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Rooting Out a Cultural Hybrid : As a Duo, a Brazilian Pianist and a Colombian Saxophonist-Flutist Reveal Their Heritages


It no longer is fashionable to refer to the United States as a "melting pot," as dozens of ethnic and national groups struggle to maintain their identities. But the image still may be apt when one considers the stew of influences simmering inside the Southern California music scene.

On almost any given night, club hoppers can find Brazilians blending their rhythmic heritage with that of fellow South Americans from Argentina and Venezuela as well as with black be-boppers, all intent on the next hip thing.

A black Mexican bassist fronts a band with a saxophonist from Colombia and a keyboard player from Cleveland. Percussion instruments from all over South and Central America clutter a stage where musicians of Cuban, Peruvian and European ancestry, Americans all, combine funk, jazz and folkloric sounds in sessions that that know no boundaries.

The result is a range of hybrids combining traditions and styles generated in myriad places and periods. Witness the effect that Brazilian dance rhythms, developed in the 1920s, had on American jazz in the '60s, or the influence that historic rhythmic forms from Mexico have had on today's urban pop.

Few collaborations reveal as much about this mixing of styles and traditions as that of Brazilian pianist Marcos Ariel and Colombian saxophonist-flutist Justo Almario. When they work as a duo, as they will tonight at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, they bare their personal and cultural heritages in a way that's not as easily visible in larger ensembles.

"Your roots never leave you," says Almario, who started playing percussion as a child in Colombia, then switched to saxophone at age 14 after hearing a Julian (Cannonball) Adderley recording. "I've been influenced by the great saxophonists from America, but I've still got my Caribbean-Andean roots."

Ariel, who moved to the United States in 1988 after encouragement from Brazilian guitarist Ricardo Silvera, puts it in a slightly different way: "Even after living in another country, you keep the things that you studied and learned in your native country--even the way you walk and breathe--but you assimilate to your new home in a natural way.

"In my case, I started to add more jazz to my playing after coming here. If I move to Africa one day, I'll take that with me, (as well as) my Brazilian feeling."

Both men have roots that are widely planted. Ariel studied classical piano between the ages of 9 and 17 in his native Rio de Janeiro, but his first professional gigs involved playing flute in chorinho bands. After a short stint in the Brazilian army, he focused entirely on piano.

Almario, the son of a percussionist, moved to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music in the late '60s, then went on to play with Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria (Almario later became director of Santamaria's group) as well as in the orchestras of Tito Puente, famed Cuban bandleader Machito and jazz saxophonist Frank Foster.

Almario and Ariel discovered each other one night in North Hollywood. Ariel "came to hear me play at the Baked Potato," Almario recalls, "and sat in with the group. He was playing a part all by himself, no drums, no bass, and I just jumped in and began playing with him. We began talking about playing duets, and it came to pass that we recorded that way."

That disc, "Rhapsody in Rio," featured the two matching skills in a widely varied program of jazz and Brazilian-influenced music. Almario also played on Ariel's last album, "Hand Dance," while Ariel appeared on Almario's most recent recording, "Heritage."

"I love Marcos' playing," Almario enthuses. "He captures the essence of Brazilian bossa novas and sambas, but he also goes deep into other Brazilian forms: the choro and the baiao. He works from deep inside the country and can capture the true folk sound. But he also has this wonderful classical feel. And he can play jazz."

Almario's Colombia also is represented in their repertoire. "We do a traditional Colombian form called pasillo on my song 'Alla Viva.' It is played in both 6/8 and 3/4 time and is very lively. Another of my tunes, 'Again,' also borrows from that form.

"Justo is one of the most complete saxophonists around," Ariel says of his partner. "No matter which instrument he plays, he gets his own sound. You always know that it's him. And he plays the flute exactly the way I'd want to play it if I were still playing it today."

Both say that combining their skills and backgrounds will only make their music better. "Bringing different kinds of music together extends its reach," Almario says. "Music has so much feeling, no matter what kind, and combining our roots only makes this feeling deeper."

Though they have done most of their work in and around Los Angeles, they think there are places where new hybrids are better appreciated.

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