Claudio Roditi’s Gentle Fire


Claudio Roditi (1946–2020)

(Photo: David Gahr)

During a performance you usually see Claudio Roditi adjusting a mic to position one of his brass instruments—the trumpeter is particular about the way he sounds on stage. But here at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan, Roditi’s bending over to bring his mouth to the mic, and the results are tickling the packed house. “Choo-choo-cha-cha, choo-choo cha cha,” he sings, blending in with the shakers of drummer Duduka da Fonseca and the percolations created by the other band members. The Music of Jobim ensemble, co-led by da Fonseca and pianist Helio Alves, stresses rhythm. They’re in the middle of a tune’s gentle fadeout, and everyone, especially Roditi, is assisting in the syncopated farewell.

Backstage, before the show, the musicians were talking about the art of vocalizing and composers who have turned to singing by default. “Several Brazilians have become vocalists because the only way they could have their tunes heard was if they themselves sang them,” says the trumpeter. Accordingly, he makes a case for one of his heroes, the songwriter Johnny Alf. Maucha Adnet—a real vocalist who’s also part of the evening’s ensemble—nominates Tom Jobim as a nonsinger who nonetheless had a sweet voice. And Toninho Horta pipes up with his choice: “Even Billy Higgins tried to sing!” Everyone laughs.

All this chatter is generated by the fact that Roditi takes a shot at a vocal on his latest disc, Simpatico (Resonance). No, the acclaimed brass player isn’t working a new career path; he just enjoys wearing his heart on his sleeve now and again. “Waltz For Joana” is a nice novelty—a heartfelt move.

“I’m no singer,” says the 64-year-old. “It’s just something I like to do. But it’s frustrating. I know I have good intonation on the trumpet, so when my vocal intonation fails, it ticks me off.”

There’s more laughter as Roditi recalls the first time his singing was appreciated. When he was a lad in Rio de Janeiro, he broke up with a girl, but wooed her back by writing her a tune and cooing it to her over the phone. He can’t recall the song—he says he never wrote down his music back then. But he does these days. Simpatico, one of more than 20 titles the trumpeter has released since the mid-’80s, is the first to be entirely made up of original pieces. He’s been writing for decades, and that process, too, began with a nod to the opposite sex.

“When I was 16 or 17, my main motivation for composing music was to give a gift to my girlfriends—we can’t go deeply into that part right now,” he says, adding a heh-heh-heh laugh. “But if I was seeing a girl, I’d write her something. ‘Here, baby, this is for you ...’ No wonder Jimmy Heath calls me ‘Romantic Roditi.’”

It’s a fair bet that the tunes on Simpatico, which was made with longtime pals Alves and da Fonseca, as well as bassist John Lee, guitarist Romero Lubambo and trombonist Michael Dease, are a bit more sophisticated than those early works. One thing’s for sure, each has a singular approach. “Albert And Daisy” is a prancing samba, “Slow Fire” is an orchestral ballad, “Slammin’” is an aggressive ditty that teems with lyrical lines. They’re all united by an aesthetic that might be summarized as being cool, calm and collected. Like last year’s Grammy-nominated Brazilliance X 4, Simpatico reminds that while Roditi is an animated soloist, he never lets you see him sweat.

“I think ‘lyrical’ is a good word,” says musician/producer/historian Bill Kirchner. He and Roditi have played together intermittently for decades, and Kirchner recently dedicated a full episode of his weekly “Jazz From the Archives” radio show on WBGO to the trumpeter’s work. “Lots of Brazilian guys were influenced by Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker; I think that whole West Coast jazz sound is part of who Claudio is. He starts a solo, and it’s never like a racehorse out of the gate. He moves slowly and deliberately and paces himself. He’s the antithesis of what I call a ‘trumpet jock.’”

Roditi doesn’t disagree with that notion. He cites Baker and Blue Mitchell as players who fill their music with naturally flowing lines, and knows a similar approach is key to his own work. “It’s there, it rubs off. I can’t escape the influence of the bossa nova that I grew up listening to.”

It’s been there since his childhood in Rio. Roditi turned to the trumpet after hearing a marching band practicing in a school yard behind his home. He went into their music room, and out of all the instruments it was the horn he connected to. Not because of its sound, but because of the way it looked—its physical design. Embracing it, he quickly made strides. As a teen he was involved in some heady local jam sessions. Da Fonseca, who is a few years younger, was one of his mates back then. He says even in those early days, Roditi was extremely respected, and played with the best musicians in town.

“Claudio raises the bar when you’re on the bandstand with him,” da Fonseca says. “When you work with someone really good next to you, you get better. It inspires you. Like playing on a soccer team with someone who’s good—you don’t want to mess things up.”

Hitting Boston to attend Berklee College of Music in 1970, it wasn’t long before Roditi’s skills led him to New York. Several masters, including Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Paquito D’Rivera, recognized his unique instrumental grammar and put him back to work. In a short time, he was the hub of a burgeoning Brazilian jazz scene in the Big Apple. Da Fonseca followed him north, and years later Alves became part of the clique.

“He was the only person I knew when I moved to New York,” says the pianist, “and a pretty good guy to know at that. He introduced me to everyone. Nilson Matta, Romero Lubambo, the whole gang. He helped make all the connections.”

