Saturday, 14 March 2020

Bless The Day #6: Righteous Life



‘Righteous Life’ by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 is one of those special songs, one which is guaranteed to generate a warming inner glow, with its rolling waves of thermal bass, shimmering piano, and the drums propelling things along, while the singers seem to share deep insights, and if the words are pleasantly elusive in terms of meaning they have just the right feel of poetry, politics and spirituality to suit the most reflective of moods.
The song appears on Stillness, the final Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 record, released right at the end of 1970. Stillness has been made available on CD through Soul Jazz’s Universal Sound imprint, in a lovely deluxe package, without any extras or any in-depth explanations. It may not be typical of that outfit’s sound but it is an incredibly beautiful record, and gets off to such a great start with the two Paula Stone compositions, ‘Stillness’ itself, and ‘Righteous Life’. The evocative words from the title track appear on the LP cover, underneath a photo of the group, lazing by the side of a river, capturing the new looseness that infuses the record.
The individual photos on the inner sleeve of the singers and players have a wintry, old-timey look, which sort of fits the spirit of the age, when you think of the covers which came with The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu. The rear cover photo is more dramatic, showing Sergio and the group huddled behind barbed wire, symbolically perhaps. It is certainly a dramatic change of image from the immaculate matching suits for the guys and glamorous short dresses for the ladies which one would ordinarily associate with Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66.
The blurb on the obi strip which comes with the Soul Jazz Stillness CD describes the Brasil ’66 sound as being more mature and serious, in the sense of having a new depth and breadth, and being more meditative. This suggests the strapline from Jon Savage’s eye, ear and mind-opening Meridian 1970 compilation on Heavenly: protest, sorrow, hobos, folk and blues. There are no tough rock guitar solos on Stillness though: thank Christ.
After the two Paula Stone compositions comes a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Chelsea Morning’, a sign of moving with the times, and there is also a reinterpretation of Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, a bit of a delayed reaction perhaps, but arguably a song even more relevant in 1970. Coincidentally or not, their A&M label mates The Carpenters covered ‘Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing’ gorgeously on their debut LP around the same time. The two records have bassist Joe Osborn in common.
If Joe is the star of ‘Righteous Life’ then the Sergio Mendes version of ‘For What It’s Worth’ belongs to the sensational percussion work of Mark Stevens, a jazz man, and it shows, who provides something approaching what would be roots reggae filigree, with plenty of cowbell action, giving the track an almost Bristol blues or prime Mo’Wax 1990s pop sound, and Karen Philipp excels when taking the lead vocals here.
It’s tempting to wonder what the reviews were like when the LP was released. If you search online you may find the archives of the American audiophile magazine Stereo Review, which in its April 1971 edition reviewed Stillness: “With this new album, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 become the radical chic of the music world,” wrote Rex Reed, referencing the topical Tom Wolfe Vogue essay. Incidentally Reed’s writing also appeared in Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism anthology.
His Stillness review was generally positive: “Their music is svelte, chic, soigné, and sensual. They are the hip cats who still prowl through the musical jungle on little cat-paws of bossa nova. They are so smooth they have become the elite. The title of the album is taken from a lovely song by Paula Stone; it is haunting. It's the first band and the last on the album, and what comes in between is as quiet and poignant as a walk in the spring rain.”
It is pure speculation, but presumably the LP was looked down on by younger writers in the still-emerging rock press. That same year in Rolling Stone Greil Marcus described John Sebastian’s ‘Magical Connection’ as being “a Sergio Mendes bore with vibes, that simply doesn’t make it at all”. What can you say? It is such a special song. And have you heard the gorgeous Sarah Vaughan version?
‘Righteous Life’ was first heard here via A Man Called Adam’s The Apple, and God bless the day it appeared unexpectedly, shortly after release, in one of the boxes outside that odd record shop in the covered arcade at the top of Eltham High Street. Most of what they tried to sell would be old classical albums, and just occasionally there would be an unexpected gem, like a beautiful and battered import copy of Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor, another classic A&M release with magical powers. 
In the early 1990s The Apple got played to death here. It will forever be associated closely with Ultramarine’s Every Man and Woman is a Star, and it is so lovely that both outfits are making great music in the present tense. Now, when listening occasionally to The Apple, it is a secondhand signed CD that gets played, though the same love lingers for the songwriting and production team of Sally Rodgers and Steve Jones.
