such great musicians together and were the Sorte! tracks recorded live in the studio with the musicians, and how much was overdubbed or recorded by artists from remote locations?
John Finbury: Emilio and I found each other after the “Song Of The Year nomination” in 2016. We began writing to each other by email as he was based in Buenos Aires and I was in Boston, and I could tell from the eloquent way he wrote and thought about music that he “got” my music and could help with future projects and encourage me creatively. Emilio traveled to NYC to work on another project and I went down to meet him. We hit it off and I asked him to produce my next project. My friend and lyricist Ned Claflin was occupied with writing a book and I needed to find a new lyricist. Emilio then found and introduced me to Thalma and she agreed to collaborate on Sorte! Emilio and I worked together to find the players. I’d recently heard Vitor Gonçalves playing piano accompanying Vinicius Cantauria in an all-Jobim show at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge and was really impressed with his beautiful artistic playing. We decided to record at the legendary Power Station at Berklee in NYC and it made sense to find New York-based players. Duduka Da Fonseca, Chico Pinheiro and John Patitucci were Emilio’s choices and what great players and great people! Emilio isn’t afraid to think big.
Having John Patitucci on the session made it easy to ask for him to solo and you will hear him on “Oraçao” and “Filha.” Thalma flew to NYC for a one-day recording session in April 2018 and we recorded “Sorte” and “Oraçao” and videotaped the live session; those song videos are up on YouTube. Airto, recorded his parts remotely the same night from a studio in L.A. and we communicated with him and his engineer by Skype. Airto and Thalma are long-time friends and he readily agreed to play on this project. Because we were so happy with the first session Thalma and I wrote four more songs over the summer and recorded them with the same players back at The Power Station in October 2018. This time Rogerio Boccato overdubbed the percussion tracks for those songs at his home studio in Yonkers.
mwe3: I had not heard her before but Thalma De Freitas is a great singer and lyricist. How did you collaborate with her on the songs and how and when did you meet her? I was so glad you featured the lyrics in both English and her native Portuguese, in the CD booklet. I see her page on Facebook and Thalma is quite active in the music scene in Los Angeles. Also I read you and her share the same birthday?
John Finbury: Thalma is wonderful! Our birthday is May 14. Though I have a few decades on her, it does feel like out common birthday added to a real connection and kinship. We met in person for the first time the night before the first recording session in April. Our process was for me to write the melodies and music, record it on my iPhone and send Thalma the piano recording and she would then write the lyrics. The melodies would freely adapt to both her lyrics and jazz singing style but she would stay fairly close to the original composition. When we met in my hotel room the night before the session with Emilio, the song “Sorte” was substantially done but Thalma had different lyrics for the song that was to become the prayer “Oraçao” which she wrote that night. Brilliant!
The songs we wrote for the next session were more challenging for me at first except for “Filha” a song for Thalma’s and all our daughters, a song topic Emilio suggested. “Ondas” and “Surrealism Tropical” were at first elusive for me but as I studied and came to understand the Tropical Surrealism movement and the religious traditions and ideas about which she is writing, I let go of my College English 101 approach to English poetry, and trusted that what she wrote in Portuguese was great. Chico and Duduka confirmed as much at the sessions as have others since. Thalma, Emilio and I did the English translations, and like most translations, it cannot capture the poetry of the original language and we should not expect it to.
mwe3: More American composers are working in the Brazilian song writing genre. Is that a unique phenomenon these days? Clearly the Brazilian sound has also influenced classical musicians too. Don’t you think it’s quite amazing that the nylon string guitar works so well with both jazz and classical music too?
John Finbury: American composers have been working in Brazilian genres for a long time. Burt Bacharach certainly knew how to adapt Brazilian music in his songs. I tend to listen to my own chestnuts and explore new music by listening to the work of the musicians with whom I am working. So check out, for example, Magos Herrera’s latest album Dreamers recorded with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. It is great!
The nylon string guitar just sounds great on everything. I once read it was Hector Berlioz’s favorite instrument. I can’t get enough of it… both Julian Bream playing the Bach Lute Suites and Joao Gilberto would be on my desert island.
mwe3: You play keyboards but you’re not playing on the album, yet everything on Sorte! is your music. That is also unique. Does directing some of the best musicians on the scene feel more rewarding, knowing your music is being played by such amazing musicians? Vitor Goncalves is a top talent too. How did you come to feature Vitor on the Sorte! album? Also where did you find the guitarist Chico Pinheiro? He’s an amazing musician as well. Why didn’t you play keyboards at all on the new album?
John Finbury: Yes! I explained earlier how I first heard Vitor playing Jobim with Vinicius Cantaurio at the Regatta Bar. I love his playing and I am very pleased he agreed to play on Sorte!. I felt the same way in having Tim Ray plays on Imaginário and Pitanga. When in the studio I prefer to focus most of my energies on directing players and production. For me there is wisdom in handing over my songs to great musicians to play. I do sneak myself onto a few tracks as that is me on Rhodes soloing on “Not To Worry” from Imaginário, and both Emilio and I took up some percussion on Sorte! Great players bring their art to the song, always in wonderful unexpected ways. They take my music to another level altogether.
mwe3: Sorte! is also placed in the World Beat kind of scene? You mention the LARAS grammy nod for Sorte! Are you nominated for a LARAS award? Is the Sorte! album receiving airplay in Brazil as well? Being that Thalma is a star in Brazil, I would think so.
