Brazilian funk trio Azymuth continue to astonish after forty years

Brazil holds a special space in the collective imagination, at least of Americans, as a place laden with a mythical, otherworldly glamour, permeated with saudade, that hard-to-pin down sense of crushingly beautiful nostalgia and longing. It’s a stage for the erotic, the bacchanalian, the Carnaval, replete with conflict and ingenuity. 

All of this, along with Brazil’s peculiar historical confluences, has provided for an endlessly fascinating sonic formula, combining the exotic timbres of the indigenous people, the corporal rhythms of Africa, the lyrical fado of Portugal, and, later, the embrace of North American jazz, rock n’ roll, hip hop, and electronic music.

Americans’ affair with Brazilian music began, largely, in the 1950s through bossa nova, a fusion of traditional samba with jazz, which caught on in the States thanks to its association with American players like Stan Getz, who helped popularize the work of Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto.

The subsequent psychedelic wave of Tropicália in the ’60s and early ’70s—set against the rise of Brazil’s hideously repressive military dictatorship—fostered in the country a period of popular music creation so avant-garde, so unhinged, and so technically innovative that it continues to inspire awe.

Emerging from this ferment, the band Azymuth has become one of the most enduring and influential acts of the past half century, melding jazz, funk, disco, and electronic music with a sound all together Brazilian.

Astonishingly, the trio has largely stuck together throughout the decades, releasing over 20 studio albums, the latest of which, Fênix, came out in December. It’s their first since the death of founding keyboardist Roberto Bertrami in 2012, whose distinguished shoes are filled by decorated Brazilian jazz keyboardist Kiko Continentino. 

One of the first Brazilian groups to embrace electronic instruments, inspired by the fusion efforts of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, as well as American funk and disco acts like Sly & the Family Stone and Funkadelic, they played an immense, if under-acknowledged, role in the developing the sound of modern dance music.

Starting out as session musicians in the bohemian Rio jazz scene of the early ’70s, they released their first record as Azymuth, Águia Não Come Mosca, in 1977. It immediately established the mind-expanding territory the group would mine for the next forty years: psychedelic keyboard solos, swelling synthesizer pads, driving slap bass, futuristic vocoded voices, and impossibly funky samba grooves.

European listeners were so astounded that the band was invited to play the 1977 Montreaux Jazz Festival, becoming the first Brazilian artists to do so.

They achieved their greatest commercial success next, in 1979, with the single “Jazz Carnival.” An ecstatic, sci-fi Brazilian disco jam, it exploded in the United Kingdom, reaching the top charts there for a full eight months. It has all the hallmarks of a modern dance track, and can be seen as a salient precursor to the revolutionary club sound that would be unleashed a decade later across Europe with acid house. Extending to almost ten minutes, it’s a punishing four-to-the-floor beat that dissolves hysterically into auxiliary percussion breakdowns, and turns brain-melting through the deranged, euphoric manipulation of electronics and studio production.

It’s no wonder, then, that Azymuth’s catalogue, which continued to accrue at breakneck speed throughout the post-disco period of the 1980s, has been subject to innumerable dance remixes and re-edits, both licensed and unofficial, and a primary source for sampling, marking them as a major contributor to the developments of house, drum n’ bass, and hip hop.

In the 1990s, the group signed to the London-based label Far Out Recordings, with whom they’ve put out ten records, including this latest.

After forty years, their sound has deepened and matured, the expression now of seasoned masters, rather than high-voltage renegades.

Throughout the record, Continentino explores the former keyboardist’s familiar lysergic terrain, but the grooves are reverently introspective, giving space for all the instruments to wander eloquently throughout some landscape that only Azymuth can navigate. It’s a profoundly reflective album that still manages to be hauntingly progressive.

The title track alone is a shimmering, multi-part odyssey grounded as ever by the unmistakable rhythm section of bassist Alex Malhieros and drummer Ivan “Mamão” Conti. Perhaps the voice embedded in synthesizer mouths nonsense syllables, or perhaps it invokes us to drift, untethered, through an open window.

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