Marcelo "Bambam" Coelho was asking for a favor, but he never expected such a big return. When the saxophonist asked Ney Rosauro, director of the percussion department at the University of Miami, if he knew of any good drummers looking to play Brazilian music, the UM graduate never dreamed he'd end up forming a trio with Azael Rodrigues, founding member of the acclaimed Brazilian jazz band Pau Brasil. He didn't even know that Rodrigues, who still performs frequently in Brazil, was living in Miami. "I couldn't believe it," a still-awed Coelho recalls after a gig at Gil's Café in Miami Beach on a crisp January night. Sitting elbow to elbow around a table with the rest of the Bambam Z Jazz Trio -- the revered Rodrigues and Venezuelan bass player Kai Sanchez -- Coelho smiles bashfully. "It was funny -- when Azael and I met for the first time and talked about forming a band, we had so many points in common," he says.
One point is a love for John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Branford Marsalis, leading Coelho and Rodrigues to form a drum/bass/sax trio. But instead of playing their idols' brand of jazz, they set out to revisit their own roots in Brazilian music, experimenting with native rhythms like samba, baiao, partido alto, maracatu, and samba-funk. While the trio's repertoire may not be a traditional fit for the made-for-bebop arrangement, Coelho believes the combination is excellent for taking risks in jazz. "We have more freedom to experiment," he explains. "For instance I've been working on polyrhythms and crossing rhythms using the melody of the songs, and such a trio is perfect for applying those ideas."
But freedoms often translate into challenges. Bambam Z's dearth of harmonic instruments, like piano and guitar, is one such obstacle. But once Rodrigues and Sanchez kick in with a good groove on drums and bass, Coelho has a foundation from which he can build harmony through sax improvisations. Problem solved. Leaning toward the younger Sanchez, Rodrigues observes, "The drums and the bass are brothers."
"We give Bambam the freedom to experiment," Sanchez adds.
"But we also want Kai to play around with more chords," the veteran Rodrigues interjects. "You see, we're not just interested in interpreting a song; we want to express an idea."
The chill night keeps Gil's patrons to a minimum. A few diners are scattered among the tables, and a regular customer lingers at the bar as the trio plays Brazilian classics, including Tom Jobim's "One Note Samba," João Donato's "Lugar," and Mauricio Einhorn's "Batida de Frente." Bambam Z's renditions go from biting to mellow. Their interpretation of "Deixa," a plaintive plea composed by Brazil's Baden Powell, among the best guitarists in the world, is snappy, edgy, limber, and ready to take off as Coelho begins improvising on his sax.
At ease and chewing gum behind the drum kit, Rodrigues brushes through a crisp, uncluttered solo during Jobim's "Brigas Nunca Mais," arranged as a partido alto by Cesar Camargo Mariano. Then Bambam explores the terrain on sax, while Rodrigues and Sanchez speak to each other through their instruments.
"Every time I play with [Rodrigues], it's a tremendous experience," says Sanchez, who can draw for comparison on his own experience playing with Brazilian greats Caetano Veloso and Chico Cesar. Coelho studied popular music at Brazil's Campinas State University and formed his first jazz quartet at age eighteen, before obtaining a master's degree in jazz performance at UM. His former classmate Sanchez first studied music at José Luis Paz conservatory in Maracaibo, Venezuela, before moving on to Miami-Dade Community College and then winning a scholarship and earning a bachelor's degree at UM. In Venezuela Sanchez performed with salsa bands, and in Miami he has played with renowned musicians such as ex-Los Van Van sonero Israel Kantor. Sanchez's experience brought him to Coelho's mind, as the band leader explains: "I immediately thought about Kai because of his musical knowledge and love for Brazilian music."
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The musical education of Azael Rodrigues was more farflung. He had his first musical experience with a guitar at age eleven. "At fifteen I decided I wanted more action, so I chose the drum set," Rodrigues says. "I listened to all the styles: rock, funk, jazz." In 1975 Rodrigues began studying music at the University of São Paulo, at the time Brazil's most prestigious arts school. He remained there for four years, though he was unhappy with the music department's curriculum. "They didn't pay attention to popular music during that time," Rodrigues recalls. "The emphasis was only on classical music, and it wasn't very refreshing." So in 1975 he took a break from centuries-old European music and spent four months in London learning how to play the tabla drums under Indian percussionist Madhukar Kotare.
In 1979 Rodrigues finished school and helped form Pau Brasil, an innovative Brazilian jazz group with a repertoire that ranged from folklore to contemporary. With Pau Brasil Rodrigues released a self-titled debut album in 1983 and regularly toured Europe. In 1980 he spent a few months in New York studying under Bob Moses. Then in 1985 he began a new phase in his musical career when he began collaborating with Brazilian arranger Cesar Camargo Mariano. Alongside Mariano, Rodrigues formed a group called Prisma. "It was a breakthrough in Brazilian instrumental music," Rodrigues observes. "I was the first jazz drummer in my country to use an electronic drum kit," Rodrigues proudly affirms. And Prisma became the first band to play instrumental music in Rio de Janeiro's most prestigious music venue, Canecão. With Prisma, Rodrigues toured the major cities in Brazil and performed for Globo, the nation's major television network. In 1986 Rodrigues performed with Prisma while backing Brazilian diva Leila Pinheiro during the country's Festival of Festivals.
So what brought Rodrigues to Miami last summer? "Fresh air," he says half jokingly; São Paulo is too polluted. "I mean it's wonderful to live in a city where you can feel nature so close, all of this water. It's a positive challenge. You meet new people, learn to speak a different language. You have to open your ears."
Now all the Bambam Z Trio needs is a regular gig to open up Miami's ears. "It's been hard trying to find our voice, our own style," concedes Coelho, "but when we get it, we'll be a step further away from the conventional."