It seems fitting that for his first North American tour, iconoclastic Brazilian music legend Tom Zé will be backed by Tortoise -- the experimental, avant-pop band from Chicago.
They are, in many ways, kindred spirits.
About 30 years ago, Zé spearheaded the influential, barrier-breaking
Tropicalia movement, which merged psychedelic rock with blues, jazz,
folk and traditional Brazilian and Latin American styles of music. Finally
coming north to perform, Zé will launch a six-date U.S. club tour
May 18 at the Middle East club in Boston, backed by members of Tortoise.
"[Tortoise's music is] something that renewed my faith in the future of humanity," said the 62-year-old Zé through an interpreter. "God has goodwill toward man, so when I saw Tortoise, I again thought God has goodwill toward man, or better still, the muses have goodwill toward mankind." (RealAudio excerpt of interview)
Zé -- prone to such statements that are not unlike his surreal lyrics -- was one of the leading lights of Tropicalia during the late '60s and early '70s. His peers in the movement included such well-known Brazilian musicians as Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso.
This countercultural style of music went largely unnoticed by mainstream
society in the United States at the time, but it was considered pivotal in helping to subvert the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil. It also served as a rebellion against the more straight-laced bossa nova style of music for which the country had been known.
One of the most innovative of the so-called Tropicalistas, Zé has blazed a unique trail during his career, incorporating an approach akin to the nihilistic dada art movement of the early 20th century. His albums have included the use of such nontraditional "instruments" as floor polishers, typewriters and blenders and, on last year's Fabrication Defect, the sound of a rubber balloon on his teeth and clinking bottles.
Zé's collaboration with Tortoise is all the more appropriate, considering the quintet's style. On the three albums and various remix EPs the band has released in the '90s, the musicians have created sometimes fragile, sometimes driving polyrhythmic instrumentals that incorporate elements of rock, jazz, ambient and techno. All the members of the group -- Doug McCombs, John Herndon, Jeff Parker, John McEntire and Dan Bitney -- switch instruments in the studio and onstage. (Bitney will be replaced by Dan Fliegel on the Zé tour.)
Although he has been a luminary in avant-garde music for three decades,
Zé said he only became aware of Tortoise's abstract oeuvre when
McEntire, the band's percussionist/vibraphone player, remixed a song
from Fabrication Defect. McEntire's remix of "2: Defect Curiousidade"
(RealAudio excerpt) is featured on the remix album Postmodern
Platos, which features reinterpretations of songs from Fabrication Defect by such experimental rockers as the High Llamas, Sean Lennon and Amon Tobin. The remix EP will be available at the concerts.
"We've all listened to his music to a certain degree," Tortoise
bassist/multi-instrumentalist McCombs said. "In a more general way, Tom ... and some of his contemporaries have been pretty influential [on our sound]."
McCombs, who said he just wants to do justice to Zé's offbeat compositions during the shows, said he can feel the influence of Zé's music on such songs as "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" (RealAudio excerpt) and the tropical funk of "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Women and Men" (RealAudio excerpt) from Tortoise's 1998 album TNT.
"[The offer to tour with Zé] was just such an honor, and it was a unanimous 'yes' as soon as the idea came up," McCombs said. The Tortoise crew, who will only meet and practice with Zé shortly before the tour starts, have been busy working on arrangements for the shows at their Chicago practice space, McCombs said.
"I think, among his contemporaries, the kind of thing that makes him
really compatible with Tortoise is his willingness to incorporate
discrete elements of music and found sound and play with the idea of what
can and can't be included in the larger scheme of music," McCombs said.
The Zé/Tortoise tour also will include dates at Irving Plaza in New York (May 19), at the Park West in Chicago (May 21), at Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis (May 22), at Bimbo's in San Francisco (May 25) and at the Conga Room in Los Angeles (May 27).
While both parties seemed more excited than nervous about the tour,
Zé said he was anxious to ask his new U.S. collaborators why they agreed to perform with him.
"I'm dying to ask [McEntire], 'You're crazy. You leave your work, your
glory, the wonderful things you do to go and play with somebody from the
backwoods of Brazil?' " Zé joked (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
"If you can think of the branding fire from Greek mythology ... what we call the spark of life, that spark is what I identify in their music that makes me feel wonderful," he said. (RealAudio excerpt of interview)