Samba for Tarsila
By Ben Sher
By Kabir Sehgal
To know Ben Sher is to recognize a virtuoso. An acclaimed jazz guitarist who hails from Pittsburgh, Sher has toured the world as an artist and now resides in New York. That he has crisscrossed the globe is evident in his music, which is a beautiful blend between jazz and classical that draws upon traditions from across the Americas.
When you listen closely to his performances, you hear the influences of Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Kenny Burrell and legendary Brazilian guitarists like Baden Powell, João Gilberto, and Raphael Rabello. In Sher, we have an example of the student becoming the teacher: He is now a Professor at Berklee College of Music and Kutztown University.
Samba for Tarsila is a marvelous mashup of familiar and feel-good songs fashioned as Brazilian jazz fusion. Let’s start with unpacking the title: Tarsila de Aguiar do Amaral (1886-1973) was a Brazilian modernist painter. Tarsila is considered a leading Latin American artist of the twentieth century. Her paintings often involved long and colorful shapes with vibrant natural elements from Brazil’s topography. Indeed, her landscapes inspired Sher’s soundscapes. “Her portrayal of Brazil thorough abstract semi-literal images was the inspiration for this very album,” said Sher.
Samba for Tarsila is eclectic and electric, entertaining, and enlivening. And the musicians are absolutely world class: They are a cohesive group that navigate the obstacle course of syncopation with dexterity and grace:
Gary Fisher is a seasoned New York jazz pianist, performing around New York with Vincent Herring, Monte Croft, Eric Alexander, Joe Farnsworth and others.
Greg Jones is another veteran New York musician, with a list of touring and recordings credits with Astrud Gilberto, Jon Lucien, Carly Simon, Max Roach and Michael Urbaniak.
Special guest Vanderlei Pereira s one of the most revered Brazilian drummers in New York. His list of recording credits reads like a who’s-who of Brazilian music: Airto Moreira, Lenny Andrade, Toots Thielman, Dom Salvador, and Rosa Passos.
The opening track Antropofagia is an upbeat, fun, and funky piece. It begins with angular lines, a bevy of hits, thick bass drops, and unfolding guitar chords. The groove is forward-moving and propulsive. In making this tune, Sher’s point of reference was Quincy Jones’ “Soul Bossa,” which also has an infectious groove. The highlight of this song is undoubtedly Sher’s spellbinding solo.
Samba Novo is a thoughtful even enigmatic piece that is largely influenced by the great Benny Golson. It begins with shimmering cymbals, rolling chords, and interplay between Sher and Fisher. The medium tempo locks in and Sher embarks upon the arc of melody without compunction.
The microcosm of this album is Twilight. As Sher says, “This piece represents my vision of Samba for Tarsila.” It doesn’t have a pure Brazilian groove but it still has a familiar vibe. It has hints of melancholy, an allusion to Milton Nascimento, the illustrious singer from Rio de Janeiro. And the groove harkens to Joe Henderson’s Power to the People (1969)
.A quintessential Bossa Nova, Eu Vim da Bahia (composed by Gilberto Gil) develops with stirring drum textures and marked guitar patterns. Sher’s solo advances through the sections with ever more notes over a multiplicity of rhythms.
Jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street (composed by Bronislaw Kaper and Ned Washington) has been recorded by many vaunted artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This rendition evolves to a Baiao rhythm and style from Northern Brazil. Because this piece is so familiar, Sher’s untrammeled creativity is fully revealed. He reworks and recasts this piece into something decidedly fresh and new. Let’s hope that his arrangement becomes the new Brazilian jazz standard. Never Can Say Goodbye (composed by Clifton Davis) was popularized by The Jackson 5. At first, this may seem like a peculiar choice for the repertoire. But Sher’s proclivity for cultural fusion makes it a great addition to the already stellar line up. This version has a contemplative and lyrical style, making it not only head-nodding but mind-bending.
What would a Brazilian jazz fusion album be without this banner number? Mas que Nada (composed by Jorge Ben) was popularized by Sérgio Mendes and has inspired legions of artists like the Black Eyed Peas to record the piece. This version traces the familiar melodic lines. But it’s the warp, weft, and rhythm that puts it on another plane. It’s performed as a “ partido- alto modal-funk,” as Sher puts it. That’s a good way of thinking about it. What’s more, it’s also a good way of understanding what Samba for Tarsila is all about. Familiar music rendered fresh.
This album features the virtuosity of Sher and the eclectic vibrancy of his band. Sher’s sound is beautiful, and his spirit is boundless. Samba for Tarsila is a journey to Brazil and the beyond. Everybody is welcome in this soundscape of texture and groove. It’s has been a joy for me to help produce this work with and for Sher.