Milton Nascimento's music could not have been created by anyone but a passionately partisan Brazilian national, yet he consistently transcends his dearly held cultural identity. He is an anomaly, an original whose recordings have struck private chords in diverse millions worldwide. His latest recording, Nascimento, is pared down, percussive, airy and supports his voice on its stratospheric travels. It's a quantum leap beyond the overblown miasma of LA-bred "soft jazz" and star-struck pop visitations of his past few albums. For many of his admirers, the only real hint that Milton was still on his game was his brief appearance on Rhythm Of The Saints, where his melancholic timbre danced like an incantation and nearly blew Paul Simon off his own record. On this 1997 release, he has checked back in where he lives and it's about time.
Milton was born under Scorpio in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, but grew up with adoptive parents in a town called Tres Pontes in the landlocked province of Minas Geraes, which translates to "General Mines". The area is a stronghold of Catholicism in Brazil, and the church-like harmonies that inform so much of Milton's music began here. He gathered a set of boyhood friends around and eventually moved to the capitol city of Belo Horizonte to begin his professional life as a musician. After years of club dates, festivals and other experiences, his songs came to the attention of one of Brazil's greatest singers, Elis Regina. At her invitation, Milton showed up with his guitar and played all of his songs for her, all the while nervously wondering whether or not he was boring her. When he ran out of material, she simply asked, "Is that all there is?", and thus began a magical partnership. When a song gets airplay in Brazil, the composer and lyricist are always named along with the interpreter, so from then on his future was assured.
His first recording was called Travessia (Bridges) and while the title tune was to be something of a signature song for him, it was his work for EMI that brought him to the attention of audiences outside of Brazil. The two volumes of Clube De Esquinha (Corner Club) recall how he and his youthful collaborators hung out on the streets at night, honing their skills and sometimes irritating the neighbors. "Minas" and "Geraes" delve into his hometown soul via jazz flavored and folkloric stylings, respectively. "Milagre dos Peixes (Miracle Of The Fishes)" is sung but has no lyrics due to his scorn for the repressive government policies at the time.
It was at this juncture that the American jazz icon Wayne Shorter approached Milton. The recordings they made together brought him indelibly into the American marketplace and consciousness. These sets had many special moments, but it was obvious that Milton was more comfortable phrasing in the sideways swim of his native Portuguese than in up-and-down English. The not-to-be-missed EMI series, however, have all been remastered at Abbey Road Studios in England and are now available as imports.
Milton's astonishingly vital output for Ariola Brasil (mostly still in print through Polygram) during the eighties was when his vision finally received its technical due on such albums as Sentinela and Anima. He retained the services of cohorts from his journeyman EMI recordings but also introduced the silky guitar of Riccardo Silveira and the whiz-bang, acoustic wizardry of Grupo Uakti. The top-notch production values refracted his colors and flung them from earth to sky like an Aurora out of the south, garnering ecstatic press and legions of new fans.
Nascimento is stylistically related to the esthetic of the Ariola period but employs a humbler palette. Although it does not quite reach those remembered heights, it is nonetheless a work of rare potency and blazing percussive fire. It was produced by Russ Titelman, who is best known for his mega selling albums of "adult rock" and who was behind Milton's duet with James Taylor on "Angelus". Much of Nascimento was crafted on the hoof in the studio, with just the percussion parts pinned down and Milton spontaneously overdubbing himself into a choir of elementals with a couple of other voices chiming in from time to time. Members of the Brazilian posse are on hand to perform material written by Milton and such longtime friends as lyricists Fernando Brant and Marcio Borges and the Carioca poet-composer Chico Buarque. There are elegies here - Milton has lost a trio of valued friends in one year, starting with the death of his manager /producer Marcio Ferreira. A wordless chant of "Ol' Man River" recalls the young actor River Phoenix, dead of an overdose like Milton's muse and soulmate Elis Regina; while a vocalise on "Ana Maria" mourns the passing of Wayne Shorter's wife on TWA flight 800.
The spectacular percussive tracks draw essences from race memory - the rattling breaths of slaves whose bleeding fingers wrested the ore from the caves of Minas Geraes. "Guardanapos de Papel (Paper Napkins)" is a florid ballad in the "Travessia" mode by the Uruguayan composer Leo Masliah sung in Portuguese and Spanish versions and it's equally overheated in either, but manages to be lovely anyway. Ultimately, there's always the voice and these days the instrument has a faint whisper of passing time which in no way detracts from its ability to move the heart. This most private of artists does not so much share his inner lives as use them to launch parallel observations in the listener. - Christina Roden
See also: Brazil