Sounds Like Brazil : New Englander found his musical persona in Rio. It permeates the numbers his group will play at Le Cafe.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times</i>

Frank Zottoli may have been born in New Haven, Conn., of Italian ancestry, but there’s little doubt his musical heart is from Rio de Janeiro.

Zottoli first encountered Brazilian music on his initial professional gigs as a teen-age pianist growing up in Wallingford, Conn., near New Haven. “But I didn’t really understand how beautiful songs like Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Triste’ and ‘Desfinado’ were until much later,” he says.

As he grew older, Zottoli began to realize the depth and quality of the popular music of Brazil, and while studying at what is now the Berklee College of Music in Boston, he “fell in love with the music,” he said. Still it took a trip to Brazil in 1985, and some personal encounters with Brazilians and their music on their home turf, to fully cement that adoration.


“It may sound trite, but Brazilian people and their music have a warmth that’s unmistakable to anybody who meets them, hears, feels the music,” says the keyboardist, shaping words with his hands. “They, their music--both are warm at the outset. A lot of Brazilian music mates the rhythms of Africa and Brazil with sophisticated harmonies and beautiful melodies. Those are the classical elements of great music from anywhere, as far as I’m concerned.”

The 2 1/2 months he spent in Rio were wonderful just as enjoyment. “It was a dream of mine to visit there, to take an educational vacation and soak up the music. I went out almost every night,” he says.

That brief stay was also instrumental in forming Zottoli’s musical persona. And now the essentials of the popular music of Brazil, exemplified by songs written by such noted Brazilians as Jobim, Dori Caymmi and Ivan Lins, permeate most of the music that the keyboardist, 45, performs.

Zottoli appears Wednesday at Le Cafe with his recently formed band, Todos Vagabundos, featuring Doug Norwine (saxes, woodwinds), Octavio Bailly (bass), Sinclair Lott (drums) and Scott Breadman (percussion). Naturally, says the leader, Brazilian-influenced sounds will predominate.

“You might hear a standard like ‘Besame Mucho’ or ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’ done as sambas,” he says. And there will be originals by the leader and Moacir Santos, one of the most highly respected, but least known, of Brazilian writers. The music of Santos, with whom Zottoli performed and who has lived in Southern California for decades, struck the keyboardist the first time he heard it while at Berklee in 1969.

“Bassist Abraham Laboreil’s wife Lyn played a record of his for me and Abraham, and we both freaked,” Zottoli says, his face lighting up. “I heard something that I had never heard before--a music from Northern Brazil which Moacir had made completely unique.”


At Le Cafe, there will of course be tunes by Jobim, done now both for their luxurious musicality and in tribute to the man who died recently at age 67. “I never knew Jobim, but I saw him perform in Los Angeles at the Wiltern Theater,” says Zottoli. “He was unbelievable. A great musician and spirit has been lost. I imagine that those who knew him feel a tremendous loss, and I sympathize with them.”

Northridge resident Zottoli, who has played with a variety of artists, including sax man Stan Getz, the Brazilian band Velas and the pop group Fifth Dimension, is one of Southern California’s most interesting improvisers. He has a keen rhythmic edge, and his lines have plenty of melodic whammy. He long ago attracted the attention of Le Cafe owner Dale Jaffe, who was excited about booking Todos Vagabundos.

“Frank puts new meaning into the word fusion as he merges all these sounds from Brazil in a very fresh way,” says Jaffe. “I love having this band in whatever form it is taking, and I hope it will catch on.”

Zottoli began playing piano at age 6, accompanying his father, an amateur singer of popular songs. He began formal studies at age 10, though he always played by ear.

He entered Berklee, from which he earned a diploma in 1973, because, he says, “I heard that was the place to study seriously, but not necessarily classically.”

Since landing in Southern California in 1976, he has worked steadily, doing everything from collaborating on albums with Japanese artists who wanted to explore Brazilian music to playing weddings.

Zottoli says the musical life has been “good at times, not good at times.”

“It’s not good financially, in that sometimes there’s not enough work,” he says directly, and without complaint. “But it’s great because of the artistic rewards,” he adds. “You know, the feeling of music and enjoying what it was meant for.”



Where and When

Who: Todos Vagabundos.

Location: The Room Upstairs at Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 8:30 and 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Price: $5 cover, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 986-2662.