It was really Sally’s words and singing that appealed most, and the absurdity of releasing a single called ‘Chrono Psionic Interface’ seemed exactly what pop music should be about heading into a new millennium, and in a way a realisation of what Life hinted at when Factory released ‘Tell Me’. The Weatherall ‘spaced out’ vocal mix of ‘CPI’ is a bit special too, with extra flute, though will now forever have sad connotations having dug it out to play when preparing notes for this and learning later that day that the great man had died.
A Man Called Adam’s signature tune remains ‘Barefoot in the Head’, an immense, ecstatic celebration of life, a desert island disc for this boy, and what could be better for eternity in a sun-kissed paradise. One of the great things about The Apple is the way it suggests so many cool connections, notably ‘Barefoot’ with its Brian Aldiss (“it’s the velocity, girl”!) sci-fi flavour, and that oh so perfect Rod McKuen and Anita Kerr seashell sample from ‘The Gypsy Camp’.
Then there was Hubert Laws on flute, plus the track ‘Bread Love & Dreams’ which coincidentally or not was the name of a late 1960s UK folk trio, whose excellent self-titled debut LP features orchestral arrangements by Ian Green of Timi Yuro and Rosetta Hightower fame. And, as we now know, Sally and Steve knew their Stillness, though the funny thing is that ‘Righteous Life’ feels so good, so right, on The Apple that it just seems to be a core AMCA song, with exactly the perfect poetical, political and spiritual thing going on.
There seemed to be little or no clue 30-odd years ago among acquaintances that ‘Righteous Life’ was composed 20-years earlier by a talented young songwriter called Paula Stone, from Detroit, who was signed to Sergio Mendes’ production company Serrich. There’s a story there to be told. In true Fangette Enzel style, beyond ‘Stillness’ and ‘Righteous Life’, there doesn’t seem to be too much evidence of Paula’s work.
She certainly composed the excellent ‘Don’t Need Nobody’ which Richie Havens performed beautifully on his 1973 LP Portfolio. And Discogs lists her as writing words for a couple of songs recorded by Angelo, who is presumably Angelo Arvonio whose ’Hey Look at the Sun’ was a 1972 single on Atlantic produced by Sergio Mendes. Sergio later recorded the song on his Brasil ’77 set Love Music, and it is exquisite soft rock in what would become the soothing Captain & Tennille way, a style there were already hints of on Stillness.
The original of ‘Righteous Life’ was first heard here via a “very best of” 2CD collection, found in a charity shop locally, but the treasured compilation is a CD of “20 easy listening classics” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, part of the Easy Loungin’ series, with the recognisable late-1960s Playboy-ad. style artwork of Stefan Kessel, who also provides the German liner notes. This dates back to 1995, which was around the same time Stefan’s distinctive graphic design made an impression via the invaluable Mondo Morricone collection on Colosseum.
Stefan, a big Bobby Scott fan, may be most familiar for his Marina label which has given us some superb releases, new and archival, from the likes of James Kirk, Josef K, Jazzateers, Shack, Adventures in Stereo, and Peter Thomas. He also managed to release a modern-day Free Design CD which was every bit as beautiful as the group’s belatedly revered original LPs.
Perhaps most appropriately Stefan and Marina put out a Pale Fountains collection, concentrating on their early recordings, dating from when part of the buzz around the group was their contrary taste, and this was probably where the idea of loving Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 first came in. For, in the summer of 1982, they were part of the mood mosaic of influences the young Michael Head cited: Sergio, Love, Bacharach & David, John Barry, Simon & Garfunkel, the Velvets and so on.
And, at this time, Pale Fountains fitted into what was here an imagined scene encompassing Weekend, Aztec Camera, Vic Godard, Jazzateers, Carmel, while up in Manchester there was A Certain Ratio and Swamp Children, then there was Everything But The Girl coming through with ‘Night and Day’ (which was a Brasil ’66 favourite), and Ben and Tracey doing their solo things.
If the Laurel Canyon (rainbow) connections to Stillness are intriguing they should not overshadow the Brazilian aspects. The one Brazilian musician, besides Sergio, who plays on the LP is guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, and his composition ‘Celebration of the Sunrise’ is perfect, with the singers united in wordless harmony, a wonderful display of vocalese and percussive excellence, which beautifully matches the theme of the title track which is reprised immediately afterwards.
