Diego Figueiredo: From Brazil with Chops

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“I am an ambassador of Brazilian music,” guitarist Diego Figueiredo proudly proclaims.

(Photo: Brian Wittman)

When Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo took the stage of Hollywood’s Catalina Bar and Grill this summer, it didn’t take long to establish the qualities that make him special. With his signature burst of hair, beaming demeanor and Ovation nylon-string guitar, Figueiredo got busy with his playful work, in solo mode.

He launched limber-yet-lyrical lines on the anthemic Brazilian nugget “Brazil,” spinning out fanciful variations and hopscotched ideas on the fly. Switching gears into a more characteristically jazz-colored dialect — the genre switch-hitting skill being one of his trademarks — Figueiredo called on an inventive reharmonization of “All The Things You Are.” (After the gig, he described the arrangement as a case of “changes upon changes”). He then medley-morphed into a quirky, perky “Tea For Two,” spiced up with virtuosic fireworks.

Figueiredo’s easy mix of charm and technical bravado has drawn comparisons to the late, great Baden Powell. Boasting a charismatic stage presence, he seems ever-eager to connect with the crowd on a given night. “Sorry,” he announced early in the set, in what we assumed was half-joking self-deprecation, “I didn’t have a chance to warm up before coming out.”

Although Figueiredo invited talented friends to join him onstage that evening — pianist David Garfield, vocalist Natasha Agrama and spoken-word artist Nnabike Okaro — it was his solo work that impressed most, as he took on the challenging forum of self-reliant, solo-guitar adventuring.

Not represented this night were the fruits of his latest labor, the new album Follow The Signs (Arbors). An alluring collection of original compositions (plus a spin on “Misty” and the all-improvised “Imagination”), the album amply showcases his guitar mastery and compositional aplomb, with the added bonus of his distinctive arrangements for string quintet in the mix. In a procedural reversal, his string parts were written and flown in after the central trio of guitar, bass and drums were laid down.

Follow The Signs validates that he took resourceful advantage of the pandemic downtime. In an interview the day before his Catalina show, the affable Figueiredo explained, “When I decided to record this album, I was thinking I could put that traditional feeling of the old-school strings with a modern touch, while also showing my guitar, my ability and my compositions. The idea was to keep the Brazilian tradition of that feeling of João Gilberto, the Brazilian atmosphere, but with some of my originals and thoughts on guitar.”

Those thoughts often freely mix ideas from jazz and bossa nova. While discussing his organic crossover between native Brazilian sounds and jazz, Figueiredo admitted, “I think it comes natural to me.” He flipped into demonstration mode, picking up his acoustic-electric Ovation to lay out classic Brazilian chordal moves and rhythms, sliding seamlessly into a swing feel and identifiable jazz changes and back.

He appreciates the pan-idiom sympatico he enjoys with many jazz musicians, including his duet partner, clarinetist Ken Peplowski. “We love to play with each other,” he said, “because when I bring Brazilian feeling to his jazz improvisations, it feels so good. I think it was because when I was young, I was always walking with the jazz and the bossa together.”

Figueiredo, 42, was born in Franca, Brazil, and is currently based in Sarasota, Florida. He honed his skills at Berklee College of Music with foundational classical training in his early years. Although he has been buzzing around the jazz scene and touring the world for years, he remains somewhat under the radar, a musician’s musician waiting for his deserved close-up.

To date, Figueiredo has collaborated, in duets and larger settings, with a list of musicians that includes Larry Coryell, Peplowski and Stanley Jordan, and he has enjoyed long, ongoing connection with French vocalist Cyrille Aimée. “We are kind of like brother and sister, not only because of our hair,” he points up top and laughs. “I met her in a very special situation, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007, where we both won awards. And since then, I invited her to go to Brazil, where we did a tour in 2009.

“On the last day of the tour, we had one afternoon free. She said, ‘Let’s record an album together. Let’s go to this studio.’ And we recorded our first album, Smile, in five hours — including mixing and mastering,” he said with a laugh. “Amazing.”

It was, in fact, the experience of creating a string arrangement for Aimee’s “Marry Me A Little,” which led to a Grammy nomination last year, that seeded his current work. The affirmation of the Grammy nod and the fresh challenge of writing for strings led to the concept for Follow The Signs, his first recording with integral string parts.

Wherever he goes, and whatever musical scenario he finds himself in, Figueiredo proudly bears and promotes his Brazilian heritage.

“I am an ambassador of Brazilian music,” he declared. “I feel honored to represent that. I love the jazz, but my heart is Brazilian.” DB




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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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