ONE OF THE LEADING FIGURES IN THE modern Brazilian jazz scene is a young guitarist/composer/arranger named Chico Pinheiro. An outstanding performer on both his vintage Gibson ES-175 (which he strings with D’Addario Chrome flatwounds and plays though a Fender Deluxe Reverb) and a Zaganin nylonstring acoustic, Pinheiro gained notoriety in his home country and abroad with his two solo releases, Meia Noite Meio Dia (2003) and a self-titled second album from 2005—both of which scored “Top 10 Best Albums of the Year” awards in Brazil. A self-taught musician who started playing guitar and piano at age seven, Pinheiro began performing at 15, and later attended Berklee College of Music, where he studied with Mick Goodrick and Hal Crook and earned several academic/ musical prizes before graduating in 1999. On his latest release, Nova [Phantom Sound & Vision], Pinheiro partners with New York jazz guitarist Anthony Wilson (an accomplished solo artist who also plays guitar in Diana Krall’s band) to record what Pinheiro describes as “not an American album and not a Brazilian album, but something in between.”
The result of their collaboration is an alluring collection of songs that embrace the rich rhythmic and melodic elements of Brazilian music and the highly improvisational aspects of American jazz. One of the essential jazz guitar albums of 2008, Nova advances the notion of jazz as an international language and highlights the possibilities for expression that lie in a two-guitar format.
The blending of Brazilian and American influences on Nova is very cool. Did you write your songs specifically for this album?
Yes, I wrote both “Planicie”—which we played as a duo—and the title song specifically for this project. I wanted to fit them into this kind of environment— which is jazzy and kind of open—and, when Anthony and I first played these songs, we thought they really sounded nice. We discovered that we have a good way of working together because on Nova you have a lot of rhythms going on, and when you play faster tempos or very rhythmic things you can have some difficulties playing with two guitars.
Why is that?
I don’t hear much collaboration by two jazz guitarists these days, and I think it’s because it’s not that easy. When playing with two harmonic instruments it can be tricky to get along well. When you have piano and guitar, or vibes and guitar, you have these different approaches, so you don’t get in each other’s way like you do with two guitars. But Anthony and I never felt like either of us had to change how we played to make it work, so this album came very naturally to us.
How did you two meet?
Anthony came to Brazil on tour and somebody gave him my first CD, and that’s how we hooked up. I was recording my second album when I got a message from Anthony, saying that he was listening to my CD while he was mixing his own album. So we started to correspond by email, and at some point he told me he was coming to Brazil to learn more about our music. So I invited him to stay at my home in Sao Paulo and we jammed almost non-stop for three days—mostly just playing American and Brazilian standards—and from that point we knew we had to do an album together.
Most of the songs on Nova feature electric and acoustic guitar. Did you do that mainly for textural reasons?
Yes, because the electric and acoustic blend so well. When you play jazz on a semi-hollow electric it has this very mellow tone, while the acoustic has a totally different sound because of the nylon strings and because you play it with your fingers. So we found that these two sounds worked extremely well together.
Anthony’s song “Two Fives” has some nice guitar interplay that starts sounding very harmonized at around 5:10. Were those parts written out, or are you both improvising at that point?
That’s a song we decided to play when we were in the studio. I didn’t know the tune, but we decided to play it because somebody at the studio said, “Guys, all this started as a duo, but you don’t have any songs recorded as a duo.” So Anthony pulled out this chart and we just started to play it. And the third time through we recorded it. It’s one of my favorite tracks. But to answer your question, none of what we did was written—we just worked off a chart that had the chords and melody. The part you’re talking about is where we decided to solo together, so we were both just improvising.
Your solos always sound very fluid and precise. Can you give some insights on soloing?
There are two things that are very important to developing your soloing ability— ears and practicing. As a jazz player, you have to develop your harmonic ears in order to be fluid. And fluency is the key word. You have to deal with a lot of different modes and scales and have all of this in your ears. There’s a mechanical part to it for sure, but to me, the most important thing is the hearing part. It all has to be natural to you because you can’t just play mechanically and not hear it in your head. It sounds obvious, but it’s not. You can mathematically understand everything, but, if you don’t have it in your ears, it’s not going to work.
What exercises did you do to develop your ears to such an extent?
What I used do a lot is listen to songs and just try to figure out the harmonies without having a guitar in my hands. And then I would try it with the guitar to see if I got it right. I did this a lot, and eventually I developed my harmonic ears, which helps me immensely when I’m soloing or composing. I think your ears are the most important tools that you have as a musician, and you should try to develop them really well. Because, if you listen to somebody who is playing that way, it’s going to sound very natural. If not, then what you hear is somebody doing a lick over a certain kind of chord, and it’s very mathematical sounding.
