A delicate, wordless vocal, sung in a high soprano, rises to meet a flute's melancholy tones, all framed by the sounds of shimmering bells and rattles. As drums pick up the beat, the voice explodes in a frenzy of expression. Low-pitched growls, moans and rhythmic chants give way to soaring crescendos and bird-like calls that gently unwind, returning to the original, fragile melody.
The song is Chick Corea's "Return To Forever," recorded in 1971 by the original edition of Corea's band that carries the song's name. For many listeners, it was their first exposure to the voice of Brazil's Flora Purim, who helped set jazz-singing convention its ear.
"I prefer to sing without a lyric," Purim said recently in a phone conversation from her home in Santa Barbara. "I approach the music as if I was playing an instrument, as opposed to having to interpret words that were written by someone else. I find it very difficult to perform something that I don't believe in. I choose the songs that I sing very carefully so that they are statements of my feelings, not just a song I'm throwing in a show."
Purim and her percussionist-husband Airto Moriera took the jazz world by storm during the first few years after their 1968 arrival in the United States from Brazil. Purim's rhythmically aggressive style led to a series of successful albums for the Milestone and Warner Bros. labels. Moriera's stint in the Miles Davis bands of the early '70s and his own recordings opened the jazz and pop world to a wide range of Latin and other ethnic percussion while introducing such noise-makers as the cuica , the reco-reco , and the berimbau . But Purim takes credit for the percussion heard on the Return To Forever recording.
"Most people don't know that I played percussion on both the early Return To Forever albums--'Light As A Feather' and the original--because Airto was playing the drums," she said.
Over the last 20 years, Purim and Moriera, who married in 1972, have worked straight-ahead jazz and Brazilian gigs as well playing fusion and pop-oriented material. But in a concert Friday at the South Coast Community Church in Irvine, the two will move in another direction.
"We are making a transition from one band to another and in Irvine people will have the opportunity to hear both bands," she said. "It's almost like a farewell to the kind of fusion music that I used to do."
Purim says the show will open simply with a duet between Moriera and acoustic guitarist Jose Neto. "Then saxophonist Gary Meek and I will join the duo and present a couple of songs, and then we'll be joined by the rest of the band. It will be a progression from the new material to the old."
The new direction, according to the singer, will be based more on Brazilian classical music. "It's closer to the music of (composer Heitor) Villa-Lobos than to jazz music," she said. And Purim, in addition to percussion, will also play guitar.
Why the change to simpler, acoustic music?
"I love Brazilian-style jazz, but there are so many people doing that right now that we want to do something different. And we have the resources to do it."
Purim came to this country enamored with the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner and was determined not to be considered just a Brazilian singer.
Nowadays, Purim and Moriera spend nine to 10 months a year on the road. At the time of the interview, Moriera was in Cuba with Dizzy Gillespie and both of them will be touring with Gillespie's United Nations big band this summer and fall. Moriera has a new recording, "Struck By Lightning," due this April and is also featured on "Rhythm Stick," an album with Art Farmer, Jon Faddis and Charlie Haden, among others, for the recently resurrected CTI label.
Though modest about their achievements, Purim feels that she's brought the voice to a new level in music. "It's very hard to become a jazz singer and not sing be-bop. A lot of singers end up sounding like Sarah Vaughn. The alternative is to use your voice as an instrument, to be part of the colors of the music. When I sang with Chick (Corea), I felt I created a space for vocals in the instrumental band that didn't exist before. It wasn't be-bop."
Flora Purim and Airto Moriera will perform Friday at 8 p.m. at South Coast Community Church, 5120 Bonita Canyon Road, Irvine. Tickets: $12. Call (714) 856-5000.