Azymuth - Biography
No music defines the freewheeling, celebratory culture of Brazil as much as samba. With its African roots and pan-nation appeal, samba is irrevocably tied to images of joyous Carnival in Rio de Janero, and has circled the globe as an immediately recognizable genre, one whose infectious, repetitive grooves and mesmerizing rhythms practically command the listener to dance. There’s no doubt about it, samba has evolved through the centuries, shifting through all sorts of influences, an aural polyglot that manages to repeatedly transcend the sum of its already laudable parts. Accordingly, it was a thrill in the 1970s and 1980s to hear Brazilian trio Azymuth add their unique voices to the ongoing transformation of the music. Formed in 1972, they galvanized various and often disparate influences into a hard-galloping reinvention of samba. First and foremost, they essentially were an electric power trio, with as much allegiance to the intense theatrics of Cream as the traditional samba carioca, but their style was silky-smooth glide, full of eroticism, self-assured instrumentalism, and wildly undulating beats.
Musically, Azymuth incorporated invigorating new elements, with a definite nod to the jazz-fusion stylings first articulated by Miles Davis and Teo Macero, and followed by Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. But Azymuth had an even broader range of influences, and influence. Formed in 1972, the primary ensemble consisted of Alex Malheiros on guitar and bass, Ivan Conti on percussion, and the magnificent Jose Roberto Bertrami on organ, piano and keys. The group’s earliest material dates to the mid-70s and is gathered on the recent 2xCD eponymous compilation, Azymuth (2007 Far Out). While there’s plenty of slick, Jaco-worthy bass guitar, what’s most assertive on tracks like “Melô Dos Dois Bicudos” and “Wait for My Turn” is the obviously homage to African American funk. Azymuth steamrolled through the 1980s, and most of their material is a stripped-down, concise, and focused amalgamation of samba, jazz, and funk. Many of their tracks engage in the sort of exhilarating pop that we now associate with artists like Shuggie Otis and “Strawberry Letter 23,” and the slinky synthesizers definitely nod towards New York rather than Sao Paulo.
Azymuth had one high-profile release on Atlantic, 1977’s Aguia Não Come Moscaan; after that, they mostly recorded for the US jazz label, Milestone Records. The trio enjoyed an exceptionally prolific career throughout the 1980s, and their discography features some extraordinarily gripping albums worth seeking out, including: Cascades (1982 Milestone); Telecommunication (1982 Milestone); Rapid Transit (1984 Milestone); Flame (1984 Milestone); Spectrum (1985 Milestone); Tightrope Walker (1986 Milestone); Crazy Rhythm (1987 Milestone); and Carioca (1989 Milestone). Azymuth’s productivity and popularity slowed in the early 90s, but the digital era had good things in store. The creamy rhythms and circuitous beats were a natural for samples, and DJs appropriated Azymuth en masse. The group certainly benefited from the attention, and experienced a resurgence in visibility and popularity; their albums began to feature mixes and collaborations that ensured a new generation of listeners.
The late 90s were highlighted by a switch to the UK-based Far Out Recordings, the preeminent source for samba music. While the move severed ties with the slick jazz roster of Milestone, it placed Azymuth alongside the crème-de-la-crème of samba, and resulted in a slew of outstanding albums: Jazz Carnival (1996 Far Out); Woodland Warrior (1998 Far Out); Pieces of Ipanema (1999 Far Out); Before We Forget (2000 Far Out); Partido Novo (2002 Far Out); Brazilian Soul (2004 Far Out); and Butterfly (2008 Far Out). Butterfly is a particularly good example of Azymuth at their finest, as languid electric instruments swirl around flutes, breezy vocals, carefree saxophones, and the occasional string arrangement. The percussion is precise and taut, yet it leans back, letting the bass lead the way; the keyboards — whether, piano, organ, or raw, squealing synth — are expert and facile, but always in the service of the groove. It’s a testimony to the enduring appeal of Azymuth, and what they term Samba Doido. Translated, that means “Crazy Samba,” and it’s a thoroughly appropriate description of a joyous spirit that continues to resonate well into the 21st century.