What swing is to American jazz, balanço is to samba and bossa nova. Not so much a particular rhythm as a general rhythmic sensibility, balanço is the effortless grace with which the best Brazilian musicians can skate gracefully over the sinuous syncopations of these complex rhythms. In a wide-ranging program that drew from nearly a century of Brazilian popular music, Mônica Salmaso and her trio gave the audience a master class in balanço of the subtlest sort. Although Salmaso got top billing, her accompanying musicians, pianist Nelson Ayres and multi-instrumentalist Teco Cardoso, played equal parts in an ensemble that grooved hard, exploring a compelling range of textures, while always allowing the poetry of the original lyrics to shine through.
Salmaso, returning to Spoleto for the first time since 2002, has been celebrated in Brazil as a champion of the great songwriters of Brazilian history. Her set list Saturday night showed off her breadth and knowledge of an expansive repertoire, ranging from works by early 20 century classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to the mid-century bossa nova icon Antonio Carlos Jobim, her contemporary Paulo Vanzolini, and the ensemble's own pianist. Many of the selections were drawn from her Latin Grammy-nominated 2011 album Alma Lírica Brasileira.
Salmaso's technique is impressive. She navigates the angular lines and sometimes counter-intuitive harmonies of modernist bossa nova with ease and rock-solid intonation. Even more impressively though, she seems entirely uninterested in whether we happen to notice that technique. She's something of an anti-diva, in fact, with an understated physical presence that allows the lyrics and the compositions themselves to take center stage. Salmaso has a poet's sensibility for text and delivers each lyric with such an attention to detail that even this listener, with barely passable Portuguese, understood nearly every syllable. The evening's repertoire demanded careful textual attention; many selections were songs with lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, perhaps the best-beloved poet of Brazilian popular music (American audiences who most likely know only his "Girl from Ipanema" in translation are sadly missing out on a much deeper and darker body of work spanning decades). One of the unexpected highlights of the set, though, was "Mortal Loucura" ("Deadly Madness"), which is based on a 17th-century poem by Gregório de Matos and rendered as a mysterious and intense contemporary samba with music by José Miguel Wiznik. The song was colored darkly by the drone of a shruti box, a kind of one-note harmonium developed in India.
No Portuguese was needed, though, to be taken in by the ensemble's musicality. To make the obligatory Brazilian soccer analogy, this was a side made up entirely of virtuosic and free-ranging midfielders. Teco Cardoso, Salmaso's husband and longtime collaborator on woodwinds, demonstrated flexibility and imagination in a variety of roles throughout the evening, from sultry, vocal-like interjections on bass flute ("Samba Erudito") to a spritely counterpoint on soprano saxophone in a pared-down arrangement of the classic samba "Minha Palhoça." Pianist Nelson Ayres layered a dark canvas of thickly- oiced chords under Villa-Lobos's "Melodia Sentimental," and even tossed out a few bluesy invocations of Fats Waller in his own composition "Veranico de Maio." Yet he spent most of the evening as the rhythmic motor of the ensemble, his syncopated right hand driving the samba rhythms. Salmaso also accompanied herself, adding to the textures with judicious, subtle auxiliary percussion that suggested the thick polyrhythm of a samba school's batucada without becoming overwhelming.
The arrangements were not only well thought out individually, but well paced. With only three musicians there was a breadth of textures and colors that kept each piece sounding new. Nonetheless, several arrangements stood out as particularly memorable. The bass flute and warm lower register of Salmaso's voice were the perfect complement to the pensive "Noites," another original composition by Ayres. Tom Jobim's well-known "Insensatez" was burnished by a shimmering piano ostinato that replaced the original bossa nova groove with a deliciously ambiguous 12/8 meter.
Perhaps the only frustration of the evening was that, despite the romance of the moonlit Cistern Yard, the outdoor setting did not provide the ideal acoustic setting for what was essentially chamber music. The piano sound was somewhat thin, particularly in the lower register, and balance was occasionally an issue.
The near-capacity audience responded warmly to the group, and particularly to Salmaso's good-natured and self-effacing stage banter. (Despite her disclaimers about her English grammar, she was perfectly capable of telling amusing anecdotes about Carmen Miranda's hypothetical conversations with snakes and Vinicius de Moraes' penchant for serial marriage.) The portion of the crowd that left hastily before the encore missed out on one of the gems of the evening, a gorgeously lyrical rendition of Chico Buarque's "Valsinha" that showcased Salmaso at her most vocally flexible. The trio then paraded off singing "Trem das Onze" ("The 11 O'Clock Train"), a classic samba about a man who regrets having to leave his lover in order to catch the last train out of town. The Salmaso Express makes one more stop in Charleston tonight. I'd highly recommend you get on board.