It was one of those cultural juxtapositions, like the kosher burrito, that we in Southern California have come to expect. This time it was Brazilian jazz being played in a Mexican restaurant.
The occasion? New York-born guitarist John Pisano joining bassist Luther Hughes’ trio Friday and Saturday nights for their regular weekend appearance at El Matador restaurant in the Huntington Harbour Mall. Pisano was a member of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and wrote material for Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66 some years ago. He also accompanied Peggy Lee for a time and appeared on Joe Pass’ momentous album “For Django.” Pass included Pisano on his most recently recorded album as well.
It was the Pass association that was most prevalent during Pisano’s first set Friday. In a program of mostly familiar Brazilian standards, the guitarist, on both electric and acoustic instruments, played with clean, accurate tones and improvisational savvy of the kind that Pass has built his reputation on. In a world full of guitarists making a living on no more than three chords, Pisano deserves wider exposure.
Opening on electric, Pisano pulled a classic Wes Montgomery-like sound from his instrument during Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Captain Baccardi,” spiking melodic single-note lines with plucky, rhythmic chording. While keyboardist Matt Harris stated the winsome theme of “Cascade of the Seven Waterfalls,” Pisano’s soulful, samba-flavored chording moved along at the speed of a stroll in the sand. The tune ended with some spunky chordal exchange between guitar and keyboard that recalled the melody to Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Moments.”
The guitarist switched to acoustic for his own “Amanhecer"--Portuguese, Pisano explained, for “dawning” or “daybreak"--spinning strings of well-defined notes into a narrative whole above Hughes’ gently swaying bass. The bassist took a spare, considered solo on the tune, reworking the somber theme while backed by Harris’ synthesized string accompaniment.
Everaldo Ferreira held down the percussive chores, working an understated double time on his cymbals during bossa nova-style beats and always keeping some suggestion of dance movement in his timekeeping. Odd man out on this night seemed Harris, whose electric keyboard solos, glistening with pop sensibilities, detracted from the evening’s decidedly Brazilian feel.
The crew found common ground on Jobim’s well-worn “One-Note Samba” and “Summer Nights,” the title cut from Pass’ latest album. Though the rhythm section seemed a bit tentative on the reflective tune, Pisano put this mood to good use, coaxing an intoxicating blend of hope and nostalgia from his strings. The guitarist turned to his electric instrument on Neil Larson’s “Sudden Samba,” a lively romp which featured Ferreira using his snare as a kind of touchstone during his snappy drum solo.
Brazilian burrito, anyone?