John Finbury: Sure, Sorte! is World Music as I understand the category. Sorte! will be on the jazz ballot this year for Latin Grammy and the American Grammy, but it’s one thing to be on the ballot and quite another to be nominated. I’ll let you know after September 24th if lightning strikes again. One of the cool features of the digital platforms like Spotify and Apple Music is that you can track your listeners and Sorte! finds most of its listeners in Brazil, and in particular, Sao Paulo, which is Thalma’s hometown. I don’t know if she is getting much radio airplay yet, but she gets YouTube and Spotify listeners every day. Thalma has been in Sao Paolo most of the summer jand recently performed a live show which included songs from Sorte!
mwe3: You also work and perform with your wife Patty Brayden and you have been her piano player since 1977. I heard the tracks you made with Patty in the Pumps back in 1981. How did you meet Patty? Your piano work is great on those tracks and clearly Patty is a great vocalist. Are you planning more works with her?
John Finbury: I met Patty at the Casablanca bar in Harvard Square through a mutual friend, Bill Armstrong, who ultimately also provided the stunning mandala artwork for the cover of my album Imaginário. Patty is also a fine lyricist and in our “modern era” she worked on “A Chama Verde” and penned the lyrics to “A Feathered Thing” and most recently a song Magos Hererra just recorded called “All The Way To The End”.
mwe3: You have a very diverse musical background. The songs you were able to upload from your archives are superbly annotated and they sound great. What programs do you use to feature the music samples on and how has the internet changed your life and especially your approach to making music and even buying music?
John Finbury: I took the 1/2’ tapes of my ‘early days’ songs to a studio and they baked the tapes and ran them once to create digital versions. The old songs with Patty were digitized from a cassette recording. Back in the day, not being a singer/songwriter but just a songwriter, the process of getting your songs heard was cumbersome and the prospect of being heard and placed was remote. Fervor Records heard my Early Days songs in 2015 because I submitted one to an opportunity at Taxi Music, an online A & R service, and they got the song onto an episode of “Red Oaks”, a Netflix series. Through another online A & R service, Music Xray, I met a publisher, Eddie Caldwell, who has placed one of my Bossa’s on the pilot of an upcoming Netflix series called “Soundtrack” and I am doing this interview right now because I placed “A Chama Verde” on the ballot for a Latin Grammy. Emilio introduced me to The Orchard, an online digital distribution and royalty administration service, and they have been great in getting my music onto all the digital platforms. It is interesting to see who is listening to what and where they are from. I would say that the internet and digital platforms have indeed affected my decision to record my music because you no longer have to be signed to a major label to get your music out there. A trickier decision involves whether to go to the expense of manufacturing CDs and vinyl, which are more promotional giveaways than commodities, because people don’t buy music, they purchase digital subscriptions. For Sorte! we did all three.
mwe3: What can you tell us about your planned Auteur Chamber Jazz project “American Nocturnes”? Is that planned instrumental music project considered very different from your music on the Sorte! album?
John Finbury: My American Nocturnes project has been in the works for years and it is finally mastered and getting ready for release at the end of this year. There are 11 instrumental “Nocturnes”. The players are Eugene Friesen – cello, Tim Ray – piano, Roni Eytan-harmonica, Roberto Cassan and Vitor Gonçalves – accordions and Claudio Ragazzi -guitar. The album will end with me playing one song, “Waltz For Patty” on solo piano. With the exception of one shared song, the Nocturnes are very different from the music on Sorte! Mostly ballades and waltzes with an Americana classical feel and sound. The one Latin sounding recording we did in these sessions found its way onto the Pitanga album as the finishing track, the Rumba “A Great Believer In Luck”.
mwe3: You are also working on a planned bilingual jazz set with John Patitucci and other players. What is that album going to sound like? Is that album going to be more Brazilian music oriented?
John Finbury: I am working with the wonderful Mexican jazz singer Magos Herrera, together with John Patitucci, Antonio Sanchez, and the remarkable Spanish flamenco jazz pianist Chano Dominguez. We have recorded two songs so far, one in Spanish with lyrics by Emilio Miler, and one with English lyrics by Patty Brayden. The music is very emotional and powerful with a Spanish Flamenco flair. I am planning to record more with this group with song lyrics by Magos.
mwe3: What plans do you have even further into the future? Would you consider a DVD or are there some other projects you would like to explore to further advance your music?
John Finbury: The American Nocturnes release and the project with Magos Herrera are my immediate future plans. I have begun working on the songs for American Nocturnes Vol. 2, which I would like to record next year as well. I try to write one good song a month. I also want to learn to play the bass. I have started with a bass Ukulele, which I play in a weekly group. I think a P-bass is in my future.
MWE3.com Interview By Reviews Editor Robert Silverstein