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Duo’s Brazilian Jazz Transcends Fads

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the United States, Brazilian music has enjoyed intermittent fad status. Its popularity came and went during the 1960s and 1970s, and now, with the rise of world music, it is in the midst of another revival.

But there are some Brazilian performers who have transcended the fads. Among them are percussionist Airto Moreira and his wife, vocalist Flora Purim. During the last 20 years or so, they have contributed to some of the most enduring fusions of Brazilian music and American jazz, both on their own and on albums by others including George Duke, Stanley Clarke, McCoy Tyner, Paul Simon, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin and Miles Davis.

After several years of playing mostly apart, Airto (the name he prefers) and Purim began co-leading bands in 1986, and San Diegans can hear their latest group for three nights this week at Elario’s, beginning tonight.

Airto and Purim could easily lean on their substantial body of trademark material from the 1970s and 1980s, but their new, as-yet-unrecorded band is exploring fresh directions. It also includes longtime collaborator Gary Meek on sax and keyboards, Jerry Watts on bass

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and Mike Miller on guitar.

Their sets will mix new music, songs from Airto and Purim’s last albums (their 1989 collaboration “The Sun is Out” and Purim’s 1990 “Struck by Lightning”) and compositions by some of their favorite Brazilians, including Milton Nascimento and Djavan.

Airto, 49, has a new percussion kit that allows him to move easily between traditional trap drums and his ever-expanding collection of assorted percussion doodads.

“I have a special table, with a bass drum under the table, and an extension pedal and special seat,” he explained. “All I have to do to play drums is turn, and the drums are there--bass drum, high hat. Most of the time, I play percussion and drums at the same time. I have my table with my small toys, and things hanging all over the place--it’s a beautiful setup.”

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Purim, 48, whose voice can leap six octaves, uses electronic effects to expand the role of her voice, but not in odd or spacey ways. In her capable hands, technology is a tool that extends the organic, earthy aura of her music.

The pair moved to the U.S. in 1969 and was first heard by American audiences during the early 1970s, contributing to some pioneering fusions of jazz, rock and world influences. Airto played on trumpeter Miles Davis’ earliest electric albums, and Airto and Purim joined Chick Corea on the 1972 “Light as a Feather"--one of the most electrifying marriages ever between jazz and Brazilian influences.

A series of solo and joint projects followed, including a number of original tunes by these increasingly capable composers. Airto expanded the role of the percussionist, putting his arrays of instruments to diverse melodic and rhythmic purposes. He captivated listeners, topping the percussionist category for 11 years running in Downbeat magazine’s annual polls, beginning in 1972. He was back on top again last year. Airto and Purim have lived together in Santa Barbara for nine years.

In America, Brazilian music is enjoying a third wave of popularity, following the early 1960s bossa nova craze spearheaded by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto and others, and the arrival of Airto, Purim, Hermeto Pascoal and others during the 1970s.

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With the emergence of world music as a commercially viable category in the 1990s, encompassing Brazilian and other ethnic varieties, Purim and Airto may find themselves enjoying yet another run of success with American audiences.

Which would probably suit Airto just fine, because he hasn’t been happy with the way American artists have capitalized on borrowed ethnic sounds.

“In the U.S., when someone comes with something real good from another country, some of the major artists jump and get that music and copy and change it,” Airto said. “They write English lyrics, they dress differently for American audiences and they sell a lot--Paul Simon, Manhattan Transfer, David Byrne, many others. But they don’t really know what they’re doing. Well, they know what they’re doing, because they do it for the money, but they don’t care about learning other countries’ cultures.

“This lambada thing never existed in Brazil,” he added, referring to the latest pseudo-Brazilian craze. “They incorporated some other Latin rhythms with Brazilian rhythms, and one band came up with this lambada rhythm. They called it lambada because there was a new dance in the clubs in the big cities in Brazil. Because it had to do with sex and bare asses, it spread through the country.”

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Fortunately, Airto is getting the chance to disseminate deeper forms of Brazilian music through a series of collaborations with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who has a contract with the Rykodisc label to produce a series of recordings documenting international percussion sounds.

Airto has worked with Hart since the early 1980s, when they teamed up on the sound track for the movie “Apocalypse Now,” and he joined Hart on last year’s “At The Edge,” their initial Rykodisc effort. In June, Airto and Hart completed work on a follow-up recording titled “Planet Drum,” due out next year.

Their latest project consists entirely of what Airto calls “healing music.” As such, it took the percussionist full circle, back to his childhood in Curitiba, Brazil, where his father was a spiritual healer possessed of gifts that were legendary in his community.

“He was blind the last eight years of his life, but he could transport himself to places spiritually,” Airto said. “He was seeing lots of things that we couldn’t see. One time, he had a vision of some kids playing with an ax, hurting themselves, and he warned the parents. My father was illiterate, but I saw him when I was a kid, writing prescriptions real fast, because he had this doctor that he was channeling.”

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Airto sees the new recording as entirely utilitarian, not ethereal New Age material, although he believes there is more to life than meets the eye.

“There’s no message. It’s practical--self-healing through sounds. There are no electronics. It’s all natural and acoustic. There’s no New Age or relaxing music, it’s the real thing. It’s hard to explain. You have to listen to the sounds to understand.

“People are going back to that now, trying to find their inner strength. If this is life, they don’t want to be here. You work all your life, have all these responsibilities, you have to be running up and down. If you want to be a responsible person, and if you have a family, you have to work, boy. And then all of a sudden you die and everything ends? It sounds like a joke to me. It sounds like hell!”

At Elario’s (above the Summer House Inn at 7955 La Jolla Shores Drive, La Jolla), Airto and Purim will play shows tonight, Thursday and Friday nights at 8:30 and 10:30. Admission is $10 tonight and Thursday night, $12.50 on Friday night, with a two-drink minimum per show.

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