• Natalie Cressman

Playing Trombone in Brazilian Music Styles

Important Trombonists and Stylistic Considerations


In spending many years playing trombone in small ensembles, big bands, and orchestras throughout my childhood and teens, I quickly found that, in general, the trombone is an instrument that more often plays a supporting role in American jazz. Being that it occupies the lower register, it is frequently used to support a higher-pitched instrument’s melody. Often, this is done in very static block chords or pads, devoid of much movement or melodic interest.

A big part of why I started writing for a project of my own was out of a desire to make the most out of what is possible on the trombone, which to me is at its core an extremely expressive and melodic instrument. Right around this same time, as I was forming my identity on the instrument as a bandleader and arranger, I also became enamored with Brazilian music, and found the trombone to have an elevated status as a melodic voice in not one but several genres of music in Brazil in the last century, so rightly I was hooked.

Brazilian music in general has much in common historically with the music of North America. This is largely a result of the African musical diaspora, brought by way of the slave trade. This created a mixing and hybridizing of African music with European music brought to the Americas by way of colonizing forces.

In the U.S. we had ragtime around the same time that choro was emerging as a major musical style in Brazil. There are many parallels in musical form and harmony, and in the middle of the 20th century you see a more direct influence of American music on Brazilian popular music. In spite of that, the two musical worlds were largely isolated from each other during the most formative years of musical development, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. One of the places where we see a distinct difference is in the area of groove or rhythmic patterns.

In American music, from blues and bebop, to rock and pop, we feel the musical beat in 4/4 time. In jazz specifically, we also deal with a swing feel, where eighth notes are really phrased on a triplet grid, giving the groove the feeling of being laid-back and that musical phrasing sitting on the back end of the beat rather than right on top of it.

In Brazilian music - in choro, samba, bossa nova, and north-eastern musical styles - we feel the beat in 2, a distinct difference that often gets overlooked when non-Brazilians are notating music with a Brazilian feel. The most correct way to write out music based on a Brazilian groove is in 2/4 time, subdividing on the 16th note grid.

While Brazilian music has its own “swing” (an intangible lilt to the subdivision of 16th notes that involves slowing down very slightly in one part of the beat and speeding up in another part of the beat) the general feeling across most Brazilian grooves is to be much more on top of the beat than we would assume from an American perspective. Even in ballads and at slower tempos, to play authentically means to phrase much more in front of the beat than we are accustomed to doing in the jazz tradition.

I remember distinctly being at a jam session with some Brazilian musicians, playing samba jazz, where the drummer’s feel was so on top of the beat that to me it felt like he was rushing. That’s just how it feels in comparison to how we are used to feeling time in America. So, as a horn player transitioning between the distinct styles of American Jazz and Brazilian music on a regular basis, it’s imperative to develop an awareness of these details in rhythmic feel and articulation so that we can honor and respect each musical tradition by playing true to the type of music we are playing.

In institutional jazz education, I’ve found for bossa nova to be widely mentioned, and samba and baião to be touched upon more infrequently and oft in a shallow nature, while other significant musical contributions from Brazil go unmentioned entirely. Brazil is a vast country and it has a greater wealth of distinct musical traditions than we can even imagine. And as there is so much great trombone playing in so many different styles of music from Brazil, I wanted to share some of my favorite recordings that are also a good entryway into some musical styles that aren’t as well known in the US.

Important Brazilian Trombonists and Music Styles

1. Raul De Souza on Estamos Aí (Raulzinho, A Vontade Mesmo (1965))

Raul De Souza is without a doubt the most famous Brazilian trombonist, and his influence certainly reverberates beyond the southern hemisphere.

Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, he was an important figure in samba jazz in the early 60’s, playing with Sergio Mendes’ original Bossa Rio group and putting out a solo album under the name “Raulzinho”. De Souza spent a lot of time living and recording in the U.S, releasing a few fusion and disco-tinged albums produced by George Duke for Capitol Records in the 1970’s.

He played both valve and slide trombone, and throughout his career collaborated with many notable American and Brazilian artists, including my favorite bebop trombonist Frank Rosolino in a joint concert in 1978, holding his own in a straight-ahead context.

On Estamos Aí, he really embodies my above comments on the difference in rhythmic feel in Brazilian music, in this case, over a samba groove, as his phrasing is very much on top of the beat. It’s as equally syncopated as in jazz, but the underlying difference in cross rhythms make for quite the contrast in phrasing.

While the harmonic language is indeed shared if not derived from American bebop, the aesthetic of the samba groove produces a distinctly different sensation, his articulation slightly more pronounced and staccato than found in bebop. In the concert he shared with Frank Rosolino, I find a perceptible remnant of his Brazilian music foundations, as his eighth note swing feel seems a bit straight and ahead of the beat when compared side by side with Frank Rosolino. Check out this video of them playing “Stella by Starlight” to observe what I mean.

