Johnny Alf ‘Johnny Alf’ (Mr Bongo) 4/5

Singer-pianist Johnny Alf is one of the unrecognised greats of Brazilian music and he was a seminal influence on the music of Tania Maria. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1929, Alf grew up in an era when the Great American songbook was all the rage in Brazil and his own influences spanned the music of George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and vocally Frank Sinatra. Alf developed a unique voice that could take on board the jazziest of swing as well as ballads, and for the former incorporated his own brand of scatting. He scored early successses in 1961 with the samba-cançao ‘Ilu-sao à toa’ and in 1964 with ‘Seu Chopin’. Johnny Alf performed regularly at Bottle’s Bar in Rio, a key venue during the 1960s, where the likes of the Tamba Trio, Sergio Mendes and Luis Carlos Vinhas all played.

The album re-issued here, the first ever in the UK to this writer’s knowledge, dates from 1965 and is a well balanced set of uptempo jazz-infused samba, mid-tempo bossa and some laid back songs with classy orchestrations. Alf perfected the art of marrying piano and jazzy inflections into his repertoire and they are heard on the all too brief ‘Samba sem balançao (‘Unbalanced samba’)’ and on the hard boss accompaniment to ‘Bossa so’. This said, Alf probably sounded best of all in the mid-tempo range as on the jazzy swinger that is ‘Eu so sei’, or on ‘Ceu alegre’ with fine brass and the orchestrated ‘Gismi’. Of the ballads, the gentle guitar-led ‘Tudo que é preciso’, with lovely use of reeds, impresses as does ‘Imenso de amor’ with those oh so distinctive Brazilian drum licks. As a bonus, one of Johnny Alf’s best loved songs, ‘Rapaz de bem’ from 1967 is included. At some point an anthology of his work is in order. For the time being this makes a lovely discovery as part of the bigger jigsaw that is Brazilian popular music. Tim Stenhouse