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100 Albums, 5 Grammys : Guitarist Almeida Goes With The Musical Flow


Trivia question: Who was that Latin-American musician in the gigolo fright wig who played atmospheric music as a backdrop to Judy Garland and James Mason's entanglements in "A Star Is Born"?

If your answer is Laurindo Almeida, you may see a lot of stunned faces at your party, but you'll also get the door prize, if not a gold star in your coloring book.

Almeida, who plays tonight only (with wife Dede) at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, is principally known as a stylish acoustic guitarist who has blended his Brazilian musical background with European classical and American pop to become, over a nearly 40-year career, one of the most distinctive popular musicians on the scene. (He recently recorded a tango album with Charlie Byrd, one of our premier acoustic jazz guitarists, and they make a match.)

The general notion of Almeida is that he somehow sneaked in on the heels of the bossa nova movement, but, in fact, he predated it with a 1952 jazz-samba album with Bud Shank predates Byrd and Stan Getz's "Desafinado" by 11 years. His music is gentle, but it carries with it one of the richest calling cards in contemporary music--the Brazilian temper.

A photo montage on the den wall of his Sherman Oaks house gives visitors a sense of the musical nerve ends he's brushed. Villa-Lobos, Castelnuevo-Tedesco, Joao Gilberto and the classical virtuoso John Williams. There are a couple of pictures of Segovia who has a special chair reserved for his visits to the Almeida household; and, prominently, a group portrait of Francisco Tarrega and a salon full of friends, where Tarrega brandishes his guitar to the interest of the others like Jonas Salk holding a vial of world-saving serum.

Almeida's parents figure in, too: the spiffied-up father in this daguerreotype looking confidently ready for a night on the town; the mother, in a modified Gibson hair style, a full-mouthed, delicate-boned, deep-eyed beauty more ravishing than any contemporary actress who comes to mind.

"He was a contractor; she was a classical pianist," Almeida said. "Eight of the 15 kids she had died. That was before the days of (Louis) Pasteur. I grew up in Santos, near Sao Paulo. When my father came home tired from work, he'd pick up the guitar just to relax. He didn't want me to learn because a local guitarist had been beaten up in a bar. For my sister Maria, it was OK though, so I just watched her when she took her lessons. My father died when I was 9. After that, I taught myself everything I know including Bach."

Almeida went to work for a Brazilian radio station, then travelled to Europe in the mid-'40s. His song "The White Clothes Village" was recorded by the Andrews Sisters as "Johnny Peddler" and became a hit, opening the doors for Almeida. Improbably, he joined the Stan Kenton orchestra, where he stayed until its breakup (learning his English by listening to radio newscasters).

He did a lot of studio work during the '50s, during which time he laid the base for what was to become one of our distinctive guitar personalities. He has made 100 albums and won five Grammys.

"There's nothing quite like Brazilian music," he said, as though he weren't one of its prominent practitioners. He speaks of music and what he's done with it as two different things, for example, mentioning a recent album with the unlikely combination of fusion guitarist Larry Coryell and classical guitarist Sharon Isbin not for what went on in it, but for the fact that it was made at all.

The cover photo of his "Chamber Jazz" album, where's he's pensively playing next to a fountain, sums him up best, as if to say, "With words you fumble, with music you flow."

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