On Horse and Fish, Brazilian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Vinicius Cantuaria has realized a brilliant fusion of cool jazz and bossa nova that, while remaining utterly contemporary in feel, recalls the pioneering work of Cantuaria’s life-long inspirations: Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
New York Times critic Jon Pareles has described Cantuaria as an artist “confident enough to choose understatement.” One could call his approach on Horse and Fish a kind of sensual minimalism. His self-penned songs, his co-writes with Nana Vasconcelos (“Quase Choro”) and Arto Lindsay (“O Nome Dela”), and a pair of carefully chosen covers from Brazilian compatriots Gilberto Gil (“Procissao”) and Jobim (“Este Seu Olhar”) are distilled to their essence, so all that remains is a whisper of melody and the lightest touch of rhythm. The mood is soulful, the setting intimate; a warmth permeates the disc like early morning sun caressing rumpled white sheets. The sound of Cantuaria and his remarkable five-piece band is so inviting, so enveloping, that it feels genuinely startling when the album is finally over. His dream-like world is hard to leave.
The music that Cantuaria has created over the last decade represents a bridge between classic bossa nova and the hip 21st Century variations on the Tropicalia sound coming out of Rio De Janiero, New York City and Tokyo. In a career that has spanned more than two decades, Cantuaria has both absorbed tradition and broken all the rules. While living in Rio, he performed alongside Brazilian superstars Gil, Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso, for whom he wrote Caetano’s first million-selling hit, “Lua e Estrella.” After moving to New York City in 1995 to pursue his solo career, Cantuaria has been relentlessly sought after as a percussionist and guitarist by cutting edge figures in rock, jazz, world music and performance art like Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Bill Frisell, Angelique Kidjo and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Most of these illustrious collaborators have returned his favors by appearing on the albums in which Cantuaria, possessed of a seductively gentle voice, takes center stage.
"Sometimes people are a little bit surprised at how I fit into these projects," Cantuaria says. "For me it is very easy and very natural. I don't see myself as just a bossa nova player. I'm looking for the same things they're looking for. I go with my old Brazilian style and my avant-garde groove. This is my job -- to try and preserve the old atmosphere with the new and the modern, the past and the right now. "
Horse and Fish, his fourth domestic release and his first with Bar/None, may be evocative of the past, but it’s very much right now. In fact, Cantauria recorded these tracks mostly live in the studio, in the eager-to-experiment style of those jazz masters he so admires. The majority of the songs were culled from two intensely focused sessions that Cantuaria helmed during a single day at Water Music, Hoboken, New Jersey. Accompanying him was the quintet with whom he’s toured concert halls around the world, five fellow artists whose live interplay he’s long hoped to capture on disc.
The members of his touring band are individually accomplished players who boast their own impressive resumes. Preternaturally gifted trumpeter Michael Leonhart wrote horn arrangements for Steely Dan’s 2000 comeback album, Two Against Nature, and played on the duo’s European and Japanese tours. Brazilian drumming innovator Paulo Braga toured and recorded with Jobim for 15 years, and he’s collaborated with many bossa nova and jazz legends, including Milton Nascimento, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Pat Metheny. Bassist Paul Socolow has a similarly long list of credits, having recorded or performed with artists ranging from Byrne and Frisell to Eddie Palmieri and Nana Vasconcelos. Percussionist Mauro Refosco has worked with John Lurie, They Might Be Giants, Smokey & Miho and Bebel Gilberto, among many other cutting-edge acts. Percussionist and Bahia native Nanny Assis, who has played with such artists as Philip Glass and Melvin Gibbs, is a master of Brazilian Jazz, Afro-Brazilian music and other popular and folkloric sounds from his homeland.
Working in the studio, says Cantuaria, “it’s you against the machine. It’s so difficult to be natural. But on the day we recorded Horse and Fish, we relaxed because it was a concert – for a very few people who were there with us. We got the real atmosphere of what we play in our shows. The studio was great: the sound was better than what we would normally hear on a stage.”
As a teenager, Cantuaria listened to imported rock from the Beatles and Stones. He became especially fond of Southern California combos like the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose harmonies captivated him. In fact, Cantuaria played in a popular rock group, O Terco, before crossing over to bossa nova and jazz. While Cantuaria may still name-check CSN, he‚s more apt to mention "the quartet I love" -- Davis,Baker, Evans and Jobim: "I have hundreds of CDs, but when I travel, it’s the music of those four that I take with me."
With Horse and Fish, Cantuaria has fashioned a traveling companion for the rest of us, a disc that’s guaranteed to be transporting, even when you’re simply staying home.