Airto Moreira's Afro-Samba Anthems Raise Roof At Ronnie's

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 Airto IMG by-Carl-Hyde

No greater sign of changing times comes than in this declaration: "The last time we were here I couldn't see the audience through the smoke. After the gig I'd hang my clothes out of the hotel window!" So quips vocalist Diana Purim to a wry smile from her father, bandleader, and Brazilian percussion legend Airto Moreira. The heyday of his annual residencies at the club does indeed reach back to the avant-smoking ban era, when the word Brexit had yet to enter the toxic haze of national discourse.

The lengthy hiatus between those early Millennial appearances of Airto's much-loved band, Fourth World, and now also shows physically. The 76-year-old is a more frail figure, moving gingerly to the stage with a slight stoop and speaking with a softer voice as he settles down at his station, a large table on which are stacked woodblocks, cowbells, shakers and whistles, with a couple of tom-toms and cymbals flanking him for good measure. The other members of the sextet, of which guitarist Jose Neto, is easily recognisable with his white axe and black bandana, quickly take up position.

They all look to Airto for the green light. Instantly, he takes command, punctuating the beat of 'Alué', the title-track of his first album recorded in Brazil for five decades with the kind of pinball sharp drum-patterns that convey the irresistible dance at the heart of Afro-samba, which is the soul of his music. Airto brought this vocabulary to the prime movers of American jazz, from Miles Davis to George Duke and Chick Corea, to whose group Return to Forever he made a vital contribution, alongside his wife Flora Purim. His graduation to a recording artist in his own right was cemented throughout the 1970s by albums such as Free, Fingers and Touching You...Touching Me. In other words, Airto has a vast repertoire on which to draw, and the songs in the first part of the set, particularly the gorgeous 'Misturada', stand up as real anthems insofar as they have a melodic richness to match the rhythmic intricacy associated with Latin music. Airto is playing a little less vigorously than in times passed, but that simply brings to attention the idiosyncrasy of his voice, a nasal, grainy timbre which he uses powerfully in wah-wah phrases and scat lines, to strengthen the percussive drive of the arrangements, and also heats to an impassioned scream that blends effectively with the higher pitches of saxophonist-flautist Vitor Alcantara.

Airto-band-Carl-Hyde

Drummer Carlos Ezequiel, bassist Sizao Machado and pianist-keyboardist Fabio Leandro form a nucleus that is strong and steady as the solos start to unfurl, particularly Neto's, which climaxes in hyperventilating, treble-time growls. Yet Airto's showpiece moment, where he stands alone on stage with just his pandheiro (tambourine) is still a roof-raiser. With brilliant dexterity he brings out bass and treble in the little instrument to evoke an earth tremor batucada, while his vocal chants are those of a man who understands that the carnival culture he embodies is one of liberation as well as exaltation. Fittingly, the set ends with the pulsating 'Tombo In 7/4', the celebration suite that made 1990s house music producers expose Moreira to worldwide audiences by way of the sample. The ecstatic reaction of the faithful here is a reminder that he is still an essential bridge between Africa, Europe and Brazil.

Kevin Le Gendre
Photos by Carl Hyde