Milton Nascimento ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD Box Set (Warners) 3/5

Singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento is one of Brazil’s all time great performers and from the late 1960s established first a national, then an international reputation as both a songwriter of distinction and then as a singer in his own right. Raised in the hinterland region of Minas Gerais, Nascimento is in fact a highly eclectic singer whose interests take in classical, choral. jazz and rock elements (the Beatles harmonies were especially influential on Milton and his generation), and has a heightened awareness of the Latin American songbook. This combination of influences distinguishes him from his counterparts and have earned him a major global following, especially in the United States where his mid-1970s collaborations with jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (together on the seminal ‘Native Dancer’ album from 1974) and countless pop singers have been fêted over the years. His highly innovative period came during the early-mid 1970s with a collective of musicians referred to as the ‘Clube de Eqsuina’ (or ‘Corner Club’) and who included influential individuals such as Lô Borges, Toninho Horta and songwriters of the calibre of Fernando Brant and Ronaldo Bastos and the two volumes of ‘Clube de Esquina’ plus ‘Milton’ make for essential listening and the 1975 album ‘Minas’ is sometimes considered as the Brazilian equivalent of ‘Sgt. Pepper’.

The present selection of albums covers a later period of roughly a decade from 1994 through 2003. Milton and the period of great innovation from the 1970s was now behind him. However, in its place was a technically gifted singer who had honed his craft as a live performer and its was these two aspects of his singing that were now to the fore. The first album contained in this selection, ‘Angelus’ from 1994, is one of the strongest studio albums here and is actually quite varied in approach with an all-start list of guests including jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, old buddies Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, and pop singers of the calibre of Jon Anderson and James Taylor on board. It is the folksy material that works best with a lovely feel to ‘Coisas de Minas’ featuring a solo from Metheny while a reprise of the classic ‘Vera Cruz’ with Ron Carter and Jack deJohnette in the rhythm section receives an excellent rendition. Milton’s wordless vocal technique is heard to great effect on the gentle ‘Amor amigo’ while there are collective choral and lead vocals on ‘No vena’. James Taylor duets with Nascimento on ‘Only a dream in Rio’ and with Jon Anderson on ‘Estrelada’. The next two albums, ‘Amigo’ (1996) and ‘Nascimento’ (1997) are something of a disappointment in comparison and fit very much into the MPB easy listening format with production that is a tad syrupy in parts (particularly the big orchestrations present on ‘Amigo’), though even they have their moments with a reprise of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Ana Maria’ in homage to his then recently departed wife of the same name a highlight of the latter album.

However, Milton the consumate live performer is showcased on a seventy-five minute concert from 1998 and this provides the listener with a more accurate picture of the artist. New technology was such that a duet with the deceased singing legend Elis Regina was possible on ‘O que foi feito devera’ and this impresses as does an a capella version of ‘Calix Bento’ which is an old classic. There then followed a six year break from recording during which time Milton Nascimento became seriously ill and there was even the fear that he might never record again. Thankfully that did not prove to be the case and there was cause for celebration and a real return to form by Nascimento on the 2003 album ‘Pieta’ which is arguably Milton’s strongest studio release in a couple of decades. Pared down production and the return of some of ‘Corner Club’ musicians of the early 1970s (Borges brothers and Fernando Brant) has resulted in a far more satisfying recording and one that is all the more triumphant given the personal trials and tribulations that the singer has gone through. What is of interest here is the presence on several songs of young female singer Maria Rita Mariano who happens to be none other than Elis Regina’s daughter and she contributes to the excellent mid-tempo ‘Beleza e cançao’ with its choral influences. Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny guest on a reworking of the former’s seminal mid-1960s Blue Note number ‘Canteloupe Island’. Milton displays an awareness of twenty-first century jazzy meets electronica drum beats on ‘As vezes deus exagera’ which is a lovely melodic piece, completely different from the rest of the album, and here he risks attracting a whole new audience. For older fans, the folksy hues of ‘Meninos de Araçuai’ complete with flute will make for happy listening as will the acoustic guitar-driven ‘Outro lugar’. At just over seventy minutes in length, this is the virtual equivalent of a double vinyl album such as ‘Clube de Esquina’ and Milton certainly sounds rejuvinated. All in all, then, a mixed package of hits and near misses and, while not a ‘Best of’ anthology, it is an accurate summation of Milton Nascimento in his later career and does reflect his eclectic approach to music.

Tim Stenhouse