Internationally renowned guitarist Ben Sher’s deeply emotional yet powerfully swinging and eminently danceable latest album Samba for Tarsila, is further proof that one doesn’t need to be born in Brazil to create high spirited and impactful Brazilian music for the ages. In the case of Sher and his stellar quartet of New Yorkers Gary Fisher (piano) and Gregory M. Jones (electric bass) and Brazilian NYC based drummer Vanderlei Pereira, all that’s needed is the right inspiration from that culture. Sher happily found it in painter Tarsila de Aguiar do Amaral (1886-1973), one of the leading Latin American modernist artists who is regarded as the painter who best achieved Brazilian aspirations for nationalistic expression in a modern style.
Burrowing deep down in the rabbit hole, we find that, for all her enduring impact as a painter, she was also musically inclined; while studying painting in São Paulo in the 1910s, she composed a song in A minor for voice and piano titled “Rondo D’Amour.” Sher says, “Her portrayal of Brazil through abstract semi-literal images was the inspiration for this very album.”
The title track, the briskly rhythmic and intricately played “Samba for Tarsila” (which features one of Fisher’s most vibrant solo improvisations) is the centerpiece of a trio of Sher originals which kick off the seven-track set in grand style. The others boast a specific influential reference, with the funky, jamming opener “Antropofoagia” being inspired by Quincy Jones’ classic “Soul Bossa” and the infectious alternately moody and fast paced “Twilight” – featuring intuitive interplay between Sher’s bright guitar tones and Fisher’s dreamy Fender Rhodes – offering a haunting touch of Milton Nascimento.
Bringing fresh contemporary life to the familiar whimsically bustling Brazilian classics, Gilberto Gil’s “Eu Vim da Bahia” and Jorge Ben’s “Mas Que Nada” make perfect thematic sense. Likewise, the exotic Baiao rhythm (from Northern Brazil) they bring to their exotic romp through “On Green Dolphin Street.” Amidst all this, it seems curious that Sher would include a coolly meditative version of The Jackson 5’s classic ballad “Never Can Say Goodbye” to the mix. Still it’s beautifully played, got a great vibe and his choice to include it here shows the wild possibilities of Clifton Davis’ great tune outside the realms of the Jacksons’ pop/R&B and Gloria Gaynor’s memorable disco arrangement.