It is also significant Sergio should choose to record for Stillness songs by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the focal points of the Tropicália movement, outrageous and outspoken troublemakers who were undesirables in the eyes of the repressive Brazilian authorities. These two sublimely gifted performers were at this time political exiles, which adds a new dimension to Stillness’ back cover photo with the group behind that barbed wire fence, in the sense of keeping dissenters out or perhaps imprisoned. Was this a way of Sergio showing solidarity?
The version of Caetano’s ‘Lost in Paradise’ is stunning, the song a new departure for him being written in English, a plea for communication and connection, passionately sung here by Gracinha Leporace, who was brought into the Brasil ’66 fold as the great Lani Hall was leaving. Gracinha had been the singer with Bossa Rio, whose 1969 debut LP was produced by Sergio for A&M, and featured one of the first Caetano covers outside of Brazil in ‘Today Tomorrow’ or ‘Boa Palavra’.
The song had been recorded a little earlier, with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, for Petula Clark’s The Other Man’s Grass is Always Greener LP. That is pretty cool: Petula perhaps sings Caetano first in English, while channelling her inner Elis Regina, and the lovely title track, composed by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, was heard sung so often around the home growing up here. Ah life!
In his heyday Sergio was always keen to expand horizons and showcase the work of new Brazilian songwriters, in particular Edu Lobo whom he was a great champion of with Brasil ’66, recording his ‘Upa, Neguinho’, ‘Laia Ladaia (Reza)’, ‘Canto Triste’, ‘For Me’, plus ‘Crystal Illusions’ and ‘Pradizer Adeus (To Say Goodbye)’ with English lyrics by Lani Hall. The last two there also appeared on a 1970 LP by Edu Lobo (or rather simply by Lobo before the other lupine singer had a hit with ‘Me and You and a Dog Named Boo’), produced by Sergio for A&M, which is an exceptional work, and an especial favourite here. The work of the new wave of Brazilian composers like Edu would have as important a role in shaping the sound of Stillness as the more famous West Coast troubadours.
Sergio was also behind the idea of getting the great saxophonist Paul Desmond to record an album of Edu Lobo and Milton Nascimento songs for Creed Taylor’s CTI, the imprint which came under the umbrella of A&M in its early years. This 1969 set, From The Hot Afternoon, really sounds exquisite, and Paul’s playing lives up to the words used by Gene Lees in his liner notes: “Paul’s mind turns interesting corners and he explores funny little musical side-streets, streets of great charm and humor and, at times, wistful beauty”. Wistful beauty is an apt phrase to describe this record, where the gentle waves made by Paul’s small core group are augmented by Don Sebesky’s silky strings.
Edu himself plays guitar on a few tracks, and gets to sing on a couple. On his ‘To Say Goodbye’ the words are sung by Wanda De Sah, who had been a vocalist with Sergio Mendes’ early Brasil ’65 group. There is a lovely story about how the song was pitched so low that Wanda could hardly sing the words, and yet the strained whisper she produced sounded so right to Paul that he kept it as it was, which was absolutely the right decision.
Paul’s follow-up to this LP for CTI/A&M was a set of Simon & Garfunkel songs, and again he works with a small core group, of Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Airto Moreira, on an enchanting set of interpretations which are exceptionally easy on the ear but as radical in their way as anything else around at the end of the 1960s. And particularly with Herbie’s electric piano playing it is possible to hear the advent of the archetypal CTI sound.
That late 1960s run of CTI titles, before Creed went independent, and before the fusion thing came along, contains some terrific records, by Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann, and so on, all of which are pretty smooth, non-disruptive, and can serve as medicinal background sounds, ideal for meditative moods. Some great musicians recur across these titles, like Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Grady Tate, Ray Barretto, Richard Davis, Hubert Laws, and Paul Griffin, with Don Sebesky’s orchestral arrangements being a key feature on several titles.
Within that run of CTI releases, there was a very strong Brazilian presence, with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave and Tide, Tamba 4’s We and the Sea and Samba Blim, Walter Wanderley’s When It Was Done and Moondreams, and Milton Nascimento’s Courage. Within that little sequence one can trace the growing influence of Eumir Deodato, who after arriving in the States and doing great arrangements for Astrud Gilberto and Maria Toledo gradually became more and more in demand, going on to work with Sinatra and Roberta Flack and becoming CTI’s chart pin-up with the worldwide pop success of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)’.
