Album of the Day: Victor Assis Brasil, “Esperanto”

Smooth bossa nova this is not. Victor Assis Brasil, a Brazilian saxophone prodigy who studied at Berklee College of Music, was clearly soaking up a ton of American and international music when he recorded Esperanto with a slate of gifted Brazilian players in 1970, a week before his 25th birthday. From the opening cymbal crash of Jimmy Heath’s “Gingerbread Boy,” the album’s sole cover, it’s clear we’re in for a wild ride. This is blistering, inventive jazz that feels more influenced by Coltrane’s pioneering work a decade earlier—and perhaps by 1960s psychedelic rock—than it does by Jobim’s uber-cool and mellow CTI output of the same era. There’s a dose of rock-ish fury on “Quarenta Graus A Sombra,” where Brasil’s runs take on a chaotic edge, a la Eric Dolphy (who, like Brasil, died unexpectedly in his mid-30s).

But it’s not just Brasil and company’s calculated abandon that impresses on Esperanto; three of the LP’s five tracks find him in a mellow mood. And, of course Brasil was influenced by Jobim; he recorded a four-track tribute to the great in the same session, reissued last year by Far Out Recordings, the same label responsible for this release. But even the slower songs feel unique. “Ao Amigo Quartin,” written for Brasil’s label head and friend Roberto Quartin, contains the lovely and intricate acoustic guitar flourishes (courtesy of Hélio Delmiro) that one might expect from a South American jazz ballad, but Brasil’s mournful caterwauls on the track call to mind gospel- and blues-entrenched solos of North American players like John Handy and Booker Ervin.

There’s an immensely gifted band at work here, but the LP’s depth and emotion are what make it a true gift. Jazz fans know all too well about would-be giants who died too young. These reissues prove Victor Assis Brasil is one of them.

-Casey Jarman

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