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Jazzman Back in Action : Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida has recovered from a life-threatening illness. He will perform at Le Cafe this weekend.

February 26, 1993|LEONARD FEATHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Leonard Feather is jazz critic for The Times.

Laurindo Almeida has been a part of the Southland scene for so long that it is hard to realize that he had a substantial career in his native Brazil before he arrived here in 1947 and promptly leaped to fame as a featured guitarist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra.

Tonight and Saturday he will lead a trio at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks. He is happy to be back in action after an experience last year that seemed likely to end his career and possibly his life.

"I was in Japan with the Modern Jazz Quartet last summer," he recalls, "when I began having stomach pains. I took pain pills and was told to see a doctor when I got home, but then we had to go to Carnegie Hall and I put it off. Finally in July, a doctor found a large malignant tumor. On Aug. 30, he took out two-thirds of my stomach."

Seemingly recovered, Almeida went on a concert tour in Germany and Holland, but on returning home he had to undergo radiation treatment. "Finally, last week I had another examination and everything was negative."

At 75, Almeida can look back on a life that has taken him through many musical worlds as a classical virtuoso, a Brazilian pop-music pioneer (he recorded with Stan Getz in 1963) and a collaborator with leading American jazzmen such as the saxophonist Bud Shank (their 1954 samba recordings were virtual precursors of bossa nova). He has won many awards, among them five Grammys and, last year, the Latin American & Caribbean Cultural Society award, which he went to London to receive.

He was born Laurindo Jose Araujo Almeida Nobrega Neto in 1917 in Prainha, a small Brazilian coastal town near Sao Paulo. The guitar attracted him early on; by age 9 he was transcribing for it the piano works of Mozart and Chopin. Garoto, a legendary guitarist of the 1930s, befriended him and helped him land a job with a leading radio station. By this time he had traveled extensively, playing cruise ship jobs.

"I was only 17," he says, "when I went on a cargo boat to Europe and got to meet Django Reinhardt, who was playing with Stephane Grappelli at the Hot Club de France. He and Charlie Christian were the true guitar geniuses for me. Classically, I would name Christopher Parkening and Andres Segovia."

Before long, the radio work, supplemented by nightclub dates, established Almeida as a big man in Rio. He also dabbled in songwriting and had a hit called "Johnny Pedlar" that earned him enough royalties to subsidize his transplantation to the United States in March, 1947.

While working on the soundtrack of the film "A Song Is Born," he was heard by an arranger for Stan Kenton, who was looking for a guitarist. During three years with the Kenton colossus he dazzled audiences with his own composition "Amazonia" and Pete Rugolo's "Lament."

On leaving Kenton to start a solo career, he made headway as a composer, constantly crossing the lines between pop, jazz and the classics. One of his Grammy awards was for his work "Discantus," which tied with Stravinsky in 1961 for best contemporary composition.

Almeida's TV and movie credits have included "The Old Man and the Sea," "Camelot," "Wagon Train," "Bonanza" and most recently "Unforgiven," in which his solo work is prominently featured.

His recordings have reaffirmed the eclecticism for which he was always noted. His own composition First Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra was recorded with the Los Angeles Orchestra de Camera. His most recent Concord Jazz album, "Outra Vez," finds him moving gracefully from the Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata" to Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight" in an ingenious thematic interweaving. The same collection includes a medley of three Antonio Carlos Jobim hits.

During his decades as a master of the guitar he has seen the instrument undergo radical and, to him, not always desirable changes.

"I admire Stanley Jordan, who developed that technique of tapping with his fingers. He is a pioneer. But as for the guitar synthesizers, I'd rather not comment. Some of them are so loud that they hurt my ear. It's a shame to find such a beautiful instrument getting to that point--but as Segovia used to say, 'That's not a guitar any more; they should have another name for it.' "

Meanwhile, Almeida continues to go his way, often with the kind of intimate group that will join with him at Le Cafe: just Bob Magnusson on bass and Joe Brancatto on drums with occasional vocals by his wife, Deltra Eamon. A lyric soprano from Toronto, she married Almeida in 1971, lives with him in Sherman Oaks and appears at most of his recitals.

"Next week," he says, "I'll be off to New Zealand for six concerts, five with a local jazz group and one with a symphony orchestra."

Where and When Who: Guitarist Laurindo Almeida. Location: Le Cafe, 14633 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Hours: 9 and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Price: $12 cover plus two-drink minimum. Call: (818) 986-2662.

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