Twenty years after titling his debut contemporary jazz album Boundless, pianist, keyboardist and composer Scott Wilkie continues to push limits, deepen his artistry, expand his repertoire, and in the case of his latest masterwork Brasil, pursue long simmering passion projects.
Featuring fresh re-imaginings of timeless Brazilian classics, Rio-related pop and jazz gems, and even one of Wilkie’s own tunes, the 10-track set is a spirited live-in-studio session featuring the talented keyboardist jamming for the first time with the quartet of Jeff Olson (his drummer for many years), three-time Grammy Award winning bassist Jimmy Haslip (co-founder of the Yellowjackets and associate of Brazilian greats Flora Purim and Ivan Lins), and Brazilian native Kleber Jorge, longtime touring guitarist for Sergio Mendes.
Though Wilkie has been a fan of Brazilian music his entire life, and incorporated it into his live set lists from his earliest days as a professional musician, he hadn’t considered recording a full album dedicated to its melodic and rhythmic charms until 2018. When he mentioned the idea to Olson, the drummer was enthusiastic, and encouraged the keyboardist to dig in further. Haslip, who had played on Wilkie’s 2014 album All In, was equally excited with the idea, and immediately began coming up with song suggestions and conceptual ideas. When Wilkie saw Jorge at the annual Laguna Beach Festival of Arts, closing his show with his trademark tune Voltar Pro Rio, that sealed the deal. Jorge came on board, and that song became one of the project’s foundational tracks – and its logical closer.
Produced by Wilkie, with Haslip serving as Associate Producer, and recorded at guitarist (and fellow Brazilian music veteran) Peter Sprague’s Spragueland Studios in Encinitas, the rhythm sessions for Brasil took only an amazing two and a half days. In addition to the quartet, the album features several special guests with unique ties to Brazilian music. Diana Purim, Flora’s daughter, creates a buoyant vocal chorus with Jorge on the deeply percussive, high energy flow of Voltar Pro Rio, and also appears on the fiery spin through the Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 classic Mais Que Nada. Josie James, featured vocalist on The Crusaders’ 1982 live version of Joe Sample’s Rio romp Burning Up The Carnival, reprises her role on the new version, which finds Wilkie and the band in a relentless party groove. Playing Fender Rhodes, Wilkie quotes a few of Sample’s passages in homage to the live version. Carnival also features a burning B3 solo from legendary organist and Wilkie’s longtime pal, Ronnie Foster.
Brazilian percussionist Gibi dos Santos, an associate of Jorge in Mendes’ band, adds hypnotic energy to a lush and lively, soundscape-filled take on Gilberto Gil’s Eu Vim da Bahia. Guest cellist Erdis Maxhelaku, who appeared on Wilkie’s 2015 holiday album Joy, adds his grace to a dreamy, sensual take on James Taylor’s lyrical ode, Only a Dream in Rio.
The album was mastered by Eric Boulanger, veteran of The Mastering Lab, and founder of The Bakery at Sony Pictures Los Angeles. And the gorgeous impressionist cover artwork was hand-painted by George Iso, a famous Brazilian artist Wilkie met in Rio years ago.
In choosing material to include on Brasil, Wilkie had a simple criterion. “All these songs were chosen because their melodies are so strong and unique,” he says. “Some of these tunes are harmonically complex, while some are so simple and beautiful that I wanted to leave them at their purest elements so their melodies could speak.” The eclectic mix includes a lighthearted, infectiously funky version of Brazilian singer Marissa Monte’s Ainda Lembro; a frolicsome and highly improvisational take on Canadian jazz singer Carol Welsman’s Café (a find by Haslip); and a percussive, piano-driven reworking of Nothing Yet, which appeared on Wilkie’s debut album. The band pays homage to Antonio Carlos Jobim with a brisk, increasingly joyous and festive stroll through Chega de Saudade, which is often considered to be the first recorded bossa nova song. Wilkie and the quartet also fashion a tribute to another of Brazil’s greatest songwriters, Ivan Lins, with their sensual, seductive and delightfully exotic Noturna.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the recording of Brasil is the fact that the studio sessions marked the very first time Wilkie, Haslip, Jorge and Olson played together as a group, yet the explosive chemistry they create makes it seem like they’ve been jamming for years. They found new life in these wonderful melodies and intensely percussive grooves, leading to an overwhelming and uplifting joyous vibe. “Without overstating things,” the keyboardist says, “it was kind of magical the way it came together. Jeff and I have a built-in chemistry from so many years of working together, and Kleber and Jimmy infused their deep experience of Brazilian music into every moment. I can’t imagine a more perfect band to make this album with.
“It felt like I was sitting inside this incredible ensemble that made the whole project feel effortless, honest and genuine,” Wilkie adds. “From the first downbeat, everything locked in and made sense. What made this special for me was the spontaneity that came from pushing out of my usual comfort zone and discovering new musical expressions within myself.”