By Andrew Gilbert
Each new album by Brazilian veteran Manfredo Fest is a special event for lovers of bossa nova. With Amazonas, Fest further refines his joyous, sensual Brazilan jazz sound, drawing unique elements from both traditions in creating a music as emotionally stirring as it is beautiful.
More than 30 years ago, Fest helped create the beloved Brazilian musical movement that quickly swept the world. Bossa nova is still at the heart of the pianist’s music, but over the years he has continued to add elements of jazz, establishing a reputation as one of the most versatile and creative musicians to hail from South America.
Born in Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazil’s southernmost state, Fest was raised in an intensely musical household. His father was a concert pianist and conductor in Germany who studied with a student of Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer Franz Lizst. He immigrated to Brazil in the mid-20’s and as Manfredo was growing up, his father chaired the University of Porto Alegre’s music department. Born legally blind, Manfredo learned to read music by Braille. Though he studied classical music throughout college, graduating from the University of Rio Grande do Sul with a music degree, his ear was turning toward samba and jazz.
“Early on, I heard Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, but the great influence in my earlier years was George Shearing’s quintet,” Fest says, “the combination of sounds he had with piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums.”
Fest began immersing himself in Brazilian popular music and jazz while still in college, a direction that didn’t win quick approval from his father. “He was very conservative, so he didn’t dig it too much,” Fest recalls with a laugh. “Later on when I graduated and moved to Sao Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, he got to realize that I was serious about what I was doing.”
In Sao Paulo, Fest joined a loose group of musicians who were revolutionizing Brazilian popular music. Along with Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luis Bonfa, Dorival Caymmi and a number of other innovators, Fest help refine the musical form known as bossa nova. “It was a team of Brazilian musicians who were really attuned to and admired jazz,” Fest explains. “We started incorporating those ideas into Brazilian rhythms, so bossa nova can be defined as the modern version of the samba, with jazz elements and improvisation and with the Brazilian grooves and syncopation.”
Fest made a series of classic trio recordings in Sao Paulo between 1961 and 1966 that demonstrated how flexible and inventive the bossa nova form could be. Drawn to the United States by his passion for jazz, Fest immigrated to Minneapolis in 1967, his path paved by disc jockey Herb Schoenbohm. “I always had the dream to come here and have the opportunity to learn more about jazz and if possible to develop a career here,” Fest says.
After a year in Minneapolis, Fest moved to Los Angeles where he joined Sergio Mendes in his popular band Brazill 66. Fest also served as keyboardist and arranger for the group Bossa Rio, which opened concerts for Mendes. Between the two groups, Fest toured the world spreading the bossa nova gospel. But after two years on the road, he decided to spend more time with his family and moved back to Minneapolis, working regularly in local clubs. In 1973, Fest relocated to Chicago, and became a fixture on the vibrant Windy City music scene. Eventually, the Fest family settled in Palm Harbor on Florida’s west coast where there’s a huge audience for Latin American jazz and a climate similar to Brazil’s.
Fest has always taken disparate tunes and made them his own with his highly personal synthesis of jazz harmonies and improvisation and the rhythms and lilting melodic sensibility of his native Brazil. Whether playing jazz standards, or Brazilian classics, Fest embraces and transforms the music with his unique sound. “I try to balance between Brazilian flavor, but I try to keep the integrity of the tunes as much as possible,” Fest explains. Amozonas may be the best example of Manfredo Fest’s music.