I first encountered Benjamin Taubkin’s playing in 1994. In January of that year I was on my first visit to Brazil and Mrs Voltarol, my daughter, my grandson and I had been invited to dinner by a couple from São Paulo that we had previously met in London. It was - for various reasons that I won’t go into now - a very strange evening, but during the course of it the host played a CD by a singer called Zizi Possi which really grabbed our attention. I took down the details and in due course was able to buy a copy. The album was called Valsa Brasileira and the accompaniment was provided by two keyboard players and a percussionist. They were credited simply as Benjamin, Jether and Guello, although I now know the keyboard players to be Benjamin Taubkin and Jether Garotti Jnr.
Both Taubkin and Garotti played acoustic piano as well as Roland JV1000 keyboards, but I was particularly impressed by the piano playing, the lion’s share of which was by Benjamin Taubkin. As a consequence, when I came across an album by him on a subsequent visit to São Paulo I pounced on it and was not disappointed when I got it home and played it. A Terra E O Espaço Aberto (The World and the open space) was released in 1997, featured mostly original compositions by Taubkin and was performed with Lui Coimbra (cello, guitar and charango), Marcos Suzano (percussion) and Toninho Carrasqueira (flutes). There were also guest appearances from Teco Cardoso (baritone sax) and Caito Marcondes (percussion). The music was terrific but hard to define. It mixed elements of classical composition, jazz, traditional Brazilian musical forms and experimental music in a way that was both seamless and immensely satisfying, giving as it did a taste of what was to come with his next project.
You will no doubt have guessed by now that I spend an awful lot of my time in CD shops whenever I’m in Brazil and my next visit was no exception. Consequently I was in possession of Orquestra Popular De Câmara (The Popular Chamber Orchestra) quite soon after it was issued in 1998. For the most part, the composition was shared by other members of the group – and what a group this was! Lui Coimbra, Teco Cardoso and Caito Marcondes were joined by Mané Silveira (flute and saxophone), Mônica Salmaso (voice), Ronem Altman (bandolim), Paulo Freire (viola caipira), Toninho Ferragutti (accordion), Dimos Guadaroulis (cello), Silvinho Mazzuca Jr (bass), Zezinho Pitoco and Guello (percussion). There was even a guest appearance by Naná Vasconcelos. This album sounded better and better every time I listened to it and I was particularly taken with the fact that this really was an orchestra. Yes, there were some solos but for the most part the music was an ever-shifting mix of melodies, textures and intriguing rhythms that drew one right inside it.
By now I had realised that the Núcleo Contemporâneo label was a very interesting one, and that the Taubkin family had quite a lot to do with it, so I frequently bought CDs on the strength of the label alone and was never disappointed. I also began to investigate albums by the other band members. I had already been introduced to Mônica Salmaso’s work through an album of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Morias’ Afro Sambas that she made with the guitarist Paulo Bellinati. As a consequence I was delighted to discover when I was in Brazil in 2000, that she had a new album – Voadeira - coming out and that Benjamin Taubkin was playing on several tracks, as were a number of her fellow ‘Orquestra’ musicians. Better still was the fact that she was to give a free 40 minute recital in a São Paulo record store to promote the album, and that Benjamin Taubkin was to accompany her. I came away from that afternoon with an autographed copy of Mônica’s new CD and increased admiration for Taubkin’s musicianship.
October 2002 found us back in Brazil again and we were delighted to discover that ‘Orquestra Popular De Câmara’ were due to perform in a small club in São Paulo. We managed to get tickets and travelled up to the city from the coastal town of Boiçucanga where we were staying, in a state of high excitement. The gig did not disappoint me, and it rates as one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life. The band seemed to be on particularly good form and we soon learnt that this was in fact a warm-up gig for the recording of their second CD, which they were due to start recording the next day but I had to wait until my next visit the following year before I could get my hands on the results of their efforts.
Danças, Jogos e Cançoes (Dances, games and songs) features some changes of personnel but the spirit of the music remains the same. Lulinha Alencar replaces Toninho Ferraguti, Ari Colares is added on percussion, Zezinho Pitoco plays some clarinet in addition to his percussion contribution, and João Taubkin (bass) guested on one track – a completely fresh reading of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’. Mané Silveira says in his notes for the album – “We feel that this music reflects and represents our land and the people who are here, dreaming in space, alive.” Pat Metheny says of it – “What I love about this music is that it sounds like now in Brazil to me, without being that traditional somehow, even though it is obvious that the players know all about the source of what they are playing.” That about sums it up!
I kept searching eagerly for the next ‘Orquestra’ project and even made two aborted attempts to see them again on my next visit to Brazil, but on both occasions the gig was cancelled at the last minute and I missed out. On my last visit in November 2007 I found a CD of Benjamin’s new project Cantos Do Nosso Chão (Songs from our land), which shows yet another facet of his musicality. This is a collaboration with the percussion group Núcleo De Música Do Abaçaí, whose director, Ari Colares was a participant in the 2nd ‘Orquestra’ recording. There are guest appearances by other Orquestra members - João Taubkin plays fretless bass on all tracks, whilst Mônica Salmaso, Teco Cardoso, Lula Alencar, Paulo Freire and Lui Coimbra also contribute to varying degrees. The Guardian’s John L.Waters said of this CD – “For this project, pianist-arranger Benjamin Taubkin has taken traditional music from Brazil to make a charming, dreamlike hybrid. The basic lineup - mixed vocals, bass, piano, percussion - perform those lopsided, strutting rhythms we associate with north- eastern Brazil. From this Taubkin has made the most deliciously melodic album, which bears repeated listening.” He also described it as “…a stunning album” and I can’t disagree with this opinion.
So there I was thinking that I’d have to wait until my next trip to Brazil in January of next year to get my next fix of Benjamin Taubin’s music when I got a phone call from my daughter, telling me that he will be appearing in London in a few weeks’ time. So if you are able to buy, beg, borrow or steal a ticket then do so. This is a gig not to be missed. I’ll see you at The Vortex Jazz Club, London on July 28th at 8.30 pm, for a solo piano recital by one of my musical heroes. Don’t miss it!
Here's a clip of the 'Orquestra' playing a Teco Cardoso composition, just to whet your appetites for the kind of music I have been describing here.