"Alves' work melds a percussive edge with a lively, fluent right hand." ---John Ephland, Downbeat
Pianist and composer Helio Alves has received high praise as an in-demand sideman with Joe Henderson, Yo-Yo Ma, Slide Hampton, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Paquito D'Rivera, Claudio Roditi, Oscar Castro-Neves and Gato Barbieri, to name but a few. And now, with more than 40 recordings as a sideman - and two at the helm of his own ensembles - this incomparable musician is quite deservedly earning respect as a leader too.
Alves' second recording as leader, Portrait in Black in White (Reservoir Music, 2004), once again displays his impressive mastery of both straight-ahead and Brazilian jazz styles. The release is highlighted by four Alves originals - "Frenzy," "Sambetinho," "Loose Samba" and "Song for Anna" - and features his longtime musical friend Santi Debriano on bass and Matt Wilson on drums.
Alves is emerging as a powerful interpreter of even the most familiar standards, such as "You Must Believe In Spring," "Angel Eyes," and Jobim's "Portrait in Black and White," all included on his new release, and imparts a distinctively fluid and rhythmic stamp to his music. Alves selected all the music for Portrait in Black in White, and included compositions by bassist Steve Swallow ("Falling Grace") and Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer, Egberto Gismonti ("Loro"). The mix of straight-ahead and Brazilian sensibilities reflects Alves' personal tastes and his musical complexity. "I love jazz, and I love Brazilian music, and I always try to open things up a bit by mixing the two together," he says. "It's good to be able to go back and forth, trading one off the other. It keeps things interesting."
The son of two pianists, Alves was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1966 and started piano lessons at age 6. Following his early immersion in playing the pop standards and classical music favored by his parents, he gravitated to jazz in his teens and formed a band with some friends. "I had so much fun trying to play jazz. I just enjoyed it so much. With classical music, you have to play what's on the paper, exactly as it's written. That early discipline was good, and it still helps me keep my chops together, but jamming was such a blast, such a contrast," he recalls. Alves entered high school jazz festival competitions and won, two years in a row. One of the judges, the well-respected Sao Paulo bass player, the late Xu Viana, became his first jazz harmony teacher, and suggested he continue his studies at Berklee College of Music. Alves moved to Boston at age 18 and received his BA in Professional Music in 1990.
He decided to stay in Boston following graduation, and there met trumpeter Claudio Roditi, who advised the 24-year old pianist to move to New York City, and urged him to get in touch when he arrived. "One phone call to Claudio, that was it," says Alves of getting his start in Manhattan in 1993. "I met everybody else through Claudio. I've played with him now for many years, and he has showed me a lot," he says. Alves recorded two Reservoir releases with Roditi, Samba Manhattan Style (1995) and Double Standards (1997). From 1995 - 1997, Alves toured extensively with Joe Henderson's Double Rainbow Quartet celebrating the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, and was featured in the Grammy?-winning release, Joe Henderson's Big Band (Verve, 1996).
Alves was pianist on Grammy?-winning releases by Yo-Yo Ma (Obrigado Brazil, 2003) and Paquito D'Rivera (Brazilian Dreams, 2002), and on the Grammy?-nominated Samba Jazz Fantasia (Malandro Records, 2002), by Duduka da Fonseca. His growing discography includes releases with Rosa Passos (Amorosa, Sony/Classical), Gino Sitson (Bamisphere, Polyvocal Records), Dave Pietro (Embrace, A Records), Slide Hampton (Slide Plays Jobim), Cadence Trio (Yatrata, Clavebop), Hendrik Meurkens (Amazon River, Blue Toucan), Maucha Adnet (The Jobim Songbook, Kind of Blue Records) and Duduka da Fonseca (Samba Jazz in Black and White, Zoho).He's also featured on recordings and performances with Herbie Mann, Phil Woods, Gal Costa, The Caribbean Jazz Project, Paul Winter, Sadao Watanabe, Harry Allen, Eric Alexander, Hendrik Meurkens, Santi Debriano, Duduka Da Fonseca, Romero Lubambo, Nilson Matta, Maucha Adnet, Vincent Herring, Don Braden, Randy Brecker, David Sanchez, The New York Voices, Mike Stern and Dave Samuels, among many others.
Alves' move to lead his own ensembles was inspired by votes of confidence from two men already familiar with his prowess. During this second recording date with Roditi, both Roditi and producer Mark Feldman suggested Alves give leadership a try. "It was very nice of Mark to make an offer to me to do it; Claudio also encouraged me a lot. I think I might have waited longer to do it without their encouragement, but I'm glad I did it. It's so important to do your own work," he continues. "I really enjoy being a sideman, but people take you more seriously when you also step up as a leader."
In the liner notes for Trios (Reservoir Music, 1998), noted Los Angeles Times music critic Zan Stewart writes: "Here on his debut as leader, this fine pianist from Sao Paulo, Brazil, shows that he's an alluring modernist who exhibits the harmonic depth of a Chick Corea (a major influence) or Bill Evans, the alternatively driving and subtle swing of a Cedar Walton (another strong influence) or McCoy Tuner, the melodic charm of Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly or Herbie Hancock. And like those giants collectively, no mood or milieu is beyond his reach..." Trios features John Patitucci and Nilson Matta on bass, Al Foster, Deduka Da Fonseca and Paulo Braga on drums.
"It was really great recording in the historic Rudy Van Gelder Studio," says Alves, "and working with Mark Feldman was fantastic. He gave me a great deal of creative freedom." Alves drew from experiences gained in working with Henderson, Roditi and Castro Neves to help define his own style of leadership. "Each of them had a different style. Joe was a real jazz guy, didn't say much, just played. Oscar is more in control, more of an arranger, and Claudio, well, he's like a big papa, a mentor. The three of them shaped me quite a bit, and were all very encouraging."
"My own style? I pick guys and let them play. I wanted them to come up with ideas and run with them. Both records sounded great as a result," says Alves.
He's been a headliner at the Taichung International Jazz Festival in Taiwan since its inception in 2003. "I'm really honored by the enthusiasm for my music in Taiwan," he says. "I'm like a star there - now I need about 50 more places like that!" In addition to performing at the new festival, he offered Brazilian music clinics, just as he's done while on tour to German universities and elsewhere. "I first participated in clinics with Duduka DaFonseca, the Drummers' Collective and Portinho. The clinics in Taiwan were my first on my own, and they were really fun."
Studying with the renowned Charlie Banacos provided Alves an inventive and challenging springboard to develop his composing skills. "Most of my compositions started as exercises for Charlie," Alves says. "Charlie's just so amazing, so positive and energetic. He loves teaching, and is so encouraging."
No doubt Alves will himself be described as an encouraging mentor and bandleader in years to come. Helio Alves is successfully combining his abilities as pianist and composer, as leader and sideman, and as straight-ahead and Brazilian jazz musician into a winning combination, one sure to bring him to the forefront of a new generation of players.
"His performances were technically astonishing, showing great rhythmic, harmonic and improvisational strengths, which few, if any, could match. His melodic free form inventiveness and sense of time stood out like a free spirit seeking to liberate itself from all traditional constraints."
Bruce Gilman, www.brazzil.com