Album review: Bixiga 70 – Quebra-Cabeça

Wild horn sections, come drag me away.

Genre: Afrobeat/Latin jazz/jazz fusion
Country: Brazil
Release date: October 12, 2018
Label: Glitterbeat
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: GBLP 063

Personnel:
Cris Scabello – guitar
Cuca Ferreira – baritone sax, flute
Daniel Gralha – trumpet
Décio 7 – drums
Daniel Nogueira – tenor sax
Douglas Antunes – trombone
Marcelo Dworecki – bass
Mauricio Fleury – keyboards, guitar
Rômulo Nardes – percussion
with
Gustavo Cék – percussion (track 8)

1.

Quebra-Cabeça

4:59

2.

Ilha Vizinha

5:50

3.

Pedra de Raio

5:35

4.

4 Cantos

5:23

5.

Areia

3:43

6.

Ladeira

3:59

7.

Levante

4:25

8.

Primeiramente

4:17

9.

Torre

5:18

10.

Camelo

5:34

11.

Portal

6:03

Total running time:

55:06

There is a sort of fetish in the English-speaking word for things that are “pure”. The very word calls to mind holiness, cleanliness, and health. So too with music; mainstream music applauds the “purest blues” even if it has nothing to add to a hundred years of blues before it, niche audiences invent conspiracy theories about faddish, unremarkable bands while their own favorites make the same album over and over and this is called being “authentic”. What gives great food its complex interplay of flavors, what makes a really adventurous and ambitious band sound so good, what makes governments at least slightly accountable to the will of the people and even what flushes the mutations in our genes each generation, is the mixture of many different elements in proportion, with none given primacy over the others. The same is true for art; the current stable of popular music genres were wild, messy, contradictory scenes before they were “purified”, and to get the same experience today you often have to go far from the United States. Hence Bixiga 70, who named themselves after their home neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil and Fela Kuti’s afrobeat band Africa 70.

Bixiga 70’s sound is a hybrid of hybrids—the band’s name, of course, suggests afrobeat (not to mention their huge nine-to-ten-piece roster), but the band seem willing to throw in anything and everything they can square with their brass-centric arrangements, from hard rock to Cuban son, occasional European classical (the lush polyphony on “Pedra de Raio” stands out in this regard), and even electronic music with subtle electronic processing often being added to the otherwise acoustic drums and percussion. “Electrifying” drums may have been in fashion in the 1980s, but it’s only in recent years, with software-controlled mixing and blending, that one can have many of the benefits of electronic drums without altogether losing the (in this case quite literal) human touch.

While afrobeat, despite its extended song lengths and long instrumental sections, is primarily a form of popular dance music, intended to get crowds moving, Bixiga 70’s oeuvre is a much more intellectual sort of music, like the turn jazz took in the 1940s with bebop and all the post-bop subgenres. There’s still always a groove that runs through each song, but the arrangements around the grooves are much more structured, both in terms of orchestration and in the composition itself. I feel like this change to afrobeat’s formula is not fully exploited, with one and only one groove running through each song just like Fela did it, and now that we have compositions rather than jams they’ve been scaled back massively in length, with only one exceeding six minutes and track lengths generally very similar to each other. I feel like Bixiga 70 could benefit from the occasional epic that cycles through multiple basic grooves on its way to its conclusion. Tempos are brisk to allegro vivace but never presto, interspersed with an occasional ballad, but all tempos fall comfortably within the range of tempos suitable for dance, which is something of a missed opportunity because some of the wild, Dionysian energy that is lost from the transition from classic afrobeat to Bixiga 70’s more cerebral form could probably be recovered with a truly explosive instrumental workout.

As well as the usual polyrhythms—multiple, concurrent rhythms—among the bass, drums, and percussion, Bixiga 70 reach into their jazz and European classical heritage to simultaneously bring polyphony, which is the same principle except with melodies, to the table. In both cases contrasting but related lines frequently play over or against each other, each line plotting its own course but all of them coming together to form a larger sonic picture. The dense interplay of different elements can be overwhelming on a first listen, and it took multiple sessions for the secrets of some songs to reveal themselves. Bixiga 70 primarily use melodic and rhythmic motives to structure songs instead of chord changes, so there are no “fixed points of reference” much of the time to help get a handle on the (often crowded and aggressive) harmonies. Listeners who fail to pay enough attention will likely find themselves lost, and quickly. They titled this album Quebra-Cabeça, which translates to either “puzzle” or “head-breaker” depending on how difficult you find it, for a reason.


Including your instruments in your band photo is always a plus in my book.

With such ambitious and advanced music and such a large ensemble size, it takes a tremendous amount of instrumental firepower to pull it all off, but Bixiga 70’s muscular, brass-forward arrangements ring out like a big band and noodle like a hard bop quartet, and are more than up to the challenge. Baritone sax player Cuca Ferreira reminds me a lot of Antibalas’ Martin Perna, frequently using what is normally strictly a support instrument in a leading role and making it sound like the instrument was born for the task. Of the instrumentalists, Ferreira is perhaps the most lyrical in his phrasing, making his bari-sax growl like a big, chesty baritone singer while the higher brass instruments flutter like mad or interject bright, rhythmic stabs. With the unusually heavy reliance on motives and riffs, some of which sound like they could just as easily be hard rock or metal, for a band that relies mostly on brass for melody, Bixiga 70 reminds me somewhat of the eccentric MIDI jazz-rock of 1994’s excellent DOS game Rise of the Triad, though Lee Jackson’s score, while quite inventive in its own right, is a far more primitive work technologically and musically than Quebra-Cabeça.

