Channeling the Spirit of Antonio Carlos Jobim


If you’ve heard any Brazilian music in the past few years, it’s a fair bet that you’ve experienced the work of Jacques Morelenbaum, as either a cellist, an arranger-orchestrator or a producer.

A minimal list of the artists he’s assisted includes Marisa Monte, Cesaria Evora, Chico Buarque, Carlinhos Brown, Gal Costa, Simone and Joao Bosco. He has, in addition, participated in Grammy-winning albums by Caetano Veloso and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Morelenbaum’s association with Veloso and Jobim is particularly prominent. In recent years, he has collaborated with Veloso on numerous projects, including the Fellini film music renderings on “Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta”; the lovely Latin American classic songs of the “Fina Estampa” album; and the blend of Bahian rhythms and jazz horns in “Livro.”


In each case, Morelenbaum’s cello playing and arrangements played vital roles in the success of the music.

But he had an even longer association with Jobim, dating back decades. The vital, creative warmth of that relationship is intrinsic to the group he leads with Japanese pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto. (Morelenbaum2 refers to the added presence of the cellist’s wife, singer Paula Morelenbaum.)

On Sept. 7, during a Southland weekend that will resonate with Brazilian music, the ensemble presents “The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim” at the Knitting Factory Hollywood in support of the just-released CD “Casa.” (Also performing that weekend will be the edgy young Brazilian ensemble Zuco 103 at the Conga Room on Sept. 6, and “The Beat of Brazil” with Ivan Lins, Monica Salmaso and others at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 8.)

Surprisingly, Morelenbaum, 48, didn’t really discover Jobim or bossa nova until he was in his late teens.

“When I was young, I was attached to classical music and to rock,” he recalls. “I actually knew very little about Brazilian music. At that time, I was mostly interested in groups like Cream, Deep Purple and Jethro Tull, and I didn’t begin to pay attention to Brazilian music until I was around 17--first to the guys who made a connection between Brazilian music and rock, and then, through Tropicalismo, to bossa nova.”

After that discovery, it became a fundamental aspect of Morelenbaum’s musical view, enhanced by his far-reaching relationship with Jobim. In 1995, a year after the death of the great bossa nova composer, Morelenbaum was invited to perform at a celebratory jazz festival in Rio.

“I was supposed to have two Brazilian guests and one international guest,” he says. “So I invited Ryuichi, because I already knew about his great passion for Jobim’s work. I also asked Jobim’s widow, Ana, if I could take Ryuichi to visit their house. It was a very familiar place to me since, for 10 years, I was there almost every night playing with Jobim.

“But Ryuichi looked as though he was entering a Buddhist temple. He was afraid, at first, to even touch Jobim’s piano. Finally, and only when Ana insisted, did he play a few notes. And as it turned out, that was a big moment for me too, because the gap in my life when Jobim passed away was very dark and very deep. And then, for the first time, I was hearing the sound of his piano being played in that room that I knew so well.”

The impact of that experience remained with Morelenbaum and Sakamoto for years, throughout their frequent musical collaborations. But it remained for Paula Morelenbaum, a few years later, to come up with the idea that transformed it into the recording of “Casa” and the current tour.

“We were doing a series of trio concerts in Europe,” recalls Morelenbaum, “when Paula said, ‘Why don’t we do an album, the three of us, of Tom Jobim’s songs, and do it at his house?’ Well, Ryuichi just jumped out of his chair and said, ‘OK, let’s do it!’ ”

Morelenbaum discussed the project with Ana Jobim, who agreed.

“And so,” he says, “after six years I could finally play again in that room, I could listen again to the piano sounding together with my cello and Paula’s voice. We tend to associate music with different feelings we have. I tend to associate it a lot with visual aspects even though I mostly play with my eyes closed.

“So playing Jobim’s music, looking through the same window in that special place--just beside the Rio de Janeiro forest, where you can see the ocean and you can see a big lake--it was a very special experience.”

Given that Jobim’s home was not an acoustically soundproofed studio, it was an experience with some potential recording problems. But even here, the project took on special qualities.

“It was summertime and it was very hot,” Morelenbaum says. “But we couldn’t use the air-conditioning because of the recording, so we had the windows open. And--this was Ryuichi’s concept--we decided that it was all right, that it was appropriate for the music to also include all the surrounding sounds of nature.”

Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto and “Casa” arrive at a time when bossa nova seems to be experiencing a revival. Morelenbaum declines, however, to view the music in the context of trends or fashions.

“I really think of it as a kind of classical music,” he says. “It has been more than 40 years since the beginning, and the best bossa nova has always been with us.

“If it wasn’t exactly happening in Brazil, it was here in the States, or it was in Europe, or in the Orient, and most of the time in all those places. Nowadays we have this New Bossa calling the attention of people to the original bossa nova, and DJs are using bossa nova samples in their experiments.”

But he also insists on the continued importance of his late friend and musical compatriot Jobim, whom he views as one of the musical fountainheads of the 20th century.

“There are still many young composers writing new bossa novas in Brazil, and that’s good,” Morelenbaum says. “But Tom Jobim was a very special guy, a very special composer. He was so enlightened and so brilliant that we will always have to pay attention to what his music was saying.”

Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto present “The Music of Antonio Carlos Jobim” at the Knitting Factory Hollywood on Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. (dinner show) and 10:30 p.m. $35, general admission; $60, dinner ticket. 7021 Hollywood Blvd. (323) 463-0204.

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