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Seductive Brazilian tunes, from old chestnuts to improvisation

Brazilian composer and guitarist Guinga took the second half of the program.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Art of Time Ensemble

  • At the Enwave Theatre
  • In Toronto on Friday

Just before the intermission on Friday, Emilie-Claire Barlow closed out her selection of bossa nova tunes with a chestnut called O Pato, or, in English, The Duck. Written by Jayme Silva and Neuza Teixeira, it was first recorded by Brazilian jazz great Joao Gilberto in 1960, and has been a bossa nova standard ever since.

Barlow had a great time with the tune, singing both Jon Hendricks's jokey English lyrics as well as the original Portuguese, and by the time she hit the final refrain there was hardly a soul in the Enwave Theatre who wasn't won over. Between the effervescence of her delivery and the infectious pulse of the backing band, it was a textbook demonstration of why, after half a century, bossa nova remains Brazil's most famous musical export.

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O Pato also makes a handy metaphor for the concert as a whole. Not simply because of the way the song's melodic grace, rhythmic insistence and casual wit typify the sound of Brazil, but because, like a duck, the music presented a fa├žade of effortless grace that belied how much was going on beneath the surface.

Bachianas Brasileiras no. 1, composed in 1932 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, typified this sort of duckiness. Composed for eight cellos and relying heavily on motifs drawn from folk music, it was lush and tuneful in ways that 20th-century classical music seldom is. Yet beneath that wonderfully accessible veneer lies an impressive compositional rigour, as Villa-Lobos applied the structural logic of Bach to his homegrown themes. The Art of Time rendition found a fine balance between lustre and clarity, particularly on the final movement, Fuga ( Conversa).

Barlow took a jazz approach to Brazilian music, using the songs as a springboard for improvisation. Although there was the expected quotient of instrumental solos, mostly by tenor saxophonist John Johnson and guitarist Reg Schwager, much of the invention was rhythmic, not only from the drums and percussion but also the bass and Schwager's guitar. It was an unassumingly intricate sound, made all the more dynamic by the subtle virtuosity of Barlow's singing.

Bossa nova tunes can be a real trap for singers; they're meant to sound easy, but demand incredible melodic and rhythmic precision. (It's the duck model again.) Barlow, whose rich, warm voice and impossibly true pitch seemed meant for bossa nova, easily met the challenge, breezily navigating the winding melody and serpentine pulse of Antonio Carlos Jobim's Agua de Beber and brilliantly exploiting the circular momentum of his Aguas de Marco.

Guinga - the professional name of Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar - is a Brazilian guitarist and composer whose work took up the second half of the program. As a player, his intricate, technically demanding style evokes a rootsier Egberto Gismonti; as a composer, his rambling, mournful themes and idiosyncratic approach to harmony suggest comparison with Hermeto Pascoal.

Working with the same band as Barlow (plus mallet percussionist Mark Duggan, pianist Andrew Burashko and, at one point, half the cellos), Guinga offered nine examples of his work, ranging from a witty, percussion-fuelled ensemble piece that evoked a sort of Kurt Weill samba, to a gorgeously mournful tone poem that played the cellos off against Johnson's nimble sopranino sax.

Perhaps the only complaint that could be mustered against Guinga was that only one of the tunes - Cine Baronessa, a lovely, Barlow-sung ballad with echoes of Eric Satie - had its title announced, and even that seemed inadvertent. It would have been nice to have known what songs were seducing us, but by any name the music would have been as ravishing.

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