Somehow Edu Lobo’s A&M LP escaped being given the Don Sebesky or Deodato strings treatment, which has a lot to do with its enduring appeal. It is a relatively stripped-down affair with Edu and Hermeto Pascoal providing the arrangements. Edu has a pretty unique way with him and his songs are propelled along by rhythmic acoustic guitars, percussion, and the sort of scat vocals which can be heard on ‘Zanzibar’ and ‘Casa Forte. Edu is given vocal support by Gracinha Leporace, by the way.
It is fun to consider how to place Edu Lobo’s work of the time alongside Nick Drake’s and note similarities in mood and in the idea of these two tall romantic and handsome composers who wrote and sang exquisite works of melancholia. It is easy to imagine them being friends or at least fans of one another in an ideal world. That blue bossa feel to ‘Poor Boy’, the piano of Paul Harris, those Robert Kirby orchestrations, the occasional use of flute, the sensuously strummed acoustic guitars: there are plenty of clues to suggest Nick would be sympathetic to what Edu was doing, and vice versa. And the percussion work of Rocky Dzidzornu perfectly adds colour in the same way Airto Moreira does on Edu’s A&M LP.
Then there is Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ and the version of ‘To Say Goodbye’ on the Sergio Mendes Presents Lobo set. On both recordings the use of cello was a stroke of genius, and maybe has a lot to do with a very real fondness here for cello sonatas by Debussy, Fauré, Britten, Rachmaninov, and in particular Bach’s cello suites. That cello-augmented version of ‘To Say Goodbye’ is particularly heartbreaking and infinitely sad, especially when Edu cries out about being so lonely. It is something that it would have been wonderful to hear Sinatra sing.
The other favourite moment from that Lobo LP is ‘Even Now’ which has English lyrics by Paula Stone. Lani Hall is also credited, but somehow the words feel like Paula’s poetry, with the way Edu sings of how an ordinary day can be transformed by the hint of an approaching sunrise, so that the song sits perfectly alongside ‘Stillness’ and ‘Celebration of the Sunrise’, and indeed Oscar Castro-Neves plays guitar on the LP which was partly recorded at Sergio’s LA home studio in Encino, as was Stillness itself.
‘Even Now’ in its original Brazilian form appears as the title track of Edu’s Cantiga De Longe, an LP recorded, presumably just slightly earlier, in Los Angeles for the great Elenco label and the Brazilian market, with the same core personnel of Hermeto and Airto, and an even more stripped-back sound. There is some overlap in terms of tracks, and Edu writes about how on the opener ‘Casa Forte’, when working with Hermeto, things fell into place and he found the sound he had been searching for. A particular highlight is Edu scatting together with Wanda De Sah on ‘Águaverde’, though it is the closing track ‘Cidade Nova’ that tears this listener apart every time.
The Edu Lobo A&M LP was first heard here via a 2006 CD reissue on Rev-Ola. The cover was instantly appealing, even without hearing the contents, being a Guy Webster photo of Edu sitting looking pensive, with splashes of vivid red, and a concrete background, which all fits perfectly in an almost Blood & Fire way.  Rev-Ola may not be a label people automatically think of in connection with invaluable Brazilian salvage operations, but Joe Foster and his team will be forever loved here for a fantastic programme of CDs, one which includes essential Brazilian related releases from Bossa Rio, The Carnival (who were former members of Sergio Mendes’ group paired with Bones Howe), Wanda De Sah, Astrud Gilberto, and Som Imaginário whose debut sometimes sounds like the sweetest sort of madness imaginable.
There were also some Brazilian-influenced U.S. acts like a CD collection of the A&M recordings by Claudine Longet, whose soft singing style was perfectly suited to the Brazilian bossa classics, and the set also features one of the loveliest versions of Joni’s ‘Both Sides Now’. Then there was Triste Janero from Dallas whose addictive LP from 1969, Meet Triste Janero, was reissued by Rev-Ola in 2003. Unusually for a young group of the time their influences seemed to be on the Brasil ’66 and Bacharach side of Love, with neat touches of organ which suggest a fondness for Jimmy Smith, Ray Manzarek, Booker T. and maybe even Walter Wanderley. Teenage singer Barbara Baines was a true star, while her brother Paul played guitar.
