Naná Vasconcelos was one of the cluster of endlessly inventive Brazilian percussionists who changed the direction and sounds of Brazilian jazz in the post-bossa nova 1970s. Vasconcelos was an especially inventive virtuoso of the berimbau, the expressive instrument shaped like an archer's bow, and he is also adept at the odd-numbered meters (5/4, 7/4) that were used frequently in the north but not the south of Brazil.
As the son of a guitarist, Vasconcelos got his start in his father's band at age 12 playing bongos and maracas. Taking on a drum kit as part of his arsenal, he moved to Rio de Janeiro in the mid-'60s and caught on with the young Milton Nascimento, picking up several other Brazilian percussion instruments in the process. Gato Barbieri heard him and snatched him up for tours in Argentina, Europe, and a U.S. jaunt in 1971; Vasconcelos can be heard on a number of Barbieri's Flying Dutchman albums. Following the tour, he lived in Paris for two years, occasionally gigging with Don Cherry in Sweden. In 1976, he made a remarkable duo album with Brazilian guitarist/wood flute player Egberto Gismonti, Dança Das Cabeças, the first of several dates as a leader or sideman on the ECM label. He reunited with Cherry in 1978 and, with Collin Walcott, formed Codona, a trio that played a fusion of music from four continents until Walcott's death in 1984.
In the meantime, Vasconcelos joined the Pat Metheny Group from 1980 to 1983 as a "special guest," one who had the effect of rerouting Metheny's music in the general direction of Brazil. Since then, Vasconcelos has played on and off with Cherry, toured and recorded with Jan Garbarek, played on many recording sessions, and, in 1995, formed an unusual duo with the Scottish classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie at the Bath International Music Festival. Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, he composed and played on film scores to much acclaim (and Grammy nominations). In addition, he kept to a heavy touring schedule.
Vasconcelos continued to perform and record as in-demand sideman. In 2015, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent treatment. He recorded the album Café no Bule in collaboration with Zeca Baleiro and Paulo Lepetit but his health continued to deteriorate. He passed away from respiratory failure on March 9, 2016 at home in Recife.