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The beautiful sounds of Milton Nascimento

By Damon Krukowski

AUGUST 16, 1999:  Nineteen-ninety nine was the year that many American music aficionados rediscovered an almost forgotten cultural event of the '60s: the Brazilian pop-music movement known as tropicália or tropicalismo. The excitement generated by its revival has had everyone from David Byrne to Beck to Tortoise playing some sort of samba. Much of their attention was drawn to the zanier aspects of tropicália, which was characterized by a frenetic cross-cultural energy and probably best represented by the dadaist rock band Os Mutantes and the quirky songwriter Tom Zé (neither as well known in Brazil as the other musicians associated with the movement). What this new wave of interest in Brazilian pop seems have overlooked is its intense lyricism, as represented by its greatest singer, Milton Nascimento. He has a new live album, Tambores de Minas (WEA Latina), out on the heels of last year's Grammy-winning studio album Nascimento (Warner Bros.). And if these two releases don't always live up to the glories of his past, they are cause enough to celebrate this enduring genius of Brazil. Because if Tom Zé is Brazil's Frank Zappa, Milton Nascimento is its Tim Buckley.

Milton is from the same generation as the tropicália group and is often spoken of in the same breath, but he was not a card-carrying member. When the collective tropicália album Ou Panis et Circencis was released in 1968, featuring Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa, Milton was busy working with a different set of musicians, mostly from his home state of Minas Gerais. But tropicália was a short-lived burst of energy in a broader genre known simply as popular Brazilian music, and since the late '60s Milton has been one of its biggest stars. It's not hard to understand why: he is possessed of a sure yet enigmatic melodic sense and a stunningly beautiful voice highlighted by an ethereal falsetto. As Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil wrote in the liner notes to a recent album made in honor of the 25th anniversary of tropicália, "Milton Nascimento's falsetto is one of the most beautiful sounds produced by the human species today on this earth."

Popular success in Brazil implies a far more ambitious musicality than is usual in the US. Brazil is a place where an American cult artist like Tim Buckley might play stadiums, or where Robert Wyatt, rather than Phil Collins, might be the former prog drummer to rise to stardom. Nascimento's work is as harmonically sophisticated as the pop medium can allow, and indeed in the US he gained his first recognition via the jazz world, when Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Wayne Shorter brought his music widespread attention outside Brazil in the 1970s. Paul Simon, another harmonically ambitious songwriter, followed with collaborations in the '80s, when each made an appearance on the other's albums.

But linking Nascimento to jazz can be misleading because he is not a improviser. Neither is he the same kind of singer/songwriter as Simon. Although he writes music, he performs other artists' songs as frequently as his own. Nascimento is first and foremost a great vocalist, more Sinatra than Shorter and more Elvis than Simon. Hearing him interpret a song is a lesson in how expressive a pop singer can be, without cant or irony. Such artistry is a rarity in our pop music culture: particularly since the rise of rock and roll, US pop has thrived on hyperbole, on the arch and outsized gesture. This, perhaps, is what makes the music of Os Mutantes and Tom Zé translate so well. Nascimento, on the other hand, bespeaks sincerity; John Lennon might be the closest Anglo-American rock has come to producing an analogous talent. Indeed, one of the best-known songs from the early part of Milton's career is "Para Lennon e McCartney," an ode to the Beatles. It is far from a simple statement -- there is an ambiguity at work in the lyric that makes it less a tribute than an exploration of the complexity of his relationship to his northern cousins, and the North in general.

"For Lennon and McCartney"

Because you don't know
About western garbage
You don't need to be afraid anymore
You don't need solitude
Every day's a day for living
Because you won't see
My western side
You don't need fear no
You don't need timidity
Every day's a day for living
I'm from South America
I know you'll never know
But today I'm a cowboy
I'm of gold, I'm you
I'm of the world, I'm Minas Gerais.

