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Paul Lieberman's Brazilian accent

By JON GARELICK  |  August 22, 2011

FLUENT Lieberman’s early affinity for Brazilian music led to his playing and recording in that country with all of its major vocal and instrumental stars.

How did a middle-class Jewish kid from New Jersey become a first-call session musician in Rio de Janeiro? That's the subtext of my conversation with flutist/saxophonist/composer Paul Lieberman when I get him on the phone in Wakefield, where he now lives.

Lieberman, 55, is celebrating the release of Ibeji at Ryles on August 24. The CD is a beguiling mix of originals with American and Brazilian standards. Lieberman's gimmick — and it's a good one — was to get "an American rhythm section to play Brazilian compositions in a jazz style and a Brazilian rhythm section to play American compositions in a Brazilian style." That concept guaranteed variety and surprise, but what you're most likely to pick up on from the first few bars is buoyancy — a beat that floats on every track and pervasive ensemble joie de vivre.

Take the opener, Lieberman's "Azul No Verde e Amarelo" ("Blue and Green and Yellow"). It's based on the oddball 10-bar structure of Bill Evans's "Blue in Green," twining two themes: one with a fetching descending piano pattern, the other a lyrical ascending dance. But it really takes off when Lieberman begins to solo. He gives his flute — the airiest of instruments, after all — real body. And his articulation makes an easy ride of the tricky rhythmic and harmonic turns. His piccolo work is perhaps even more arresting. On the '30s novelty number "Lulu's Back in Town," he gives the instrument — most easily associated with the piercing hornpipe cries of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" — a warm, woody timbre even as he clearly limns every grace note and trill at high speed.

Which brings us back to the concept: "Lulu" is treated like a Brazilian choro (that country's cousin of ragtime), played by the Brazilian rhythm team of bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. Jobim's ballad "Inutil Paisagem" is played as medium-tempo swing by the American bassist and drummer Rufus Reid and Tim Horner, respectively, with Lieberman on tenor. Meanwhile, the jazz standard "I'll Remember April" splits the difference, the "American" band shifting between baião and samba rhythms, with sections of straight swing for the solos.

"That's the golden spike of the record," Lieberman, tells me, "the only tune that has jazz and Brazilian grooves. The second chorus of each solo goes into swing, and it really flips into overdrive when we turn the corner into that chorus — Rufus and Tim really start swinging." Joel A. Martin, the pianist on all tracks, as well as Lieberman's co-producer, gets off a particularly ripping solo.

"Ibeji" is Yoruba for "twins," which is how Lieberman sees jazz and Brazilian music: twin strains of African descent. "The language metaphor is unavoidable: people have accents. It's like what they say about British and Americans: two people divided by a common language. There's so much of jazz in Brazilian music and so much Brazilian music in jazz."

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