Do you switch between your fingers and a pick when you play?
Yes, I play both the acoustic and the electric with my fingers as well as a pick. But I’ve changed from using a heavier jazz-type pick to a lighter pick in order to feel and sound a little more like I’m using my fingernail. It’s a black nylon Dunlop pick, and it gives a similar sound to what I get with my nails. When you play certain kinds of Brazilian music, you have to use your fingers, and some things you can only do with a pick.
How much do you practice?
Ideally, I play two to three hours a day, even when I’m touring. Sometimes, if I’m composing, or into something really interesting, I play much more. I think it’s good to just play a tune and try to hear the harmonizations, or work on specific things—like picking—for a half hour or so. But I never work on just one thing for hours at a time. Sometimes I like to practice with friends, so I’ll just call a bass player and a drummer and we’ll get together and play over some tunes. I think practicing with different musicians is a stimulating thing to do. My band practices all the time—even when we’re traveling— but it’s not like a commitment. It’s just to have fun.
How did your background in Brazilian music affect the way you learned to play jazz?
When I was a student, I was jealous that I didn’t play like an American. I had an accent. Brazilian music, of course, has an accent just like the language. But once I figured out that it was cool that I didn’t play like an American, I tried to figure out different ways to mix my sound into the intersection of jazz and Brazilian music. The important thing to understand is that music is a code, and you have to really know the code otherwise you’re going to be in trouble. The code has to do with harmony and with scales and sound and timing. It’s like a language. So when I’m soloing or composing, I just try to be lyrical—I just imagine that I’m trying to have a conversation with my companions. But if somebody isn’t as fluent in the language, then, at some point, the conversation is going to get stuck. So everybody has to talk the code. If I’m playing classical music or Middle Eastern music, at some point I’m going to get stuck because that’s not my language. But if I’m playing Brazilian music or jazz, I just talk.
On the song “Cuba” you get into some very interesting rhythms and horn arrangements. What was the inspiration for that song?
In 2006, I had the opportunity to play with some people from Buena Vista Social Club here in Brazil, and it was such a great experience. It brought me a totally different perspective, because the Cuban rhythms have a lot to do with Brazilian music—the accents and everything—and that’s because we have a similar history. Cuban music is very different harmonically, but the rhythms are similar. It goes to show that it doesn’t matter where you are from— it can be New York, San Francisco, Cuba, or Brazil—there are commonalities in music that we all share.
Pinheiro’s Desert Island Picks
Want to learn more about Brazilian music? This list of albums compiled by Chico Pinheiro is a great way to get your groove on in Rio time.
• Moacir Santos, Ouro Negro (2001). Moacir Santos was one of the best Brazilian arranger/ songwriters of all time. Winton Marsalis called him the “Brazilian Duke Ellington,” which I think is a great definition. This record is a tribute to him, and features some of his most important pieces
• Rosa Passos, Canta Caymmi (2000). A great singer and guitar accompanist with a bossa-jazz approach to her music, Rosa Passos is one of the most influential Brazilian artists today. Some people have called her the female version of João Gilberto.
• Edu Lobo and Chico Buarque, O Grande Circo Místico (1983). A beautiful album from two of my all-time favorite Brazilian composers.
• Baden Powell, À Vontade (1963). Besides being a great soloist, Baden Powell is one of the most innovative Brazilian guitarists. It was he who introduced the modern style of samba comping on guitar.
• Antônio Carlos Jobim, Matita Perê (1973). A great album by Jobim that features Claus Orgerman’s wonderful orchestrations.
•Gilberto Gil, Luar (1981). Gilberto Gil is still one of the main influences for guitar playing and songwriting in Brazil. Recorded with the great producer Liminha, this is one of his best works.
• João Bosco, Dá Licença Meu Senhor(1995).João Bosco accompanies himself wonderfully on guitar, and is a terrific composer and singer. I love this CD.
• Cesar Camargo Mariano & Helio Delmiro, Samambaia (1980). A masterpiece by two outstanding instrumentalists—Cesar on piano and Helio on guitar. It reminds me of the Bill Evans and Jim Hall album, Intermodulation. Great stuff.
• Guinga, Cine Baronesa (2001). Guinga is like the Brazilian Ted Greene, and a master of composition. So deep and soulful, this album is my favorite of his.
• João Gilberto, João Gilberto (1973). One of the best albums ever from João Gilberto, which means a lot, because he has recorded some great, great stuff.