Nascimento's home state of Minas Gerais, the "General Mines," is a landlocked, mountainous area far from the beaches of Rio, whose western side "you won't see" because it trails off into the impenetrable center of the country. His identification with this mystical and provincial land is inseparable from his music and career. It was in Minas Gerais that he met his principal collaborators, a group of musicians who became known as the Clube da Esquina, the "streetcorner gang," after the title of one of his albums. Where the tropicalistas affected a madcap sensibility, the Clube da Esquina radiated melancholy. "Sadness has no end, happiness does," is the opening line of a famous bossa nova ("Happiness") that Milton sang on one of his first albums. Like the tropicalistas, whose innovation was to incorporate American popular music with their own, the Clube da Esquina possessed a Western side. But the two drew from very different extra-Brazilian music sources. Tropicália borrowed rock's abandon, injecting the bossa nova with the energy of the Rolling Stones, the immediacy of Bob Dylan, and the anarchy of the Fugs. The Clube da Esquina had more in common with the Beatles in terms of their musical ambitions, combining studious formal arrangements with an elastic playfulness. Beginning with a foundation of Brazilian folk music as well as the more urban bossa nova, Milton and his cohort added tinges of sophisticated British pop and San Francisco psychedelia but never lost a sense of earnestness, or even mysticism.

The results, especially on 1970's Milton (EMI Odeon Brazil) and the 1972 double album Clube da Esquina (EMI/World Pacific), are complex and uncompromising yet studded with anthemic tunes. Listening to these albums, you might feel you're witnessing the invention of a new genre -- the group of friends participating in its creation are both enjoying themselves (as attested by the whoops sometimes audible in the rhythm tracks) and flush with the thrill of successful experiment. At the core of every arrangement is a quiet classical guitar and a very loud assortment of percussion instruments. But the effect of these arrangements, which make free use of strings and horns as well as an electric rock rhythm section, varies widely, from Spanish-inflected laments ("Dos Cruces") and introspective poetic ballads ("Pai Grande") to sing-along pop ("O Trem Azul"). Amid all this variety a distinctive Clube da Esquina sound emerges: percussion-laden, but without a dance beat; melancholy, but joyously delivered; colored carefully with horn charts and string arrangements, but never tight and dull; ranging widely through various styles (like tropicália), but never self-conscious. These albums are pop masterpieces more in the excited innocent style of Revolver than the knowing one of Sgt Pepper.

When Brazil's military dictatorship began to censor song lyrics, the Clube da Esquina took a decidedly "progressive" turn -- instrumentals and wordless vocals were their form of protest, as they refused to replace their forbidden lyrics. Milton's inventiveness continued unabated: 1973's Milagre dos Peixes and the subsequent 1974 live album of the same name (both on EMI Odeon Brazil) found him backed by a crack rhythm section drawn from the Clube da Esquina called Som Imaginário ("Imaginary Sound") who could hold their own alongside the best British and German prog bands of the era. (A three-CD box set of Som Imaginário's own recordings was recently released by EMI Brazil, as part of a series called Portfolio.) As censorship eased, the words came back, and in 1978 Nascimento recorded the double album Clube da Esquina 2 (EMI/World Pacific). The sequel is slicker and more deliberate than its youthful predecessor, and it lacks the wild pleasure of discovery that suffuses the first. But the melodies are again exquisite.

It is these melodies -- and Milton's manner of delivering them -- that are the constant throughout his career. Like too many aging pop stars, he has over the years fallen prey to overblown production (he has more than his share of children's choirs on his albums). But even 1989's Miltons (Columbia), a US crossover attempt featuring Herbie Hancock with several tracks that bring to mind the sort of lite jazz associated with Sunday brunches, is blessed with the improbably gorgeous "River Phoenix (Carta a um Jovem Ator)" ("Song for a Young Actor"), a fragile and sincere song of obsession ("If one day we meet and I confess I saw a film so many times"). And on his most recent studio album, Nascimento, more than a few songs soar above the banalities of its plastic production. "Guardanapos de Papel" ("Paper Napkins"), with its asymmetrical phrasing and plaintive repetitions, is classic Milton, and he delivers it with perhaps even greater passion on the new live disc Tambores de Minas ("Drums of Minas").

Unfortunately, Tambores de Minas mostly disappoints. According to some, it was made for extra-musical reasons -- Milton fell ill last year and was hospitalized amid rumors that he was suffering from either AIDS or anorexia. After his release (doctors announced he has diabetes), he put together a lavish stage show and tour, which may have been a declaration more of bodily vigor than artistic necessity. Many of his hits, old and new, were performed and recorded for this album, but he's given us better versions of these songs elsewhere. Odeon recently released the excellent one-volume retrospective Música do Mundo, which begins with "Para Lennon e McCartney" and includes the original recordings of many of Nascimento's hits. A listen through that disc should convince most anyone of the Clube da Esquina's talents. And just a bit of Milton's voice -- in any context -- should be enough to make you realize that Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were not exaggerating, it really is "one of the most beautiful sounds produced by the human species today."

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