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Amazonas Green Jazz Festival, Manaus, Brazil (Part 2 of 3: Rui Carvalho and the Amazonas Band)

In this second of his three reports from the 2023 Amazonas Green Jazz Festival in Manaus in Brazil, US writer Ted Panken tells the story of the Amazonas Band – an ensemble which has been at the heart of the festival since its first edition in 2006 – and its inspiring founder/leader Rui Carvalho,

Dave Liebman has said: “If you need proof of how universal jazz has become, check out the Amazonas Band. This group can match any professional big band around the world. Rui Carvalho single-handedly teaches these naturally talented prominent musicians in the jazz big-band tradition.”

Rui Carvalho. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

Perhaps the most consistent throughline of the 2023 edition of the Amazonas Green Jazz Festival in Manaus, Brazil, was the reliably inspired presence of the Amazonas Band, a state-funded 20-piece ensemble comprised of local musicians. On four concerts in that city’s spectacular opera house over the course of the ten-day event, the band nailed two challenging orchestral pieces by composer Ed Sarath and five precise, complex numbers by Felipe Salles, and played sophisticated Brazilian Pop arrangements by conductor (and festival organizer and founder) Rui Carvalho. On the final night, they propelled trumpet icon Randy Brecker and guest tenor saxophonists Salles and Rodrigo Ursaia through five funk-drenched charts, nailing the twists and turns with crisp New York studio precision and a kinetic samba funk feel generated by drummer Airto Silva and percussionist Knison Ribiero. If you weren’t present, hear it for yourself on Brecker’s latest release, Live in Amazonas, which documents the exact same program at the festival in 2022.

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Randy Brecker, 2023. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

The concert resonated for Carvalho on multiple levels. “I studied anthropology at the University of Lund, in Sweden, which had a jazz season every year,” Carvalho recalled. “I was into 11th House, and Larry Coryell came through, and I expected to see Randy, but he was no longer in the band. The next year, Billy Cobham came behind his recording with the Brecker Brothers, but neither one was there. Now here I am recording with this guy in the middle of nowhere, in Manaus!”

He mentioned a similar anecdote involving Dave Liebman, whose testimonial prefaces this article, during the oil crisis of 1973. “I’d gotten a job in a supermarket that I needed to pay my tuition, and on my very first day of work Miles was going to be in Malmo with his group that Dave played in,” he said. “I couldn’t go. Almost 50 years later, I played with Lieb in Manaus with my own big band. Life is amazing.”

Rui Carvalho. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

Born in Portugal, Carvalho came to Sweden as a refugee. “I had to sneak out in order not to be sent to Africa for the colonial wars, which I couldn’t agree to,” he says. He’d attended the famous November 1971 Lisbon concert where Charlie Haden was arrested after performing “Song for Che” with the Liberation Music Orchestra and then stating, “I would like to offer this composition to the liberation movements of Angola and Mozambique.” “The crowd was going crazy and shouting, because people were so tired of that stupid war,” Carvalho continues. “I was 16 at the time. Our future was to be sent to the war — and for what? It was like fighting against myself. The cops watched everything. They knew about everything.”

In 1974, Carvalho heard the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra on a tour behind the album Suite For Pops, sparking his big band obsession. In 1978, he emigrated to São Paolo. Over the next 23 years, he became a professional drummer and classical percussionist and painstakingly taught himself the art of arranging while teaching at Tatui Conservatory, 100 miles west of São Paolo. In 2001, he arrived in Manaus at the invitation of Inês Daou, then the director of the Amazonas Theater, one of several state-sponsored cultural institutions — among them the Amazonas Philharmonic, an opera company, a choir, a ballet, a modern dance company and a big band — that developed under the two-decade tenure of State of Amazonas Secretary of Culture Robério Braga. “Everything that happens culturally now in the Amazonas State is due to Braga’s incipient work over 20 years ago,” Carvalho says.

In addition to creating a college level jazz curriculum and working towards a Ph.D in ethnomusicology, Carvalho worked intensively with the big band. “It was a hard task because the musicians weren’t too aware of the language of jazz music,” he says. “But some of these guys were very gifted, so I thought it was worthwhile to give it a try and work hard — and we did. During those years, we didn’t work much at the Opera House; it was mostly the symphony orchestra. Every year we have a tourist season, with cruise ships coming from overseas. In 2004, one of those cruise ships was here and the Philharmonic couldn’t play for them. We were told to play for the tourists. I told the guys in the band, ‘Listen carefully – we will play Brazilian music, and we’ll never leave the opera house again.”

