Bossa 65, by Bob Weinberg – Jazziz Magazine

Antonio Adolfo pays loving homage to the music of Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal.

By Bob Weinberg

Carlos Lyra wouldn't have wanted a maudlin, tear-filled memorial, says pianist Antonio Adolfo, who attended a joyful celebration of the maestro's life and music in late December. And he would know: They had been friends for 60 years.

Lyra's widow, Magda Pereira Botafogo, invited his many musician friends to pay tribute to the guitarist, singer and composer, an important figure in the development of bossa nova, who died at age 90 on December 16. "We played a jam session in a nice house with a beautiful view in Rio de Janeiro," Adolfo says during a Zoom conversation from that same city a few days before the new year. "I think that was a nice idea, because he would never like people crying for him."

Adolfo was 17 when he met Lyra in the summer of 1963. Lyra and his partner, lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, had written songs for a musical titled Pobre Menina Rica (Poor Rich Girl) and they needed backing musicians for the production. Somehow, Lyra had heard about this young piano player who was causing a stir in Copacabana's Beco das Garrafas, or Bottles Alley — a vital training ground for jazz and bossa nova artists in the late 1950s and early '60s — and hired him. Adolfo put together a trio for the show, and after each performance, they would hustle back to the alley where they had a late-night gig with vocalist Leny Adrade and trombonist Raul de Souza.

Certainly, Adolfo knew the music of Lyra, who, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, was among the first generation of bossa nova innovators. "Can you imagine?" Adolfo, says, still disbelieving his good fortune. "I was 17 years old, being invited by such a great composer to be a part of his group. He hired me and we had two months of great music and great friendship."

That friendship — and mutual admiration — extended further, as Adolfo went on to produce, arrange and play on Lyra's albums in subsequent years. This past summer, Adolfo expressed his affection and appreciation for Lyra on his release Bossa 65: Celebrating Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal (AAM Music), a jazz salute to two bossa nova giants who were pivotal figures in his life and career; the album also fetes the Brazilian musical style that celebrated its 65th birthday in 2023. The recording kicks off with a lovely Lyra/De Moraes composition, "Coisa Mais Linda" (Most Beautiful Thing); a Brazilian standard, it features Adolfo's own mellifluous wordless vocals and understated piano, as well as superb solos from trombonist Rafael Rocha and guitarist Lula Galvao.

Three of the tracks — "Samba Do Carioca" (Carioca's Samba), "Maria Moita" (Maria Shut-Mouth) and "Sabe Voce" (Do You Know?) — are jazz adaptations of songs from Pobre Menina Rica. The play tells the unlikely love story between an impoverished poet and a lady of means. "She was rich, and he was a homeless guy," Adolfo explains. "He lived next door, where all the poor and homeless were staying, very close to her building on Copacabana Beach." Maria Moita, another character, was a garrulous, genial Bahian woman from the neighborhood — Jesse Sadoc's dynamic trumpet solo on the track of the same name echoes her larger-than-life persona. The typical Carioca, or resident of Rio de Janeiro, is represented in "Samba Do Carioca" with its cool, rhythmic strut and bluesy contributions from alto saxophonist Danilo Sinna, Rocha, Galvao and Adolfo, sketching a vivid portrait of the tropical city dweller.

Adolfo's arrangements of Lyra's songs add another dimension to the work, and his Brazilian bandmates — also including bassist Jorge Helder, drummer Rafael Barata and percussionist Dada Costa — are accomplished jazz players who've worked with him for years. Adolfo's almost cellular familiarity with Lyra's canon further enables him to improvise and expand upon the maestro's compositions. "For me, he was one of the best composers in Brazil ever," he says. "Jobim used to say he was the best melodist of the bossa nova movement."

Menescal, now 86, also belongs in that pantheon. Adolfo first played with his band through a bit of serendipity (for him, anyway): The group's pianist was involved in an accident that laid him up for six months, and Adolfo got the nod. Then, in 1968, Adolfo and Menescal toured Europe with vocalist Elis Regina, with whom they recorded four albums, including the classic Aquarela Do Brasil with harmonicist Toots Thielemans. Soon after, Menescal became the artistic director for the PolyGram label and provided plenty of work for Adolfo as a producer and arranger.

On Bossa 65, Adolfo interprets Menescal's most famous composition with a sparkling read of the standard "O Barquinho" (Little Boat), but delves deeper into his catalogue, as well. "Bye Bye Brasil," which Menescal penned for a movie of the same name, boasts an intriguing rhythm and superb solos from altoist Sinna and guitarist Galvao. "It's a very beautiful melody. I arpeggiated the chords," Adolfo says, humming the infectious tune. "Then I brought different rhythms from the original. I brought a Brazilian northeastern groove."

The ballad "Tete," done in the samba-canção style that Adolfo likens to bolero, takes its title from a nickname for a beautiful girl and was inspired by the girlfriend of Menescal's songwriting partner, Ronaldo Boscoli. The lively "Rio" and the introspective "Nos E O Mar" (We and the Sea) showcase other aspects of Menescal's songcraft and find new expression in Adolfo and company's jazzy explorations.

For Bossa 65's release party at the Blue Note club in Rio, Menescal, guitar in hand, joined Adolfo's band on stage to play "Bye Bye Brasil." Unfortunately, Lyra was not able to attend, as he was dealing with the effects of a stroke, although his wife, Magda, was there.

"I am very happy that I paid tribute to them when they were alive," Adolfo says. "I learned a lot from them, the way they build their very beautiful, very inspired melodies."

Looking back on the early days of bossa nova, Adolfo recalls the excitement of riding a Brazilian wave that affected music and culture around the world. "It was the first time Brazilian music had a boom, not just in the United States, but in Europe and Japan and everywhere," he says. "I think it deserves [that attention]. And it's still there. How many American musicians, for example, record and perform influences of Brazilian composers in their shows?"

"It felt like a gift," he continues, reminiscing about the development of the music more than 60 years ago. "You grow in that moment when you had such groups of musicians, such atmosphere — not just for the vocal music, but for the instrumental, as well. Bottles Alley in Copacabana was like 52nd Street."

Featured photo by Eduardo Jung.