Mariana Zwarg Sexteto Universal ‘Nascentes’ CD (Scubidu Music) 4/5

There’s a certain expectation when your father is Itiberê Zwarg, (the Brazilian bassist for the living legend that is Hermeto Pascoal) – and the self-same living legend also happens to be your godfather. There are standards to live up to, decades of musical tradition to follow, levels of musicianship to master and the ponderous weight of expectations… all falling upon your shoulders.

Good job those shoulders belong to Mariana Zwarg then. Mariana is a flautist, saxophonist, composer, arranger and now bandleader and this album grew out of a 2016 Spanish commission for Mariana to assemble and direct an entire concert dedicated to the music of Hermeto Pascoal, utilising a multinational ensemble from Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France and Germany.

After the Initial tour for the commission, this new group were so enthused with their collective experience that they decided to keep playing together and also to write their own music in Pascoal’s so-called ‘Universal Music’ style. They successfully wrote and toured this musical package for four years throughout Europe and Brazil.

“Nascentes” is their and Zwarg’s debut album and her first solo project, even though she’s had a career spanning 18 years already. It was recorded between Rio de Janeiro and Berlin at the tail-end of 2019, just before the first cases of Covid-19 were reported. It’s co-mixed by her father Itiberê (who Mariana often plays with, so they are used to each other’s musical thoughts).

There are 10 tracks on “Nascentes” (which roughly translates as births, beginnings or springs – as in fresh water bubbling up from the ground), eight composed by Mariana, one by Itiberê and one by Hermeto Pascoal.

Naturally, there is a very obvious musical debt to Pascoal and Zwarg senior – who are both special guests on the album – and Zwarg has said that the whole album is a musical ‘thank you’ for having them in her life. But it’s also very much Zwarg junior’s album. Either way, you’re amongst family with Nascentes.

The name of the album only came about on the very last day of recording in Brazil, when Mariana came across an old poem by her mother, which spoke of births and beginnings and she realised this CD was her own birth, especially as a composer and bandleader. The poem itself also features in the track “Lucas e Lena”.

Zwarg was not originally planning to be a musician, since up until she was 21 she was following a trajectory in psychology; but at 21 she devoted herself to flute and to music. Well, let’s face it, most of us turn to music first to help with our psychological problems so you could argue she’s performing the same mission of helping us to live our lives productively, but through music instead of words.

There is no ‘singing’ as such on this album, that is to say, no sung lyrics, but the vocals are an absolutely integral part of the sound in that classic Brazilian jazz scat singing style so familiar to anyone who has listened to Brazilian music over the last half-century or so where the voice is used like another instrument.

This is utilised to fabulous effect by the Danish vocalist Mette Nadja, who is a real find, effortlessly flying her vocal chords around the sinuous tunes with absolute surety of touch, perfect timing and confidence that almost hides the suppleness of Mette’s voice and the complexity of the gymnastics required. The proximity of tone and timing between Mariana’s sax and Mette’s voice at times is just unreal.

In fact, the whole band just groove as one, it feels like one mind, simultaneously expressing itself on a mass of instruments. Most of the tracks are quite lively and carry you along with them with very little problem (in fact with “Bandas e bandeiras” you’d probably just make sure your seat-belt is fastened!), with the fourth and sixth tracks (“Acalanto” and “Lucas e Lena”) being the only two to take it easy.

The opening track, “Pra ele”, is Mariana’s homage to her father, Itiberê. I’m not sure, but I imagine Itiberê is also the bass soloist on “Entre os Girassóis” and I think Hermeto’s accordion can be heard there also after the bass solo (it’s such a joyous feeling when it kicks in) and also on the track “Samba de Avedøre”. I’ve also got a feeling it’s Pascoal’s vocals on “Na Carioca” and on the track “Viva Hermeto” making some musical ‘bubbling’ noises with his lips as you would to a little baby to distract them!

Besides Mariana Zwarg on flute and saxes and Mette Nadja on vocals as noted already, the sextet comprises Sá Reston (Brazil) on bass, Pierre Chastel (France) on drums, Sami Kontola (Finland) on percussion and Johannes von Ballestrem (Germany) on piano. The musicianship, of course, is impeccable and everyone on this album is very much each other’s equal, it’s a real ensemble.

“Nascentes” is also equally ‘jazz’ and ‘Brazilian’, if you get me, and will absolutely appeal to both camps. To sum up, it isn’t totally rewriting Brazilian music or jazz, or even Brazilian jazz, but it does what it does supremely well. It’s a little gem of quality musicianship, writing and arranging.

Mariana and the band are very eager to start touring this album live, but until global Covid-19 restrictions ease up, you’ll just have to savour the album instead. (www.marianazwargsexteto.com).

You can hear some of the tracks from “Nascentes” on my monthly radio shows WorldBeatUK and The Overflow Show (both on BrumRadio.com and on Mixcloud.com) alongside loads of fabulous new releases in world music and jazz, soul, fusion, etc from around the planet.

Glyn Phillips

PS: if you are interested in Latin American/jazz artists it’s also worth checking out the Argentine jazz vocalist, Victoria Zotalis (with her new group, Origami and their album 2020 album “Semimundos”) (or any of her varied back catalogue), as well as the Argentine double bassist and his band the Juan Fracchi Quintet with his 2020 album “Tango Tsunami”. All good stuff.

On the Brazilian side also check out the São Paulo-based Italian singer Mafalda Minnozzi and her 2020 album “Sensorial: Portraits in Bossa and Jazz”. Also, one step removed but still very much worth checking out is the 2019 album by young Brazilian singer, Flavia K, entitled “Janelas Imprevisíveis” which has a more contemporary soulful treatment, but still lushly Brazilian!

NB: if you are planning on purchasing any of these albums, please consider buying them direct from the artists themselves where possible (go to their own websites for details), rather than via large global third-person options (I’m sure one of the richest men in the world doesn’t need any more of your money! The artists however absolutely do!) – and certainly not by streaming, since this only rips off the artists. Even musicians have to eat!