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Brian Rolland Dreams Of Brazil
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
2006-05-12
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Brazilian music is as deep and as wide as the nation itself. The traditions and styles of their musical heritage include concert forms like choro, which features violins, woodwinds and piano; samba drumming, which is the melding of the European marching drum corps and African drumming; and jazz music that blends samba rhythms with the Afro-Portugese sounds of bossa nova. This is the music explored by guitarist extradordinare, Brian Rolland, whose clear love and affinity for that music is celebrated on his CD, Dreams Of Brazil (Brian Rolland - Dreams of Brazil). This record is a musical evocation and celebration of the country and its people.

The opening track, "Along the Amazon," (Brian Rolland - Dreams of Brazil - Along the Amazon) contains guitar lines that both float ethereally and get down into the music's earthy guts (much like American blues). Bassist John Lockwood plays in a way that imitates a deep drum, and percussionist/drummer Bob Weirneri plays shakers and other hand percussion as well as the trap drum set, which add a subtle propulsion to the music as well as primitive (i.e., ancient and original) coloring. The song musically takes you down the river.

"Bolem do Pora" (Brian Rolland - Dreams of Brazil - Belem Do Para) is a jazzy tune reminiscent of the old jazzy bossa nova sound of Brazil. Lockwood and Weirneri play a light, spacious groove under Mr. Rolland's tasty and complex variations and explorations of the gentle melody that is stated at times by various vocalists.

Another highlight is Rolland's version of "In A Silent Way" (Brian Rolland - Dreams of Brazil - In a Silent Way), a Joe Zawinul song that is better known as the title track of a ground breaking album Miles Davis album. This moody piece explores the spaces between notes and sparse melody fragments. Mr. Rolland reinvents the song by turning it on its head by filling in the spaces swirling the melody by strumming sheets of chords and harmonies, in a style deeply rooted in flamenco and classical guitar.

But these traditions are used as a basis for his highly individualized style of jazz. His musical personality was forged by early exposure to a wide range of musical experiences, thanks to a creative, musical family. "My sister and I used to sit under the grand piano while dad sang Gershwin, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein's 'West Side Story,' and other great show tunes from the early decades of the 20th century, accompanied by mom on the piano. I still have those songbooks that were kept under the hinged seat of the piano bench. I used to spend a lot of time browsing around that little goldmine wondering how he turned those little dots on the pages into such wonderful sounds."

His parents also used to fill the house with other types of music such classical music by Mozart, Bach, Claudio Monteverdi, and Debussy. They played traditional Spanish flamenco guitar music. The jazz of artists such as Al Hirt, John Coltrane, Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington was often heard in the Rolland home. And, not surprisingly, Antonio Carlos Jobim and other Brazilian musicians. "Early on my parents used to give blood to get money to buy records," he exclaimed. No wonder that young Brian grew up with a passion for music.

"My dad was a wonderful amateur musician. Besides piano, he was a cornet player. He was the lead trumpet in the Hannibal Missouri High School Band, which reigned as state champ. Some nights his Uncle Bub, who raised him, would drive him over to Quincy, Illinois, to play with the jazz bands on the river boats on the Mississippi River. That was in the late '30s, early '40s. By the time I was in college I was playing big band jazz behind trumpeters like Clark Terry and, once, Dizzy Gillespie. These guys were my dad's heroes."

Another part of his musical development came from being in an artistic environment outside of his home. Though he spent some of his formative years in New Hampshire, essentially, he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was thus exposed to the vibrant music scene in Boston in the 1960s. One particularly special place was Club 47.

"In those days you had to be a member, and they always told me I was the youngest member at age 12. I keep looking for my membership card from 1966. I was fortunate to have an older brother who took me around a lot early on. There I heard Tom Rush, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, the original Paul Butterfield Blues Band and others. Let me tell you, those electric blues bands made a major impression on me in that small room! Sunday afternoons in the summer there were concerts on the Cambridge Common. We were there every Sunday until the music stopped at nightfall. I remember seeing Ike and Tina Turner (Miles Davis opened for them), The Youngbloods, the Allman Brothers, and B.B. King. There was a club called Boston Tea Party where I saw the Velvet Underground, Big Mama Thornton, Procol Harum, and other great groups. We also went to the Jazz Workshop quite often. There we saw McCoy Tyner, Return to Forever, Weather Report, lots of jazz cats. My mom was always taking us to museums and art galleries. Arts, music and aesthetics were being pumped into us all the time."

Another important experience for young Brian Rolland was when he saw Miles Davis with his early electric band at The Boston Globe Jazz Festival in 1967. This group included Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. This lead to his love of the electric jazz of Weather Report and Corea's Return to Forever. "That music was natural," he explains. "I loved jazz improvisation and loved electric guitar. John McLaughlin certainly became influence."

[Kirby] What were your first bands like? What style of music did you play?

[Brian Rolland] I played classical piano and clarinet first, then switched to guitar when I was 11 or 12. The early bands were two guitars, bass and drums. Later it was bass, drums, one guitar and pedal steel. Our first gig was a wedding reception at The Club Casablanca under the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square in Cambridge in 1968. We played way on the blues side: "Smokestack Lightning," "Mystery Train," things like that. We were listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Yardbirds, Muddy Waters, early Taj Mahal, Chuck Berry. Actually, we were listening to everything else, too, but this was the stuff we could play well enough to gig on. I was fourteen."

[Kirby] How did someone who started out playing the blues and folk music evolve to a classical and acoustic jazz style, with a more elaborate strumming style?

[Brian Rolland] Guitar teachers I had heard it in me and kept pointing me first to jazz, then to classical. In the end, my most intensive training was in classical guitar, then I worked my way back through the other styles again, always playing jazz along the way.

[Kirby] Give an example or two how you mesh the various styles of flamenco, Latin, and jazz in your songs.

[Brian Rolland] I think the flamenco technique is always buried in there somewhere, a natural result of living in Spain for a while in the '70s. The classical music is in there, too, just as a natural result of that training. It's a way of thinking about the guitar as an orchestra that's brought alive by the way you approach left-hand fingerings and right-hand tone qualities, then the improvisation comes mostly out of jazz for me. The tune "Please Make Love With Me" is a good example. It starts as a simple bossa nova on nylon strings, adds a second guitar that has classical finger picking, but on steel strings, then adds a third guitar which plays an improvised jazz solo.   

Though Mr. Rolland weaves various elements into the music, the heart of the album is in Brazil, which has elements of both natural whimsy ("When Caravels Sailed") and earthy gravitas ("Berimbau"). Mr. Rolland states, "I've always had a thing for Brazilian music since the first time my parents put the soundtrack to 'Black Orpheus' on the turntable 'round about 1960. There are some samba and bossa nova underpinnings on that album, and a lot of influence from Brazilian master Milton Nascimento. But mostly it's about a feeling of gentle, but undeniable energy that infuses so much of Brazilian music. I have yet to visit Brazil, though... except in my Dreams."


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