While the brass take much of their influence from regional jazz traditions, the guitar and bass drum are a clear link to ‘70s Afrobeat. There are few chords and few of the saturated, distorted sounds common in most rock music, but instead the guitar has a quiet, restrained tone with a quick decay that mostly slips underneath the wall of brass rather than piercing through it. Marcelo Dworecki’s bass playing is very tight but also very plain, usually sticking to roots, thirds, and other obvious notes, and played with a dark, veiled tone that gets buried by the baritone sax. Dworecki always supports the rhythm, and always the rhythm of the drum kit, never of the hand percussion. His best performances on this record are on “Levante” and “Camelo”, which, not coincidentally, are built on rock grooves where the percussion merely ornaments the drum kit rather than contrasting against it or engaging in dialogue. With only very perfunctory keyboard playing, the horns are completely uncontested in leading melodies.

On earlier Bixiga 70 records like 2015’s truly lush III, featured very open, dynamic productions that paid careful attention to stereo imaging, allowing you to pick out each individual instrument in a tableau of sound, just like a great stereo jazz record from the ‘50s or ‘60s. Here the rock influence comes forward in an unfortunate way, with a sound that goes out of its way to be punchybright, with sharp attack and sudden decay, with plenty of dynamic range compression to make each note leap out at you. The drum set has a considerable amount of dynamic range compression to give each snare hit an almost supernatural BANG. But if each note leaps out at you and your music is full to overflowing with notes all the time because your band has nine people in it, it gets a bit fatiguing over the album’s nearly hour-long runtime. It comes through in the playing too—everything is done in huge, declamatory gestures, with little of the sensitivity exhibited in “7 Pancadas” off the previous album.

There is no singing of any kind on Quebra-Cabeça, nor indeed on any of Bixiga 70’s music, nor seemingly any programmed loops or backing tracks. This is an instrumental album for people who love instruments, who appreciate an expressive power that transcends class, culture, geography, and even the passage of centuries. The band throw themselves into every phrase, genuinely delighting in the challenge of performing difficult music in a way that goes beyond “betcha can’t play this!” posturing. Bixiga 70 are an enthralling live band and there are many high-quality recordings of them on YouTube.

The Glitterbeat LP release is on two of the 200-gram discs that seem to be the standard this day. I think this practice is excessive—many 140-gram discs of the ‘60s sounded exquisite—and furthermore, in the face of depleting oil supplies, rising global temperatures, and stagnant wages, how ethical is it to make these not merely heavyweight but super-heavyweight discs, especially considering records must be made from virgin plastic? A somewhat more modest weight would also alleviate the non-fill issues that plague some modern records (thankfully not this one). If the discs must he heavy, at least Glitterbeat invested in similarly robust paperboard for the jacket, instead of the all-to-common practice of shipping heavyweight double or even triple LPs in jackets made from stock barely adequate for a single disc. There are no cracks or deformed edges to be seen and the printing is bright and vibrantly colored.

My favorite track from the album is “Pedra de Raio”. A sort of Afro-fugue following a rambling 6/8 groove, the piece seamlessly adds and removes layers, from a simple guitar ostinato over hand percussion to a climax with two or three interlocking horn parts, the guitar doing its own thing in the background, and a cross-rhythm between the drums and percussion, all coming together to form a grand, dazzlingly complicated tapestry of melody, harmony, and rhythm. “Portal” offers many of the same delights but in a more subtle and less rigidly structured way, though the pinched production doesn’t let it shimmer as well as it could. At first I overlooked this piece, coming as it did after the fiery brass-rocker “Camelo”. Unisons among the brass section are used frequently here, the various horns harmonizing almost like a barbershop quarter until the trumpet and trombone break away for a boldly Iberian solo section around four minutes in where the trumpet blasts into the stratosphere, leaving blazing trails of melodic traceries through the air while the trombone responds to and elaborates upon material from the trumpet. Many of the licks here remind me quite strongly of Miles Davis’ sublime rendition of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” from Sketches of Spain, or from the most impassioned moments of 20th century Latin classical composer like Chapí or Revueltas, but still keeping its instrumental fancies in some relation to the groove. I’m not sure how much I like the gradual draw-down of the ending for such an intense album, but I can certainly understand the reasoning and theory behind it.

Quebra-Cabeça is challenging music that requires, and rewards, close listening and careful attention. While it may seem intimidating and relentless, multiple listens open up a world of intricate and beautiful complexities, musical Swiss watches whose numerous moving parts all follow their own paths, yet those paths add up to a single, coherent musical statement. No single one of the world’s traditions could have created something like this; Bixiga 70’s power comes from being steeped in the musical traditions of three continents, soaking up more musical techniques and tools than most musicians learn in two lifetimes. There seems to be no end to the nuances and secrets on Quebra-Cabeça, and it remains engrossing long after most other albums would go stale. It is, as the album title suggests, a set of musical puzzles, and one I’m always happy to wrestle with.

Rating: 90%

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