Going from AfroCubism to Maita's Lero-Lero (Cumbancha) is a switch from rural to decidedly urban — the samba bustle of her songs, the subtle pulsing of electronics, and her lyrics, which are invariably about city life. You can hear the city in the quick swish-swish of "Alento" ("Encouragement"), where a São Paulo "motoboy" rushes about making his numerous daily deliveries. Despite the electric bass, the sound of acoustic guitar and cavaquinho — and traditional percussion — pervades the album. And though the root rhythm is the samba, Maita, like AfroCubism, works myriad variations. She calls the title track (slang for an aimless conversation) a "deconstructed samba." "Fulaninha" (slang for "what's-her-name") crosses northeastern Brazil's funky baião rhythm with a bit of Jamaican dancehall. And "Desencabulada" has traces of baile funk, accented with the squeaking laugh of cuíca drum.
Aside from knowing grooves inside out, Maita understands how to write a hook without hitting you over the head. Her verse-chorus-bridge constructions flow and sigh with the particular Brazilian joyful sadness of her vibratoless delivery, sometimes whispery, sometime in full cry.
Less interested in grooves than in melody, harmony, and the American song tradition is pianist and composer Ran Blake, who's celebrating his 75th birthday year with two CDs of duets. The duo format — especially with female singers — has been a Blake touchstone since his debut recording with Jeanne Lee, 1961's The Newest Sound Around (RCA). The two new discs show Blake at his best: Out of the Shadows (redpiano.com) with a long-time collaborator, Christine Correa, and Camera Obscura (Inner Circle) with the young Lisbon-born singer Sara Serpa.
Blake seems to hear between the keys of his piano — every overtone, microtone, and vibration. How else to account for his uncanny knack for idiosyncratic harmony, the precision of his attack, which is sometimes a wispy cloud of dissonance and other times a single note struck hard, like a bell. His spare deconstruction of classic tunes — and his own evocative melodies — leaves him and his partners exposed.
The new CDs indulge his taste for film noir, both in the choice of material and in their treatment. You won't hear a more haunting version of Vernon Duke & Yip Harburg's "April in Paris" than the one Serpa and Blake give it on Camera Obscura. Every song has its associations, its memories, and they're spelled out in the liner notes to Out of the Shadows — a specific film (the title song to the Lana Turner vehicle The Bad and the Beautiful), a performer, a recording. Describing Gordon Jenkins's "Goodbye," Blake refers to late colleagues and friends — saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, singer Chris Connor, and composer George Russell. The associations suggest the movie playing in his mind's eye during this elegiac solo-piano performance.
It must take nerves of steel to sing with Blake. Given his taste for wayward chords and arrhythmic commentary, you'd imagine the bottom falling out from beneath your feet. Serpa is up to the task. Her 2008 CD Praia (Inner Circle) was a standout, with a great band (including pianist Verdan Ovsepian and guest saxophonist Greg Osby). On that disc, she sang mostly without words, except for a bit of Portuguese. On Camera Obscura with Blake, even when she shoots to the top of her register and her voice becomes breathy, she never loses pitch. And the youthful bloom in her voice, her vibratoless delivery, makes her sound all the more vulnerable. The only flaw here, if it is one, is in her accented, unidiomatic pronunciation of classic vernacular American lyrics.