Azambuja & Cia :: Baiano & Os Novos Caetanos

As Mychal Denzel Smith recently wrote of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, “The worst political music sounds political.” Similarly, the worst comic music sounds comic. All due respect to Weird Al, the exception to every rule of taste and success, but funny music is rarely funny, and it’s rarely musical. The success of Flight of the Conchords and The Lonely Island is predicated upon this fact: Both of those groups viewed themselves as writers and creators working in a humorous mode; if their songs felt authentic – authenticity and believability being the key to comedic longevity – it’s because they were true fans of the music they were satirizing, and as a result they knew its contours intuitively. It’s not surprising, then, that funny songs about politics are practically nonexistent; the bar to clear is so high, and the air up there so rarified, that only Randy Newman seems to be able to breathe it with any regularity.

This is what Chico Anysio and Arnaud Rodrigues were up against in the middle of the 1970s in Brazil. The duo worked together on Anysio’s show Chico City, where he’d perform as Paulo Maurî­cio Azambuja, a down-on-his-luck conman who lacked the grace to pull off a real caper. Azambuja had company. With a hardened military dictatorship nearing the end of its first decade in power, Brazil was settling into its hardened new reality. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were back from their government-imposed exist in London, and along with Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, and Os Novos Baianos, were renovating Tropicî¡lia, expanding its hybridization of American and British psychedlia with rural Brazilian rhythms to include jazz, funk, and soul in a beguiling mix that usually sounded nothing like any of those genres. The albums being made in this era – Gil’s Expresso 2222 and Refazenda, Ben’s A Tabua de Esmaralda and îfrica Brasil, Os Novos Baianos’ FC – are among the very best ever recorded in Brazil or anywhere else.

Which meant, of course, that they were ripe for parody, so Anysio and Rodrigues teamed up with the excellent jazz-funk trio Azymuth for a pair of albums. 1975’s Azambuja & Cia is a musical chronicle of the titular detective interspersed with a pair of lengthy comedic monologues, while the previous year’s Baiano & Os Novos Caetanos is, as its title suggests, a good-natured take on the novos tropicî¡listas. Despite the intrusion of the former’s monologues and the novelty-ish goof of the latter’s opening track, both albums succeed on purely musical terms, and at times nearly approach the level of the artists they were parodying. Now, in an era calling both for dissent and for the occasional deflation of that dissent, Far Out Recordings is reissuing both records.

Azambuja & Cia’s lineage is more apparent. With Azymuth fleshing out their ideas, Anysio and Rodrigues move between genres like they’re segments of a variety show. They play heady, folk-derived psych-funk on opener “Nega Brecho,” then shift into a bossa-nova groove for “Ao Bililico,” where Jose Menezes’ Rhodes throws a cool-jazz shade over the proceedings. Later, on “Tema do Azambuja,” the eponymous detective struts through Rio over a low-key samba beat turned noir by a folding bassline; flecks of disco guitar spit by as he makes his way through the night. As the album progresses, the groove begins to fade, giving way to the gorgeous “Maristela,” a song that begins like an updated “Mas Que Nada” and quickly evolves into a plaintive, sax-led love song that flirts with a smoothness just beyond its reach.

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