Triste Janero’s own songs were fantastic, especially ‘Rene De Marie’ and ‘In The Garden’, and the soft, sparse, Brazilian-inspired sound caught on the LP has worn wonderfully, and delightfully they are at times eerily reminiscent of those legendary early Jazzateers recordings with Alison Gourlay from when, at the start of 1982, they were Postcard’s new hopes, and writers like Glenn Gibson, Chris Burkham and Dave McCullough were falling over themselves to capture an idyll of the Velvets meeting Astrud Gilberto uptown. Even more appropriately for Postcard fans the highlight of Meet Triste Janero is a gorgeous cover of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’.
Deodato had a lot to do with what is possibly Rev-Ola’s greatest release, Daybreak by Joe & Bing, an LP recorded in 1970 (but which sometimes sounds uncannily like early Pale Fountains) and which was initially only issued by the duo as a private pressing, which was odd as it featured playing from some of the top musicians of the day, like Grady Tate, Dom Um Romão, and Garnett Brown, as well as production and arrangements on certain songs by Deodato and Harry Lookofsky. The title track of this set is another Desert Island contender for this boy, and with its melodic warmth, the celestial folk harmonies, and the theme of daybreak encapsulating an escape from the past, it is a perfect partner to its contemporaries, Sergio’s ‘Stillness’ and Edu Lobo’s ‘Even Now’.
In a wonderful plot twist, Joe & Bing’s LP got a new lease of life when it was released on Quartin in Brazil where it was presented as being by Best of Friends. The label was at the start of the 1970s a new project for Roberto Quartin, who was an important part of the Brazilian musical tapestry and a serious Sinatra scholar to boot.  Quartin released only a small number of records, and presumably Daybreak was added to the catalogue to boost its profile in the same way that Alan Horne invited the Go-Betweens to join the Postcard roster to give a global dimension.
Deodato returned to the song ‘Daybreak’ when working with Astrud Gilberto on her 1972 set Now, which was released on the Perception label, and is a real favourite here. Astrud seems to revel in a new sense of freedom, and Deodato’s arrangements suit perfectly. The LP opens with the exceptional ‘Zigy Zigy Za’, which is another of those songs guaranteed to get you grinning no matter what. And the version of ‘Daybreak’ is just perfect, especially the heavenly background choral vocals and acoustic guitars.
Quartin as a label first registered here via a compilation on Far Out, released in 1997 and bought in the homely Rough Trade Covent Garden basement shop, when still trying to piece together the Brazilian musical jigsaw without much guidance, and that is part of why it remains so special, sacred almost. The Quartin collection was remarkable, mysterious too, with not too much supporting information, just the magical sounds, of Piri and José Mauro in particular, and it was fun later fleshing things out when Far Out finally (almost 20 years on) were able to release in full José’s Obnoxius and Piri’s Vocem Querem Mate? on CD.
Listening to Piri’s blend of flute, frantic acoustic guitars, percussion and predominantly scat vocals, joyous wordless wonderment, and José’s lush, bruised, brooding romanticism and deep spirituality, while admiring the beautiful artwork, partly the work of Cesar Villela who was responsible for the striking Elenco sleeve designs, and reading Ana Maria Bahiana’s inspirational liner notes for Obnoxius, all contributes to a sense of something special, so that it feels a privilege to be part of the experience as a consumer.
Interestingly, Joe Davis and Far Out do not seem to have mentioned Quartin releasing Daybreak, and the CD booklet that comes with the Joe & Bing reissue does not specifically mention Piri or José Mauro. There is no particular reason why they should have done, but it is that sense of fitting things together that is so special, what Gilles has always called joining the dots, but which it would seem entirely appropriate on this occasion to call making magical connections.




4 comments:

  1. Cheers Kevin, needed a good read in these strange days of self-isolation and social distancing. So many favourite records and artists mentioned, and a few unfamiliar to check out, as always. (Proceeds to dig out some Edu Lobo.)

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  2. I do love sergio and stillness is one of my most treasured treasures. ta as ever for more more to explore. have you heard the lani Hall lps?

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    1. I only know Sundown Lady (is that the right title?) but like that very much.

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  3. the one after it has very good bits too. if only I could remember what it was called

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