You say potato, eu digo batata.

Uh oh. Nobody emote. You might weird out this Scandinavian piano trio on ECM. Not exactly Bud Powell or Monk, this stuff. Is this what a century of peace, socialism and drunken blonde sex culminates in? It’s so careful. So tentative. So pretty. It’s good, sure, but I never liked Bergman movies either.

Finland I can understand, but they’re not Scandinavian in anything but propinquity. They’re more like an Estonia’s hip, rich uncle. Or the people on the nice side of town pretending they are not distant cousins of those crazy Hungarians in the trailer park. (Finnish has fifteen cases, Hungarian twenty eight, now that’s crazy.) But I understand the Finns, I think, mainly because I can’t understand then. I mean they’re loud, party too hard, love hockey and crazy rock’n’roll and hate when people push them around. That I can understand. I just can’t understand what they are saying. Now Swedes, Norwegians, Danes I could understand fairly easily, would be conversant in a year’s time. Might even get to like lutefisk. But Finnish? I mean just how many ways can you say potato? Which reminds me that I was at a fun Finnish party once, above a sauna. They made greyhounds in a huge bucket and didn’t tell any of the girls–they invited mostly girls–that it was Everclear (jet fuel in a bottle) and not vodka. The poor things got smashed. One pretty little blonde–they invited mostly blondes–got her foot stuck in a waste basket and stumped around for a moment, bewildered, the most darling Jerry Lewis you ever saw. The Finns laughed and said potato fifteen different ways. Great party, but we left before the orgy in the sauna.

The computer is shuffling its little brain out and switches from Sven Svensson or whoever to Tania Maria. Piquant. It’s on Concord and is about as far from the ECM label as Rio is from Flekkefjord or Bodø. Sunny Brazil. Brazilians I can understand. They’re crazy, for one thing. I understand crazy. And everything they do there could possibly wind you up in bed or in prison. I understand horny and dangerous, too. And they have the best music. Some of the worst music, too (it’s too bad the military didn’t ban Arp synthesizers when it banned everything else), but also some of the best. Tania Maria is riffing up a storm here, pounding the piano with almost Monk like muscularity, such strong little fingers she must have, and the melody flows this way and that, like a borboletta going from flower to flower. Hips sway, undulate, go backwards, then that way, then the other way, and finally two steps forward. Uh oh, dig that bass. It’s huge. Now she’s doing a cuica with her voice, and the cuica is doing the voice beneath crazy hand clapped syncopation. Repeated figures on the piano, building and building. Now more of the clapping,and the cuica voices and voiced cuicas, and a pile of overdubbed vocals in ways that would just confuse and frighten Scandinavians. I hear they dig this in Finland, though. If they can say potato fifteen or twenty different ways, who knows how many ways there are to say samba. It’s so much simpler in Brazil. You say potato, eu digo batata.

Rosa Passos

Very few people up here know her, but Rosa Passos is I think the finest bossa nova singer I have ever heard. She’s not as musically radical as Joao Gilberto (who invented the genre by reducing sambas to their barest elements–he’d play one song for weeks on end, hour after hour, stoned out of his mind, camped out on various couches till the owners couldn’t take it anymore and sent him packing) but just listen to Rosa’s take. She is just so in the groove here, everything light and precise and shimmering like water, the syncopation hinted at, the raw strident samba down deep in there, shadows of a shadow. Dig the crazy bass lines, almost cuica like, dragging, no one ever walked a bass line in Brazil. Indeed, try walking to her guitar chords and you’d be staggering like a drunk man. We walk with a back beat, but this is propelled by a surdo–that big deep drum beat of the samba, boom, boom, boom–but a surdo reduced to a silent presence by Joao Gilberto. It’s there but you can’t hear it, yet you can’t possibly move along to this stuff without the surdo, every step you’d make is around the surdo, you step around it, bounce off it, shimmy, everything but set a firm footed pace. Walk a straight line to this and you fall right over. There is nothing in our musical culture anything like this, our musics come from different parts of Africa, different parts of Europe. We rock, they sway. We’re on the beat, they’re loosely all around it. We get where we are going faster, they get there eventually. Indeed, Rosa fades off at the end of this cut without having got anywhere at all, just stays lost in the melody as it shifts about, driven by the afternoon breeze. I hit replay and the chords begin again as if they had never stopped at all.

Zambi

Elis Regina and the Zimbo Trio performing “Zambi” in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1965. That’s Amilton Godoy on piano, Luís Chaves on bass and Rubinho Barsotti absolutely wailing on the drums.

The tune is by Edu Lobo with lyrics by the brilliant Vinicius de Moraes, and is about the legendary rebel slave, Zumba Ganga, who ruled a large swathe of inland Brazil during colonial times. This version was recorded in 1965. The military had overthrown the elected government the year before. When Elis sings Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! (Liberdade, Liberdade, Liberdade), the audience explodes in applause, then hushes quickly again. You can almost feel the eyes of the police, watching. At the close of the song the audience, swept along on the drums, erupts again and, with headphones, you can hear cries of viva a democracia! By 1969, though, you wouldn’t dare perform this song in public, and I have to wonder how many in this audience saw the inside of one of Brazil’s military prisons.

Elis Regina and The Zimbo Trio

Elis Regina and The Zimbo Trio, 1965