The Pianist Amaro Freitas Takes His Jazz Somewhere New: The Amazon

In the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco — a narrow, humid stretch of land where the South American coastline juts out into the Atlantic — fables endure the test of time. “There’s one about the Pajeú, the river which runs through the state,” the jazz composer and pianist Amaro Freitas said on a recent morning, video-calling from his sun-drenched living room in Recife. “It goes like this: Once upon a time, a Brazilian viola was buried in the riverbed. From that moment on, anyone who drank from the stream would become a poet.”

Freitas, 32, who was born in Pernambuco and grew up surrounded by stories like this, never became a poet (though he is now married to one). But his work — which weaves traditional Northeastern musical styles such as baião and frevo into the language of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk — has always drawn from the cultural traditions and history of his homeland. Part of a new generation of Brazilian jazz artists looking to democratize and inject fresh life into the genre, Freitas and his trio first garnered critical acclaim with albums including “Sangue Negro” (2016), “Rasif” (2018)and “Sankofa,” a 2021 work he has described as a spiritual journey into the forgotten narratives of Black Brazil.

His new solo record, “Y’Y,” out Friday, sees him travel out of Pernambuco and into the Amazon, where the sounds of birds, water and rustling leaves lend themselves to polyrhythmic compositions reminiscent of the rainforest. Drawing from Freitas’s encounters with the Sateré-Mawé Indigenous community, these new songs pay homage to the natural world.

“National media here don’t cover the Amazon in depth,” said Freitas, speaking in Portuguese, wearing a graphic T-shirt printed with Nelson Mandela’s face. “So when I went there, and I saw the floating houses, saw the hammocks on boats, visited a tribe for the first time, and looked at the place where the straw-colored waters of the Amazon River meet the black Rio Negro, I felt like I was accessing another Brazil.”

It was around the same time that Freitas became more interested in playing prepared, or modified, pianos. The technique — popularized by the 20th-century American composer and musical theorist John Cage — refers to placing items like bolts or screws between the instrument’s strings to create unique, unconventional and often more rhythmic sounds. “The difference is, unlike Cage, I didn’t want to use any metal — that damages the instrument, which would make touring really difficult. People would be like, ‘You’re putting a nail in my piano?’” Freitas said, laughing. “So I use wood, among other things: Amazonian seeds, clothes hangers, dominoes.”

“There are times where I’m splitting myself between the Amazonian seeds, the African rhythms, and, on the other hand, European melodies,” Freitas, center, said. “It’s as though my left hand is Africa and my right hand is Europe.”Credit…Carlos Barney

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