“When I got my first deal to record I went deep into composition and I did find it to be like DNA. We all have something that is radically different from each other. You just have to discover it.”
His voice is soft and as lyrical as the music he composes and plays. Hearing the young and immensely talented guitarist, Sandro Albert speak can calm even the most frayed nerves. Nervousness was never an issue, but it is always exciting to speak with an accomplished musician. Albert is certainly one. He was born in Brazil and grew up there. Not long ago he moved to the United States—first to Los Angeles, then to New York City, which he has immortalized on Vertical (Daywood Drive Records, 2010).
Completely self-taught, Albert paid his dues in small clubs and shacks on the Brazilian circuit before he graduated to larger venues in Brazil that included music festivals. In 2002, he played at the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival at the invitation of Musical Director Senders Grand. It was there that he performed with his friend Jimmy Haslip, on bass, as well as with the Yellowjackets’ keyboardist, Russell Ferrante.
Albert has also worked with legendary Brazilian superstar Milton Nascimento on his first record, Soulful People (Visom, 2001). For his next album, he invited another friend, the late bassist Dave Carpenter to share production credits. It was on that album, A Beautiful Cloudy Day (Schoots Records, 2009), that Albert began to write counterpoint for horns and strings and produced a wonderful, richly hued sound on that celebrated record. As his writing matured and became more complex, Albert cut one more album featuring Airto Moreira on percussion and also featured Ferrante on keyboards, Edsel Gomez and Tamir Hendelman on piano as well as his regular reeds and woodwinds player, Katisse Buckingham and a plethora of guest musicians—including Mark Ledford. It was after this that Albert got down to working on his ode to New York City, releasing Vertical in the process. This album also features ideas he developed during his celebrated association with the late Jimmy Wyble.
Raul da Gama: Who was your first teacher and how did he or she help you put the sound and color you heard around you to music?
Sandro Albert: I consider myself a street player, a self-taught musician who put a lot of time into practicing.
I bought my first guitar from an ice cream vendor who used to stay around the corner from where I lived. It was like a fairy tale: he would sit down under an old tree and play the guitar. I was fascinated and almost immediately hooked. After I got the guitar I came right down to earth. I quickly realized that I was going to have to put some time into it if I want to play. I was going to have to learn a lot about the guitar, but I had no idea where to begin. So I started going out more often to the local bars that offered live music and observe how the musicians played the instrument. Brazil has a long and rich tradition of guitar players. During the breaks in the set I would approach the musicians start a conversation and try to develop a friendship with them. I found that they were eager teachers and I always knew that I had something to learn from them.
Also, my parents were friends with this guy who had a choro quartet. The quartet would get together each week and play all the classics, from Ernesto Nazare to Pixinguinha to Jacob do Bandolim. I learned a lot by just listening at them playing.
RD: How much of a factor were your parents in your music formation? You have spoken of your father being an aficionado of Brasilian classical music—Heitor Villa-Lobos and others—How did this shape your discipline and your sound?
SA: My parents were always very supportive. When I decided that music was going to be my vocation and profession they really encouraged me to go ahead and be a musician. My father had lots of good records in our house and guys like Dilermando Reis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and Villa Lobos were always playing in our living room over the weekend. Once I decided to play music at a more serious level, my father started to always tease me saying that a real musician would have to learn those—especially Villa Lobos’ pieces and play the music of other masters like him. This egged me on and I started putting a lot more time into learning and transcribing their music.
RD: What kind of music did you first play when that ice cream vendor gave you his guitar? Was it a life-changing experience?
SA: After I learned a few chords, I went straight into playing the music of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and other rock bands of the day in Britain, Europe and America. Then one day a friend of mine played me a Wes Montgomery record that completely changed my perception of the guitar and how it could be played. I was like “Wow, man! Can we really do that with a guitar?” I was just amazed by all those chords progressions and lines that Wes played on the guitar. He became my idol and turned my musical life around completely.
Later when I became more familiar with the great players and composers of Brazil, I really did find a deep connection with whole Brazilian-American-European thing, I mean, jazz, choro, samba, bossa nova, classical music. I realized that the guitar was a great voice for all of this music and more, not just for rock-and-roll.
RD: When did you first leave Porto Alegre? Why did you decide to leave?
