Baden Powell :: Tristeza On Guitar

For much of us, Summer has arrived. Spring blew past leaving us in the rear-view mirror. Nights are warm and breezy, and it’s time for the mood to catch up as the crickets, frogs, cicadas wake up from their winterlude. It is in this transition – when the optimistic warmth just begins, before the sweat-induced nightmare of summer’s reality sets in – that we so often lean toward the romanticized notion of the climes bordering the equator and the global south. Brazil has offered us copious options for these moments; a bounty of Bossa nova and Tropicalia to soundtrack our striding toward the solstice. Often overlooked, but no lesser in quality than the typical fare sits the nylon-stringed virtuoso, Baden Powell.

While much of the Brazilian pop-music scene was caught up in the groundbreaking fusion of traditional folk stylings with Rock and Roll, Baden Powell was lingering further in the past. Tropicalia was taking the underground by storm; applying fuzz guitar, jazzed out sensibility, and tongue-in-cheek humor to far more danceable and groove-oriented cuts than the Anglo-American scene could comprehend. But prior to Os Mutantes massive breakthrough, Powell was working through his own vision of Brazil’s emergence into the mainstream. In 1966, Tristeza on Guitar was released as an essential first step on the road to full-blown Tropicalia.

Combining the sensation of Bossa Nova’s jazz-inflected breakout in the US, Powell certainly allowed outside influence to seep into his compositions. But while those imitators and acolytes in the States were merely placing a veneer of Brazilian stylings over their cool jazz, Powell was the real deal. The American influence was there, but the music is unabashedly Brazilian. That remains the key—lingering where his strengths lie and adding just enough from the outside to propel things forward. The quicker numbers share some traits with Bola Sete’s assimilated and accessible Bossa-jazz but on the mid-tempo and slower numbers, Powell let’s his country’s identity shine. Within every carefully placed chord, remains an echo of musical legacy. “Canto de Xango” plays like an expedition through the amazon. A haunting flute hovers above the trio, but one cannot escape the ferocity of Powell’s playing. There’s a dreadfully slow “Round About Midnight,” endearing enough to have Monk tearing up at where the guitarist has taken the already lamenting tune. Powell channels the natural sorrow that is the foundation of the Blues and Jazz in his interpretations, and in doing so demonstrates a true mastery of being able to nearly make these tunes his. Being able to switch from a medium such as this into the unabashedly hallucinogenic samba of “Sarava” only adds to the monstrosity that is his guitar playing. An onslaught of polyrhythmic percussion and subtle time changes cannot deviate the guitarist from his mission, and the seemingly on-the-spot improvisation retains its steadfast march into the jungle.

“Canto de Ossanha” remains a highlight of the record and Powell would revisit the number for years to come (in addition to being covered by dozens of artists, from fellow Brazilian Seu Jorge to the legendary Dorothy Ashby). It provides the most insightful vision of what Powell was trying to accomplish—a merging of Jazz, Bossa nova, folk, and contemporary song structures. Powell truly shines, however, not just within this groundbreaker mold, but further in the moments that classical guitar mastery washes over his tropical moods. “Manha de Carneval” and “Invencao Em 7 ½” has the guitarist going full-on Baroque tropicale. Somehow, once more, Powell decides that he would take ownership over this methodology as well. The guitar’s role in classical Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic music has been thoroughly noted in musical histories and this obviously came over to the new world with the atrocities of colonization. But on these pieces, Powell, makes it sound as though the entire history of the classical guitar was forged in the Amazon basin.

The sound across the entire record is downright optimistic and within Powell’s explorations, an entire new branch of music could bloom forth. And rightfully so. The majesty that styles Tristeza on Guitar would likely grace the ears of some essential young musicians looking to make a name for themselves. In the following year Brazil saw the release of Gilberto Gil’s Louvacao, Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso’s Domingo, and Os Mutantes self-titled debut. Tropicalia had arrived and with it, a far more alluring outlook on the world of pop-music. | j rooney

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