Dori Caymmi's father, Dorival Caymmi, is one of Brazil's best known composers, "a legend," according to his son. "He's a monument in Brazil. He's the last of the big, big composers. You could compare him to Gershwin here."
Indeed, open any recent book on Brazilian music and the elder Caymmi is credited with influencing such well-known countrymen as Joao Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa. So there seems more than a measure of irony in the junior Caymmi's migration to the United States to pursue his own musical career, even though it is as deeply tied to his homeland as his father's.
Evidence of those ties can be heard on Caymmi's new album, "Kicking Cans," his third for a major American label. The songs paint landscapes in much the same way that his father's music portrayed his native Bahia. "It's Raining" is a misty picture of a buriti (palm tree) farm. "From the Sea" was inspired by the lobster fisherman of Bahia. "Migration," which features Branford Marsalis' soprano sax, is a somber tribute to the displaced and those seeking better things from life.
Throughout the recording, Caymmi's intimate voice and romantic guitar establish a haunting presence. Caymmi will lead a quintet Saturday night at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, as part of its Multicultural Performing and Visual Arts Series.
Actually, the song that best portrays Caymmi's feelings about his country and the future of his music is the only one on the record that he didn't write--"Brazil," Ary Barroso's well-known dance theme written in 1939 (it has been used in a number of films, most recently Terry Gilliam's fantasy "Brazil").
On the phone from his home in Woodland Hills, Caymmi explained the mood he was trying to set with the song, and the reasons behind that mood. "It's a very slow, blues-ish feel, combining black traditions, American jazz and the Brazilian samba," he said. "Jazz, the straight-ahead jazz that I grew up with, seems to be dying. And the same thing is happening with the samba in Brazil. When you're sad, as when a friend dies, you slow down the beat."
The tune's deliberate pace does give it a particularly melancholy air, heightened by Herbie Hancock's moody keyboard work. "It's not really a fusion piece, but an expression of respect for both black traditions, coming together," Caymmi said. "I've accepted that jazz and the samba may not survive the next century. And I want to celebrate them today."
Caymmi was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1943, and his youth was saturated with music. "My childhood was perfect. All the great composers and writers and painters and intellectuals from Brazil would come to our house to see my father. And all the time there was music on."
Not only did he hear the great Brazilians of the day but also American jazz and popular musicians: Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Art Tatum, Nat King Cole. By the time he was four, he was listening to such French composers as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, whose influences still add impressionistic touches to his music. He began piano studies at age 4; 10 years later he picked up the guitar and realized it was the instrument for him. By 16, he was working professionally, backing vocalists.
He began composing music while still a teen-ager and at 17 was writing scores for Brazilian television. Like his father, he was influenced by the national literature, especially the writings of Jorge Amado. "He was very much into the local environment, and my music is set in the same environment. My music is very related to the geography of my country."
Caymmi was directing a musical in Rio de Janeiro when saxophonist Paul Winter--the leader of the Paul Winter Consort, one of the first world-beat/New Age ensembles--came in and liked what he heard. Tapping Caymmi to tour with the Consort in 1965, Winter took the young composer-guitarist on his first trip to the United States.
"I was very young and naive at the time," Caymmi recalls. "But in New York I saw Thelonious (Monk) and Wes Montgomery. I missed seeing (John) Coltrane but saw Miles (Davis), Gil Evans, Red Garland, Thad Jones. My father had all their albums. Those guys are legends for everybody."
Back in Brazil, young Caymmi started writing and arranging for Milton Nascimento and Antonio Carlos Jobim and producing albums for Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. At the Brazilian International Music Festival in 1966, he won the composer's prize and was introduced to more heroes: Henry Mancini, Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle. "If I were an American," he says, "I would put a statue of Nelson Riddle in every state. He knew the art of putting an orchestra behind the great singers."
In 1985, Sergio Mendes asked Caymmi to come to the United States to record with him. Caymmi stayed with the bandleader for four years--"I split my life between Rio and L.A., three months here, three months there"--and made invaluable contacts among American musicians.
Eventually, he found that he and Mendes had musical differences. "I look at music as a beautiful thing and Sergio was looking at music as a way to make money. There's nothing wrong with that. But I'm not a commercial guy, I don't think that way. The music flows. If it's not pop enough to sell, I don't feel like changing it. That's just what I do."
Caymmi recorded his first U.S. album, "Dori Caymmi," in 1988. Shortly after returning home in 1990, he was contacted by Jones' Qwest label and asked to record. "I've respected him for so long. He's a man of a thousand visions; he can produce incredible pop albums, but allows jazz and other musicians to do what they want to do. To receive a phone call from Quincy Jones! He's my hero."
The result was "Brasilian Serenata," which was nominated for a Grammy. That same year, composer-keyboardist Dave Grusin tabbed Caymmi to help him out composing and recording the soundtrack for the film "Havana."
Caymmi recently purchased a home in Woodland Hills and says that he's now something of a musical expatriate. "I couldn't record this kind of music in Brazil anymore, the companies aren't interested."
Even more disturbing, he says, is the younger generation's ignorance of Brazilian musical traditions. "They're so into rock 'n' roll that they don't have any connection with the country I left, the country that I grew up in. They don't know the Brazil that I knew. It makes me feel very sad. Today we have information from all over the world. But you must be concerned with your roots. That is the source of your music."
* Dori Caymmi plays with guitarist Ricardo Silviera, keyboardist Gregg Karukas, drummer Claudio Slon and bassist John Leftwich on Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m. at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. $3. (714) 493-1752.