SA: I left Porto Alegre when I was 17 years old and I moved to Belo Horizonte, in Minas Gerais, your grandfather’s hometown. I decide to leave Porto Alegre to explore and learn music in a much deeper way than I was (and could possibly do) in my hometown.
RD: What brought you to Minas Gerais?
SA: The reason was my fascination with the music of that state. Beautiful harmonies and melodies was what made me go there and stay for 15 months to learn some of those musical elements.
RD: How did you hook up with Milton Nascimento? Do you keep in touch with him often?
SA: I was already living in Los Angeles for many years when I got my first record deal back in 2001. I contacted a great composer and guitarist friend of mine, named Elder Costa, who was friends with Milton. I was telling him about my then-current project, Soulful People (Meridian Music, 2001). It was Elder who heard something in the music I had already composed and he encouraged me to send two of my songs to Milton. Elder said that he would personally deliver the music to Milton and see if he would record it.
So sent the music off and I waited. I also wrote Milton a letter telling him how much I loved his music and how I would love to hear from him. A month later, my friend called me back and said that I should contact Milton because he loved the songs. Not only that, he was also interested in recording them with me. I always was a big fan of his music, so having him record with me had an incredible positive impact in my career.
We keep in touch to this day. If I am in Brazil, I stop by to visit with him. If he is here in the States, I’ll go to his show.
RD: Is he going to record with you again soon? That means, I suppose, will you be doing some more music with experimental-sounding vocals again soon?
SA: We always talk about writing something together and I often ask him about a song he promised to write for me. With regards to recording another song together, we never really talked about it. But it was already a blessing to have him as a special guest in two songs in my first record.
RD: What American idiom were you first drawn to? Was it bebop, like most musicians including cats like Tom Jobim and the Tropicalia musicians?
SA: As I mentioned before, it did start with rock and I got more and more drawn to bossa nova, MPB and jazz. I was not particularly bebop in the beginning. It was more the music of the atmospheric musicians like Pat Metheny.
RD: Have you ever felt drawn to the Tropicalia musicians? Gil, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and so on? It is hard not to be, I know and you also have that style that melts lyricism into a gentle irony together, although it is hard to write like them if you are not a direct participant in Brazilian life. I mean you live in the States, so it is hard to be a “Tropicalista.”
It seems a new sensibility is developing, one combining the sights and sounds of “litoral e interior” and the “sertaõs veredas” and the rustle of the Amazon with the carioca and the paulista, reaching as far as the African experience and the European one of Ravel and Debussy and Stravinsky; rolling it all into a new experience of Musica Brasileira, a sort of all-encompassing experience of what it is to hear music from a Brazilian perspective. This is a growing phenomenon now and it is catching fire all over the world. Care to comment?
SA: I have always liked the “Baiano” composers, as we call them in Brasil. The incredible swing of Gil, the lyrics from Caetano and the incredible voice of Gal Costa. Also guys like Djavan, Milton, Ivan Lins, Jobim, Jackson do Pandeiro and Chico, just to name a few, are treasures of the world music scene. They wrote the book of good music and you can hear all the elements you mentioned above: African, classical European, jazz, etc., in their music. I think the Brazilian composer is not afraid of experimenting, especially with elements he would find abroad. After understanding it a little bit, we like to put it in a big pot and mix to see what happens… mixtura fina, you know—the fine mixture—that sort of thing.
RD: Moving on, I have said to you that you come from one of the finest guitar traditions in the world and that you are connected to the long line of majestic guitarists from Laurindo Almeida and those who came before him as well as to the bandolim players. Would you say that is true?
SA: I guess so. The first time I saw Laurindo de Almeida was in a Jazz Festival in Brazil called Free Jazz. He came to the stage by himself and blew everybody’s mind with his beautiful touch. Another incredible player we had—and I find a good connection with his music—is Anibal Augusto Sardinha, “O Garoto,” as he was called was an incredible guitarist who played all over Brazil and the world between the ’30s and the early ’50s. He died in 1955.
RD: Who were you listening to when you first started working on your guitar technique seriously?
SA: All those guys I did mention above, Wes, Garoto, Laurindo, plus Grant Green, Jimmy Wyble, George Van Eps, Pat Metheny, some sax players like Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson.
