Having added his unique talents to Miles Davis' early electric albums, the first incarnations of jazz fusion bands Weather Report and Return to Forever, and Mickey Hart's Planet Drum ensembles, Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira has always seemed comfortable with a challenge. Now he's entered the electronic age of computer beats with Homeless, his first solo outing in seven years.
"I'm always open to experimenting," Moreira said. The idea for Homeless came from his record label, M.E.L.T. 2000, and offered him the chance to work with his daughter, Diana, and her husband, Krishna Booker, who lead the band Eyedentity. Moreira is pleased with the result, he said, because "it's done in a way that you don't know what is electronic and what's played.
"A lot of young people are sampling and looping my sounds," he added slyly, "so I thought I'd give them something new to think about."
Moreira, 59, was born in the southern Brazilian town of Itaipolis and began drumming while still a toddler. After a brief stint as a singer, he went on to found the seminal Quarteto Nova in 1963, which mixed Brazilian music and jazz, before heading to the United States in 1968 with his wife, singer Flora Purim, to escape Brazil's military dictatorship.
He made an immediate impact on the American jazz scene. He was "the first Brazilian percussionist to play a lot of different instruments at the same time," according to Chris McGowan, co-author of "The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil." "He brought them all together with an avant-garde, progressive sensibility and revolutionized the role of percussion, both in jazz and popular music. After him it was a wave, and he was at the forefront."
Moreira's rich new disc mixes percussive textures with programmed beats. Homeless also marks Moreira's return to singing after many decades, as on "Vira Poeira" (Burning to Dust) (RealAudio excerpt).
"I love to sing, and there were songs to be sung, so I just did it," Moreira said, laughing. He was comfortable with the words, penned mostly by his daughter. "Sometimes I got the lyrics and improvised the melodies on the spot they were just grooves."
A strong vein of social consciousness runs through the record, both in the tribal, shanty-town ambience of the title track (RealAudio excerpt) and in the ghostly hopelessness of "Street Vendors (D'JMBO)" (RealAudio excerpt). Moreira hopes to spread awareness of poverty and other social afflictions through his music, and, he said, "I think all so-called artists should be doing that."
The album title refers both to the displaced peoples of the globe as well as to Moreira's own music, which, he said, "you can play anywhere in the world because it's global, it doesn't carry a flag."
The notion of crossing boundaries, either geographical or artistic, is hardly new to Moreira. He's always been a musical polyglot, a trait, McGowan suggested, that might have reached a zenith during his collaborations with Mickey Hart and Zakir Hussain on the Planet Drum albums. "They're really rich rhythmically," said McGowan, "and a true world fusion."
Moreira maintains a lower profile today than he did in the 1970s, but he's still active. He recently finished work on Purim's new album and has been recording with jazz pianist George Duke. He may also work with Hart again. Moreira teaches a course on Brazilian music at UCLA, where he's part of the experimental World Jazz Orchestra. And he recently played a series of shows in Europe, culminating in a London concert with the Master Drummers of Africa.
"I feel together both spiritually and energy-wise," he concluded. "Music means much more for me now than it used to."