On Cymbals, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria has once again taken the bossa nova from his native Brazil and stretched it to the breaking point. This album follows nearly two and a half years after the fine Silva, released in October of 2005. While that recording centered on Cantuaria's then fascination with strings and the muted sounds of brass in contrast to his guitar playing, Cymbals centers more on his considerable talent as a singer in addition to his groundbreaking guitar playing -- the latter is so utterly original and genre-defying that it deserves its own category. Nine of the 11 tunes here were self-penned or written in collaboration -- two with master Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and one with African vocalist Angélique Kidjo -- and Cantuaria produced the set himself. The list of collaborators on Cymbals is, as usual, an eclectic one, with hallmarks of both the straight-ahead and vanguard jazz communities of New York City: Brad Mehldau and Michael Leonhart help out on a few cuts, and on others Marc Ribot, Jenny Scheinman, Erik Friedlander, and David Binney contribute. Percussionist Marivaldo Dos Santos is also present on a number of cuts. It's also where the recording was made. Cantuaria's bossa style may retain some of the breeziness of the standard form, but it's a deeper, more introspective, and moodier one that owes to both Portuguese fado and Cape Verdean morna playing as well.
An excellent example of this is "Prantos" (Tears), with the extrapolation of fado key signatures; the slower morna rhythm's lazy, narcotic version of a flamenco pulse; and the slippery phasing of Cantuaria's acoustic guitar playing. Ribot also plays acoustic guitar and Friedlander's cello acts as the music's bottom. Cantuaria plays electric guitar as well, using it as a rhythmic instrument in contrast to his nylon-string acoustic and Ribot's steel string. Sadness drips from both singer and instrumentalists, but despite the mournful theme, the rhythmic interplay and harmonic invention keep it moving. "O Batuque," written with Vasconcelos, is a strange beat-driven number centering on percussion with the acoustic guitar providing not a melodic frame, but yet another rhythmic one. The tune is a lonesome, uptempo lament for missing home, and name-checks Bob Marley as well as the N.Y. subway system. On "Galope," which opens the set, elements of bossa, tango, and fado all intertwine between Cantuaria, Ribot, and Scheinman's violin, with Dos Santos and the leader playing overlapping percussive rhythms. Scheinman's solo glides and hovers in and outside both melodic and rhythmic interludes and the two guitar players issue call-and-response counterpoint lines; it's intoxicating, delirious, and deeply moving. The shimmering minimal samba that is "Voçe e Eu," with Mehldau and Friedlander, places the Brazilian form against the pianist's impressionistic take on the melody via harmonic extrapolation and the cellist offering a ghostly series of phrases and elongated lines in both drone and lyric form.
For all of its originality and innovation, and its juxtaposition of traditions and integration of melodies and genres, Cymbals is far from a difficult listen. In fact, this is one of Cantuaria's greatest gifts as an artist: his accessibility no matter how challenging the music is. His dedication to the bossa tradition is total (a listen to his reading of Tom Jobim's "Vivo Sonhando" reveals this in spades), but his manner of messing with it is visionary without being trendy or mischievous. Cymbals is the latest chapter in a what is quickly becoming a legacy that demands increasing attention form anyone serious about either bossa, jazz, or pop. Cymbals is another step up for this always beguiling artist.