When it comes to a passion for the music of Brazilian composer Moacir Santos, Mark Levine and I go way back. By the time I met Levine in the early 1980s, when he was a member of vibraphonist Cal Tjader's group, I had collected all four of Santos' recorded-in-the-USA albums. But there was a missing link. "You have to hear this great album he did in Brazil," the pianist told me during a break at the Tjader gig, "It's amazing." Weeks later, he mailed me a cassette tape of Santos' monumental 1965 LP "Coisas", and I was stunned by the intricacy and beauty of the arrangements.
Even in the seemingly endless world of truly ingenious music penned by Brazilian composers, Santos stands out. That's why it was only a matter of time before Mark Levine would surrender to the call of a two-decade-long dream and produce an entire album dedicated to the late composer's artistry. The result, Off & On - The Music of Moacir Santos (Left Coast Clave), featuring Levine and his working group, the Latin Tinge; offers a new take on the Santos style. Whereas most Santos projects, including albums protagonized by the composer himself, have been heavily orchestrated affairs, the approach of Levine and his Latin Tinge is more free-handed and allows the dynamics of a small jazz combo to fully explore the extensive rhythmic and melodic contours of a dozen of Santos' most popular works.
Moacir Jose dos Santos was born in 1924 in a small town located in Brazil's arid northeastern state of Pernambuco. A saxophonist with a keen interest in composition and arranging, he studied with local teachers and played in regional groups before moving in 1948 to Rio de Janeiro, where he soon became engaged as a musician at the nightclub Brasil Dancas, and in the Radio Nacional network's in-house orchestra. He also vastly expanded his knowledge of writing and scoring as a student of two of Brazil's most famous classical musicians: composer and conductor Guerra-Peixe and pianist Hans Joachim Koellreutter. By the mid 1950s, Santos had become one of Brazil's most successful arrangers and had begun another sideline - teaching music theory to a veritable "who's who" of the emerging generation of bossa nova and post-bossa nova stars, including Sergio Mendes, Nara Leao, Flora Purim and Eumir Deodato, among many others.
Then, in 1967, when the timeless tracks of "Coisas" were still resonating among Brazil's jazz community and he had begun to score motion picture...