D’Rivera recalls the boost of being flanked by Roditi, but the ever-puckish reed virtuoso was disappointed when his associate pulled a switcheroo on him. “I was getting tired of fighting myself in the front line and needed another instrument with me. I love valve trombone, and Claudio plays that as well. So I hired him, and we did great together. But less than a year later, he sold the trombone! Why did he do that? OK, I admit I had fallen in love with his playing regardless, and even if he had switched to the ocarina or kazoo I would want him to be next to me. But that valve trombone ... Claudio played it like, like ... the best in the world. Ask him for me if he really sold it or did he hide it at home because he didn’t want to carry it!”

Roditi has a slight obsession with brass. He and his wife, Kristen, live in New Jersey these days, but during the mid-’90s they were neighbors of mine in Brooklyn. I was always impressed by the way his instruments were incorporated into the apartment’s design sense. His collection was sizable: from the soft curves of numerous flugelhorns to the elaborate plumbing of rotary-valve trumpets to D’Rivera’s beloved valve ’bone.

The visual impact of Roditi’s childhood days became relevant again when we recalled how arty his trumpets seemed when grouped together. “While we were living in Brooklyn, I had some cataracts fixed,” he says. “And I will never forget the sensation two days after the surgery, when they took the patches off. I looked at those horns hanging there in my house, and they all jumped out at me! The cataracts had made everything opaque, and for months I wasn’t seeing my trumpets with any brilliance. I couldn’t believe what they looked like when my eyes were fixed. It was truly exciting.”

Roditi loves to talk horns. These days he even has a piccolo trumpet, a small bore singular-in-sound instrument that’s rough to rein in but rewarding when you do so. Simpatico’s “Piccolo Blues” demonstrates that he’s got a good grip on its expressive qualities. The lack of reeds on his past two discs is slightly novel as well. Dease plays trombone on Simpatico, and the leader says he’s long been enamored of the two instruments working in unison.

“The trombone is very important in the samba tradition. To me, it’s the instrument closest to the human voice. The slide creates all kinds of vocal effects, so fluid and sweet. You can do ‘phewwww’ or ‘bwaaaaaaah’—go up and down however you want. Michael plays tenor sax, too, and he brings that kind of phrasing to the trombone, which is unique.”

Balancing the poised sound of samba jazz with the frenzied swing of bop long has been a Roditi forte. Yes, his formative years were spend absorbing bossa nova and its offshoots. But he’s often cited Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown as his horn heroes. His 1988 album, Gemini Man, was named after his yen to blend the two approaches. On stage at Dizzy’s he takes one particular solo that kicks up some dust in an otherwise smooth-groove tune. Short, sharp bursts are threaded through long lines; syncopated phrases soar high before again veering Earthward. Fans, both onstage and in the audience, recognize the accomplishment. Though Roditi’s playing boasts a warm tone, there’s an obvious sense of attack that arrives whenever he chooses to deploy it. No wonder D’Rivera deems him a “formidable” bebop soloist.

“There’s always been a certain fire to Claudio’s playing,” says Mark Feldman, owner of Reservoir Records. He’s recorded Roditi as a leader on three separate occasions. “He personifies that type of Brazilian jazz, where a real level of intensity is always in play. He usually has this heat [coming from his horn].”

Roditi is proud of his percussive side. As a child he would often tap out beats on the dining room table; it inspired his father to get him a set of bongos. Alves loves the way his pal so deeply embraces the nuances of the Brazilian sound but is able to gracefully shift into the straightahead jazz vernacular. “Rhythms can be percussive and not be aggressive,” reminds the trumpeter. “You can be percussive and laid back. Understanding the various shadings is important.”

In the past several years, Roditi has tried to instill such notions in students he interacts with during visits to various colleges. Teaching master classes, performing with jazz bands, adjudicating competitions—he enjoys the dynamic with talented youngsters and says he’s learned a thing or two from them as well. Years ago, he connected with trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who, along with saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh, is responsible for the recent, impressive Radif Suite (Pi).

ElSaffar fondly recalls that early morning meeting. “Claudio gave me a particular piece of advice—it’s kind of trumpety—about how to not lose your chops. Find tiny moments to take the mouthpiece off your face, to let the blood come back. Grab a spot in the solo where you can relax. When I first moved to New York, he invited me to sit in with him at the Museum of Modern Art. It really meant a lot to me. When you’re young, and a great player gives you encouraging words, it goes a long way.”

“Amir was in high school,” says Roditi, “but you could tell he was skilled. Nice player. Since then, he’s gotten into his Arabic heritage, found a direction, and he turned me on to the trumpeter Samy el Bably, a brass master from Cairo.”

Roditi gets excited when talking about artists discovering their own voices. He recalls his own early days of refining a personal style, and later periods when he simply wanted to “sound like Freddie Hubbard.” His diagnosis for such dilemmas is sharp: Don’t “boycott” yourself. “I suppressed my own voice when I tried to play like others,” he says. “You just need to let out all your uniqueness. It took me a long time to realize I had a voice. But when I roll the tape back and hear little recordings, things I did 30 or 40 years ago, I recognize I basically had the same voice back then that I do now.

“I recently found the first album I ever played on. It came out on CD after many years, and I had to get it. In the liner notes and pictures, they didn’t use our last names. I was referred to as Claudinho, which means ‘little Claudio.’ When I listen to it, I swear I can hear the basic sound I hear in my current stuff. It’s a little weird, but it’s really nice to recognize your essence.” DB

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