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Jackson Conti - Sunjinho

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Artist: Jackson Conti

Album: Sunjinho

Label: Mochila/Kindred Spirits

Review date: Jun. 3, 2008

The Brazilian trio Azymuth – keyboardist José Roberto Bertrami, bassist Alex Malheiros and drummer Ivan "Mamão" Conti – reached their peak of popularity in the mid-1980s. They played a self-branded style called “samba doido,” or “crazy samba,” which drew from the increasingly production-heavy and smooth-edged sound of radio-friendly jazz, soul and funk while still keeping with fusion's synthtastic ultra-modern vibe. What separated the trio from the crowd was Conti, the man responsible for infusing traditional Brazilian rhythms within a sleek, muzak-like sound. It's hard not to hear Azymuth's music as easy listening or smooth jazz, but if there were ever a counterargument to these classifications, it would be grounded in the inventive rhythmic prowess of Conti.

It is clear why Azymuth's music is so attractive to Otis Jackson Jr., the prolific producer known as Madlib. Under his Yesterday's New Quintet moniker, Jackson has explored atmospheric, loungy concoctions of Rhodes-centric jazz and instrumental funk. Sparse rhythms lead vamping grooves and hypnotic, abstract soloing that, thanks to Jackson’s keen ear for mood and choice influences, sidesteps any notion of lounge-fusion or synthetic chamber jazz by keeping the music somewhere in the hazy realm of space dub and dedicated home studio experimentation. Whereas hearing most of Azymuth’s discography today may leave you cringing at the synthetic cheesiness of the sound, it was, in all respects, an exciting progression of fusion at the time of its release. Let’s hope it ages as well as Yesterday’s New Quintet’s 2001 release Angles Without Edges.

In 2006, at the São Paulo premiere of the endearing documentary by B+, Brasilintime, which bridges old school rhythm innovators (Paul Humphrey, James Gadson, Wilson das Neves, Conti) with their young turntable-centric devotees (Cut Chemist, Babu, J.Rocc, Madlib), Jackson got the chance to meet and work with Conti in person. The brief session sent Jackson home with an hour-and-a-half of solo rhythms by the Azymuth percussionist, both traditional and of his own invention. A sampler’s wet dream, Jackson had free reign to produce an album building up from the clean, exotic rhythms. Seizing the opportunity to recreate some of his favorite Brazilian tunes from mid-sixties to early-seventies, Sujinho covers the great songwriters of the era: Marcos Valle, Chico Buarque, João Donato, Luíz Eça, Dom Um Romão and the like. With Conti at his rhythmic disposal, the Bomb Shelter’s array of keyboards, samplers and percussion, and a songbook brimming with classic samba, bossa nova, and MPB tunes, Jackson has all the materials needed to craft a forward thinking album of re-imagined Brazilian music, and hopefully not Blunted at the Brunch Table.

On this point, Jackson’s success is questionable. With a careful listen, the music is inventive and tactfully performed. Like most Bomb Shelter productions, the rhythm patching is seamless; Conti sounds as if he is right there in the studio jamming alongside Jackson each second of the way. And the arrangements – staying true to the diversity of late 1960’s Brazilian music – keep the album varied, though conceptually intact. The problem is that this melodic and often synthetic instrumentation paired with the vibrant samba and bossa nova rhythms don’t have the same connotations as it once did, especially with just a passing listen. It’s now a sound associated with coffee shops, chic fusion restaurants, fruity liquor ads and pseudo-tropical lounges across the world. For a lot of music devotees, it screams cheesy elevator muzak, which will be a continuous uphill battle for the success of this album.

During “Papaya” for example – the longest track on the album – the acoustic guitar glistens in a setting, tangerine-colored sun as a spry tropical rhythm tries to keep Jackson's swelling keyboard pulses in time. It fails completely, letting the track – maybe drunk on one shot of tequila too many – stumble away from the sun-baked Chillout crew, somewhere off the coast of Ibiza. Eventually, amongst xylophone pings and twinkling wind chimes, it falls face down; alone, sandy and bearing a smug, drunken grin on the shallow Caribbean coastline. Frankly, it would fit on one of those many compilations that somehow get produced each year with horrible names like Global Chillage.

On the other hand, there are tracks like “Praça Da Republica,” “Casa Forte,” and “Nao Tem Nada Nao” that are just so rhythmically heavy and inventive, that it is hard to discredit them simply for a cheesy synth or two. Or even a song like “Xibaba,” whose xylophone and accordion melody is wholly infectious and enjoyable. If you can look past the occasional lounge lizard, Sujinho is a resounding success in terms of bridging generations of musical innovators. And who doesn't like to chillax once in a while?

By Michael Ardaiolo

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