RD: When did you find your own voice? What helped put it all together for you? Did it happen when you were working out a particularly difficult passage of a song?
SA: I think when I got my first deal to record I went deep into composition and I did find it to be like DNA. We all have something that is radically different from each other. You just have to discover it. In my opinion, the best exercise to discover it is by composing. Antonio Carlos Jobim used to write one song a day and in the end of the month he would keep one and would throw 29 in the trash can, just to describe how important it is. That’s a good way to start to compare yourself with yourself and find your voice within.
RD: You play with such warmth and such passion—ever thought of doing a solo album (like Ralph Towner of Oregon)? Or maybe, just a duet with someone like Jimmy Haslip, with just a bassist? How about Nilson Matta?
SA: Vertical, my new record, was supposed to be a solo record, just for guitar. After I wrote all 13 songs I was ready to record it solo. My producer Brian McKenna started to sell me the idea of writing counterpoint for bass and flute and I got into it. I guess the possibility is still out there for a solo project.
I have some recordings with Dave Carpenter in a duo setting that were never released. Any of those players you mentioned would be nice for sure to work with. I have worked a lot with Haslip, never had the pleasure to work or meet Nilson Matta but it would be nice if it happens.
RD: Have you thought of doing an album with strings? Judging by how well you wrote the parts for the reeds, percussion and piano on your last album, that surely would be very rewarding.
SA: I have a record with a quartet of strings and woodwinds, big band all in one project called A Beautiful Cloudy Day. You can find it on iTunes and other digital sites. It was never released here in the USA but it will be soon as a back catalog. It’s with Dave Carpenter on bass, Cassio Duarte on percussion, Katisse Buckingham on sax and a great singer from Brazil name Zé Renato from the vocal group Boca Livré.
RD: What was it like to learn from Jimmy Wyble?
SA: Three years before I moved from Los Angeles to New York, I had the honor to meet and become friends with Jimmy Wyble. He was one of most beautiful human beings I have ever met in my life. Not just that, but an incredible musician and an example of a great man.
A memorable story, one day we were watching a guitarist playing really fast in a club in LA and Jimmy looked at me and said “Oh, boy, he can play really fast…and he better not stop.” I thought that was really funny and a wise comment.
Then, a month before his passing we exchanged some music and I have a picture of him holding my daughter’s photo in his hands. He sent me one of his studies and wrote in the back: “Sandro I use this scale and its variations a lot—C, D, Eb, F#, G#, A, B.” What a gift! From there I wrote two songs on Vertical, “JW’s Baiao” and “The Medusa,” with that scale in mind.
RD: How did you discover that you and Russell Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip had a special bond?
SA: Jimmy was part of my first record Soulful People and after that we started playing very often together. When I played at The North Sea Jazz Festival in 2002 we invited Russell to play with my quintet, after that we started to also work often in different projects together. Luis Conte also was a guy that helped me a lot in my early days in LA.
RD: Now that you have moved to New York—gone “Vertical,” so to Speak—what plans do you have for your musical near future?
SA: We just had a great night at Iridium at the record release party. We packed the place on both sets. Vertical is getting good reviews, I just got signed with a great agent, Eric Hanson from Treelawn, and we hope to get really busy soon.
RD: Do you see yourself writing more or playing more? Or can you do both? Where do you fit in?
SA: I like doing both. I would like to improve as much as I can and keep working hard as a composer and instrumentalist.
RD: If you are addressing say the UN and could help change the world, what do you think you would do?
SA: I would surely spend time with some organization that worked to create a better and more balanced world for all of mankind. I also wish there was no more hunger; I guess I would repeat the lyrics of “Imagine” from John Lennon out loud over the microphone of the UN to see if they can get it.
RD: If you had been given the opportunity to have any three wishes, what would you ask for?
SA: No more hunger in the world. No more crime and Discrimination. More balanced music programs on radio stations all over the world.
Sandro Albert, Samba Bop (Solu-Arte Music,2014)
Sandro Albert, Vertical (Daywood Drive Records, 2010)
Sandro Albert, The Color of Things (215 Records, 2004)
Sandro Albert, A Beautiful Cloudy Day (Schoots Records, 2002)
Sandro Albert, Soulful People (Meridian Music, 2000)
All Photos: Courtesy of Sandro Albert