Soon thereafter, Carvalho received an enthusiastic email from an audience member who ran a college music program in the U.S. He showed it to Braga, who was impressed. He reminded Braga of his promise in 2001 “to raise the standard of the band to a certain level,” and stated that, for further growth, “we will need to play with people from outside.” In 2005, Carvalho invited five São Paulo-based and U.S.-based musicians “not only to play with the band, but also to offer workshops and basic instruction.” Among the beneficiaries were Carvalho’s students at a local arts high school, where he formed a popular music orchestra that included several current members of the Big Band.

In 2006, Secretary Braga assigned Carvalho to organize the first Amazonas Jazz Festival, which included Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Jimmy Greene, John Hollenbeck, Carlos Malta, and Vinicius Dorin, a saxophonist-flutist consequentially associated with Hermeto Pascoal. The band continued to develop over the next eight years, when artists like Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Cláudio Roditi, Proveta, Mauro Senise, Gilson Peranzzetta, Chico Pinheiro, Felipe Lamoglia and Jeremy Pelt performed as guest soloists, while luminaries like Ron Carter, Eddie Palmieri, Leny Andrade, Brian Lynch, Hamilton Holanda, Louis Hayes, J.D. Allen, and Carmen Lundy presented their own bands.

In 2015, various crises in the realms of politics and finance halted government sponsorship, prompting a lengthy, pandemic-extended hiatus.

“In 2019, our new Secretary of Culture, who was once a stage director here, asked if I wanted to organize the jazz festival again,” Carvalho said. “I told him yes, but to wait. I wanted to change the festival name to ‘Amazonas Green Jazz Festival.’ Everyone was talking about the Amazon. With ‘green,” I was thinking not only about environmental sustainability but also cultural sustainability and other related ideas. For me, this festival is more than just an opportunity for people to hear jazz. It has to leave something for us in terms of cultural legacy, in terms of technical development. That’s how our band has developed. Besides building a band, we’re building an audience.”

Carvalho cites “female empowerment” as one idea associated with branding “green,” and the 2023 festival subtitle “Ellas”/(she) reflects his endeavor “to bring as many women to the festival as possible.” Another aspirational trope, perhaps more abstract, is “the need to focus on the new world that we envision for the near future — equity of gender, equity of race, understanding that actually there’s only one race, the human race.” Carvalho continued: “I think the music has been more effective than anything else against racism in the Western world. I want to focus more on the importance of the African continent to our contemporary legacy in the Americas.”

Carvalho’s Ph.D thesis focused on how changes in the Boi-bumbá, an Amazonian folkloric ritual, “reflect a project of building a contemporary sense of identity in the Amazon.” He recalled interviewing a Manaus resident named Mestre Ze Preto (Joe the Black), who said that “when he started his first Boi-bumbá, which is the expression of a local culture, he was helped by people from the candomblé here in Manaus. The Boi-bumbá in Parintins started with a guy named Lindolfo Monteverde, who founded the Garantido, another one of the Boi-bumbás. His ancestors came from Cape Verde in Africa. So you see, there’s a relation. There’s always a relation to know if you go deeper.”

Extrapolating from his thesis to the imperatives that animate the festival, Carvalho stated: “Jazz has shaped a sense of identity in the modern world. Jazz is the art form that influenced and let itself be influenced by other art forms and art expressions. Everything in the 20th century was influenced by jazz, when jazz started spreading around. At the same time, jazz captured influences from all around the world. It’s a universal culture.”

“This festival is like a dream. No one can offer what we offer here — the forest, the theater, professional groups from the Secretariat of Cultures that work together. What you’ve seen with the big band is impossible anywhere else in Brazil. It’s barely possible anywhere else in the world.”

Felipe Salles, Rodrigo Ursaia and Randy Brecker. Photo credit: Carolina Falcão / Amazonas Green Jazz Festival

LINKS: Amazonas Green Jazz Festival on Facebook
Rui Carvalho’s website

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