THEY SAY THE Brazilians are the best dancers (as well as the best soccer players) in the world. And their music is just as good. Jorge Ben is a musician who's been called Brazil's Marvin Gaye, and his latest album, Tropical, is a paean to escapism. Listening to it is like reading stream-of-consciousness poetry--surreal and full of images, from a cafe on a black-and -white mosaic Rio sidewalk to a red-dirt hairpin road winding up a jungled hill in Latin America. It makes you think of visiting Dom Pedro II's cracked stucco palace where you can talk to the 150-year old parrots he kept as pets way back in the mid-1800s.
Brazil's music makes rich use of its mixed national heritage: samba, conga, bossa nova and salsa mingle with rock and jazz influences from European groups. But today, musicians like Ben or his equally popular and more jazz-oriented contemporary Milton Nascimento are being enjoyed by the gringos who used either to sneer at "torrid-fun-in-the-sun rnythms" or water-down tangos for lounge lizards.
A few years ago, Brazilian rock stars were content with aping the antics of the Beatles or the Monkees. One of them, Roberto Carlos, had a wooden leg, but that never stopped him from cavorting around in psychedelic fashion through jungles, or perching atop the giant Cristo statue on Sugarloaf Mountain above Rio and Copacabana beach. He would sing sugar-candy love songs and had a huge teenybopper following, but if you were really with it you listened to Sergeant Pepper's instead.
By contrast, artists like Ben evoke the colors and textures of the bird-of-paradise and dragonflies on Tropical's jacket--with a tremendous beat beside which disco and Motown sound pale. The rhythms have generally been slowed down until they sound like reggae, for the benefit of those unaccustomed to the frenetic pace of, say, the extemporaneous music that blossoms at every Rio street corner come Carnival time.
Ben's lyrics are mostly in Portuguese, but his songs, with their optimism and off-the-cuff spirit, transcend language barriers. There is an only-just-bounded energy to this music, a warmth that is a welcome change from dark northern days. Close your eyes and you could almost be 5000 miles away.
Gato Barbieri, the Argentinian tenor sax player, brings a similar spirit to his jazz. Whatever jazz purists may say, Barbieri--who has been criticized for being overly slick--has produced a rich new album this year. He was greatly influenced by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and from 1964 on has gained a reputation as a leader in avant-garde jazz. His work has inclined lately to the near-orchestral, but his sax still sounds the way a glider might sound if it made music--it soars and dips smoothly, apparently without artifice. He plays a long and difficult set as if he'd suddenly heard the phrases in his head and they fit together each time. It is perhaps this technical facility that bothers critics--there are certainly moments on Caliente (in the song "Fireflies" for one) when Barbieri's music comes close to sounding like the soundtrack for an ad for one of those fancy sports cars that handle so well on Alpine roads.
But elsewhere on the album, Barbieri manages to combine such apparently irreconcilable genres as folk guitar, cool jazz and assorted polyrhythms. "Fiesta," the finest track in this combination of styles, opens with guitars reminiscent of the Fronterizos, renowned exponents of Argentine folk music. Enter the jazz element. Barbieri overlays the backing with a spare yet haunting melody. Someone cries "Hey! Adentro!" and the guitars are the focus of attention before the horn brings in the melody again.
Throughout the album, this skilled interweaving of instruments and themes recurs. Such conscious enriching can occasionally sound as pretentious as Barbieri's notes on the record:
The images of dreams and the images of memory have a sound...Music is like a forest, it has boundaries, but we do not know them.
Despite the control, the virtuosity, the hybrid quality of the musical technique--there's something you can't explain away in Barbieri's music. His photo on the album cover shows him engulfed in flames, and the image is appropriate.
Caliente is dedicated to Carlos Santana, who Gato says has arrived at that place where "music is the memory of dream." Santana was born in Mexico, and his early musical efforts fused the sound of Latin America, Afro-Cuba and basic blues rhythm into a style that dazzled flower-powered San Francisco in 1967 at the debut of his band. They rivaled even the most luscious psychedelia of the time with their low key vocals and cosmic instrumentals. Their drums hammered out traditional rock while their guitars varied between folk, jazz and Jimi Hendrix. Santana made songs like "Jingo,"Evil Ways," "Black Magic Woman" and "Oye Como Va" famous after winning spectacular acclaim for their appearance at Woodstock.
But by 1971, the group was suffering from management, money and drug problems. Santana himself, pressured by sudden stardom was "watching the band decay on the wrong energy flow...what I was really seeking was illumination not satisfaction." Santana went to Sri Chinmoy, the Ceylonese guru who'd helped John McLaughlin. McLaughlin, whose rock-jazz had been increasingly influenced by Indian raga music, had adopted the philosophy of creating his music as an offering to a Supreme Being. Santana took similar steps towards peace and enlightenment--to the point where he wrote "God Himself is the musician." The band became increasingly jazz-oriented after collaboration with Alice Coltrane and Buddy Miles. The free jazz of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders also influenced them at the time. In 1973 the group joined forces with McLaughlin to produce what became a gold release, "Love, Devotion, Surrender."
Yet the surprising thing about Santana's newest release, Festival, is how little obvious mysticism it contains. It is beautifully crafted--the rough edges of early days are smoothed out--while retaining the mixture of varied rhythmic elements that made the band unique. However, the music seems just a touch self-conscious. There are the same obviously Latin numbers, from "Try a Little Harder" to "Let the Music Set You Free." There are even the old hollow lyrics: "No one said it would be easy, doing whatever you do, you just might have to suffer, but keep on moving through."
The most noticeable thing about this album is that there are only a few really noticeable songs on it. Most of the cuts are assured and polished, but there's some inner conviction missing--which seems odd given Santana's personal faith. It seems ironic that, in the process of finding himself as an individual, Santana has mislaid some of the Santana-as-artist. For the moment it seems that he's forgotten the Mardi-Gras spirit that used to sweep his listeners along in the manner of a Carnival parade.