Pop and jazz in Review
ã Jon Pareles (The New York Times - New York)
Tom Zé, musical omnivore from Brazil
Summerstage - Central Park
With scraggly hair and a wispy beard, scarecrow limbs and a distracted expression, Tom Zé looked like a cheerful mad professor when ne performed on Sunday afternoon.
The appearance wasn't deceiving.
Mr. Zé, a songwriter from the Brazilian state of Bahia who now lives in São Paulo, is one of Brazil's most idiosyncratic performes, a pop inventor who bypasses the ordinary.
Mr. Zé concocts unlikely musical combinations full of skewed intelligence, quietly defying even the unspoken rule of Brazilian pop: that it has to be smooth. While Mr. Zé can come up with seemingly effortless melodies to match his best contemporaries, he also likes musical constructions with sharp angles and protruding parts: an insistent dissonance, an assenblage of short lines that add up to a minimalistic pattern, perhaps a touch of noise. He has clearly heard (or reinvented) progressive rock, but he also knows the sinuosity of samba and carnival rhythms.
His lyrics are full of wry wordplay and odd associations, some of which he offered in English as well as Portuguese: ‘‘We will light bonfires/To appreciate the eletric bulb.’’ Although his imagery can be bleak - in ‘‘Nave Maria,’’ about being born, he concludes, ‘‘I screamed when I saw I was already breathing’’ - he has a lighter touch than some of his American analogues, like Frank Zappa.
Mr. Zé is a contemporary of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and was part of their musically omnivorous movement, Tropicalia. But he veered away from pop into experimental music during the 1970's, and didn't reach an international audience until David Byrne released two albums of Mr. Zé's songs, ‘‘The Best of Tom Zé’’ and ‘‘The Hips of Tradition,’’ on his Luaka Bop label. At Summerstage, Mr. Zé sang ‘‘Jingle do Disco,’’ promoting ‘‘The Hips of Tradition ’’ as ‘‘a very patient work’’ that would ‘‘grant you relaxation, high apirits and happiness.’’ He also sang about pinball, heartache undelivered letters and, in a jovial reggae-tinged song, the disappearance of love.
His band sounded as casual as a living-room jam session, but a relaxed procision held together the skeletal arrangements while Mr. Zé sang, chanted, grunted or imitated pinball-machine noises. He wasn't a slick pop performer, but a tinkerer who was delighted to show some of his gizmos to an appreciative audience. Mr. Zé is to return to New York for shows on Aug. 10 at S.O.B.'s and on Aug. 12 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Sharting the bill was another Brazilian songwriter, Alceu Valença, who is from Pernambuco. He has a strong tenor voice with a cuaver at its center, and his songs meld rock power chords and shimmering pop key-boards with rhythms from northeastern. Brazil, like the accordion-and-trianglo-driven frevo. The fusion sounds completely natural; it made for exuberant, funeful songs that were absolutely at home on a neartropical Sunday afternoon.
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