Azymuth – Fênix (2016)

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Like the mythical phoenix bird that rises from the ashes, Azymuth has rebounded from a devastating blow. Fênix, out this month (Far Out Recordings), marks the return of the premier Brazilian electric jazz band, maintaining their hold on that spot first claimed more than forty years ago with the issuance of their self-titled debut album.

The death in 2012 of co-founder and keyboardist José Roberto Bertrami was a huge blow to the trio, as he was a heavyweight of Brazilian jazz in his own right. But Ivan Conti (drums) and Alex Malheiros (bass guitar) stand on their own as stars, too, and they regrouped with keyboardist/composer/arranger Kiko Continentino. Looking a little older (the surviving co-founders both turned 70 this year) but sounding as young as ever, Conti and Malheiros shrug off setback to deliver an album that might not match the late-70s/early 80s peak, but it’s solid and puts us on alert that they aren’t nearly done yet.

Formed in 1972, Azymuth became the Weather Report of South America with ample musical ability and the group’s signature samba doido (crazy samba) sound, which modernized the traditional Brazilian samba with dashes of rock, American funk and fusion jazz. They were unique as a unit and individually too: each had developed their own identifiable method of expression of their respective instruments.

Part of Bertrami’s genius is that he never overplayed his part; he expertly worked a groove closely with Conti and Malheiros and not around them. Continentino, using a judicious mixture of Rhodes and Moog, follows that path for the kick-back funk of “Villa Mariana (De Tarde)”. Following that, “Orange Clouds” is deceptively breezy, but the Conti/Alex Malheiros rhythm section continues to set that standard for funky cohesion.

The inevitable all-out beckoning to the dance floor happens with the title track, another serving of that crazy samba that defines them and sets them apart. ‘Papa Samba” is Continentino’s own term for samba doido, and he shows off plenty chops on electric piano. Conti and guest percussionist Robertinho Silva are so dynamic together and timbrally rich that they practically play the tune on their own. Conti and Silva once again take center stage on the runaway rhythms of “Corumbá.”

The insistent beats grounding sophisticated little shifts makes “Neptunians” go beyond just another good groove even as it hints at swing. “Batucada Em Marte” with its disco beat and synth percussion effects is a throwback to the late 70s more than the other tracks, but the looseness keeps all the cheesy associations those things usually conjure up at arm’s length. Continentino goes acoustic piano for the pleasant wind-down tune “Rio Doce” and acquits himself well playing in the straight jazz style.

Kiko Continentino is filling in some big shoes as the new member full of Brazilian jazz legends, but the legend continues undeviating from its mission. Bertrami’s spirit lives on strong.

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