2. Nelson “Nelsinho” Martins dos Santos on Aconteceu (Cartola, Cartola (1976))

One of the most prominent voices on possibly the most quintessential samba album of all time is the trombone playing of “Nelsinho” Martins dos Santos, providing the vivacious intros, counter-lines, and outros to Cartola’s classic sambas.

Very little is known about this trombonist, despite this album being lauded as one of the best Brazilian albums of all time by Rolling Stone. Cartola grew up in the favela of Mangueira and became well known as a composer of the emerging style of samba in 1930’s Rio, but didn’t truly enjoy commercial success until later in life.

His melodies, harmonies, and lyrics are sophisticated and yet rooted in the streets, a wonderful mixture of harmonic richness and poetic lamentations of romantic and economic strife. Nelsinho’s articulations are even more “punchy” in this OG samba context compared to the “samba jazz” hybrid we hear from Raul de Souza.

The essence of Nelsinho’s style is really creating small variations on the melody, closer in structure to choro styled ornamentation than improvisational jazz. But his lines behind Cartola’s vocals latch on to the essential harmonic movement and don’t ever threaten to eclipse the melody. He truly “sings” through the horn, with great freedom, while his phrasing remains syncopated and locked in with the samba groove.

3. Zé da Velha on Bole-Bole (Zé da Velha & Silverio Pontes, Tudo Dança, Choros, Maxixes, e Sambas (2004))

As I mentioned briefly above, choro is a style of music with many parallels to its American counterpart, ragtime. Largely an instrumental style, many vestiges of 19th century European music meld with African cross rhythms to create a very unique style of music.

Mandolin and flute are common melodic voices, and some improvisation is present in the style, both in the embellishment of the melody as well as with the spontaneous creation of inner counter-lines and melodies by secondary horn players or the 7-string guitarist. See the music of Brazilian saxophonist Pixinguinha, one of choros’ greatest composers, for good examples of these improvised counter melodies.

Zé da Velha played with Pixinguinha in the latter half of the composer’s career, along with other important figures in choro’s “old guard,” and he has continued to bring the choro tradition to new generations, largely in collaboration with trumpeter Silverio Pontes in several albums and performances together.

On this recording of Bole-Bole, composed by Jacob do Bandolim, you can hear Zé and Silverio trade off sections of the melody, and provide spontaneous interjections of accompaniment underneath the each other. This music is simple and complex all at once and gives off a buoyant and joyous energy not unlike ragtime and early New Orleans Jazz.

4. Nilsinho Amarante, Flávio Souza (soloist), Marcílio Batista, Cléber Silva on Passo De Anjo (Spok Frevo Orquestra, Passo De Anjo Ao Vivo (2008)

I had the amazing fortune of joining this orchestra at Jazz at Lincoln Center as a guest soloist a few years ago and can honestly say that meeting Spok and learning about frevo music has truly enriched and changed my life.

Frevo is a tradition from the Northeast of Brazil, specifically founded in the city of Recife, and is traditionally played during the month where Carnaval, the Brazilian equivalent of Mardis Gras, takes place. It’s an incredibly fast-paced groove derived from the mixture of European marches with syncopated rhythms.

The music was historically played by street bands, but Spok and his orchestra have sought to legitimize the tradition on the global front much like Wynton Marsalis did with creating Jazz at Lincoln Center, and have taken this music all over the world to concert halls and jazz festivals. Spok’s arrangements are incredibly intricate and simultaneously require dexterity, crisp articulation, and power to project over the driving rhythmic grooves.

The trombone section, and the brass in general, operate in lockstep, in rhythmic and stylistic unison to a degree that made my jaw drop when I first heard them. Hear Flavio Souza’s solo from their live album Passo de Anjo, where he navigates the rapid tempo effortlessly. To hear more, you can find a video of the whole concert on Youtube.

5. François de Lima on Prêt-a-Porter de Tafetá (Banda Mantiqueira, Bixiga (2018))

Here is a very different large ensemble, exemplifying the sub-genre of samba known as gafiera. When asked to define gafiera, valve trombonist François de Lima referred to it as a language and a culture more than a distinct musical genre.

The groove is samba, similar to what we heard on Raulzinho’s record, but there’s a different aesthetic at play, rooted in the “malandragem,” the persona of the smooth-talking, slick gentleman in a suit, two tone shoes, and hat, that is represented heavily by male samba dancers. The “malandro” persona is to be slightly devious, slick with women, one who drinks and dances late into the night, and the vibrant musical equivalent is this gafiera style, samba with improvisation but that is closer to its roots as a dance music than to straight ahead jazz.

The music is at once complex and playful. Banda Mantiqueira is co-led by one of Brazil’s greatest saxophonists Nailor “Proveta” Azevedo, and de Lima, who is the first featured soloist on Prêt-a-Porter de Tafetá. Playing valve trombone allows for a lithe approach to the racing tempo, but there’s a bouncy and driving energy to his improvisations that capture the essence of gafiera better than any definition could.


PHOTO: Lauren Desberg