Self-portrait of a drummer who believes that creativity is gone
Few Jazz musicians have had the opportunity to live and perform throughout the many different eras of New York’s music scene. Portinho is one of them. If you´ve heard the repertoires of real Brazilian jazz – and by real I mean good – you have undoubtedly heard Portinho swinging on the drums. If you’ve heard many great jazz recordings, you have surely heard his playing. Portinho has collaborated with artists such as Astrud Gilberto, Michel Camilo, Airto Moreira, Lenny Andrade, Michel Legrand, Michael Brecker, Gato Barbieri, Harry Belafonte, Claudio Roditi, Dom Salvador, Paquito D’ Rivera and a very long list of well-known and not so well-known musicians. He has recorded dozens of records, but it was only about ten years ago that he finally went into the studio with his trio.
Portinho, a Gemini – who loves to remind you he is a Gemini –, was born in the Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and moved to New York in the early 70’s, where he remains. “Simultaneously subtle and propulsive, Portinho fuses traditional samba rhythms with straight-ahead masterfully, but he’s not one to step on toes,” wrote music journalist Jeff Tamarkin for JazzTimes, in 2008. And I would add that the most delightful thing about listening to him is that even when you believe you know where he is going – as he is always in the right place –, he will surprise you and turn into a place you never expected to be, or you’ve never been before. As only good drummers can do, Portinho gets to you emotionally.
He is a highly emotional being; a man of robust and strong opinions that, most of the time, he expresses with fury and a boyish innocence that leads people to misunderstand him. But he is not conscious of this, and therefore he preserves a very natural – somehow tender way of sharing his thoughts out loud. He is honest, it’s as simple as that: honest, but unfortunately, honesty is something most of humanity can not appreciate; and Portinho is really bad at faking what he is not.
Like his playing, his expressions have statements and infectious grooves. Like his playing, his way of talking is very captivating. He swings when he talks, he swings – even – when he walks. Portinho is a man of music and jokes. A man who laughs at himself as much as he laughs at Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry, his favorite comedy shows. Portinho is a man who likes to make people laugh and who will repeat a joke as many times as necessary or until you burst into laughter – or get the joke! Portinho is a man of cultivated taste, except for Captain Morgan with Coke (nobody is perfect!); he loves German and Portuguese food. He is a man who likes dogs and not cats; loves Japanese and idolizes New York. Portinho is a modest man with enormous and attentive eyes that constantly look at yours. Portinho is a thin, smiley, a very small but big man with a soulful and contagious vigor.
One winter night, we were walking to the Subway station after a gig, when Portinho suddenly stopped at the corner of 49th Street and 8th Avenue and proclaimed, “This is the coldest corner of New York.” I looked at him and found myself thinking that he might be right. I’m telling you; he is a man of strong and contagious opinions. No matter how strange they might seem, it is not difficult to believe him – or, at least, he makes you doubt.
The afternoon we met to have the conversation, which is where this monolog came from, Portinho was wearing his usual jeans and black cap. While we walked to Cafe Reggio, in the heart of the West Village, he pointed out a few places – pubs or funky spots – that used to be jazz clubs where Brazilian music was once presented. “Not anymore,” he repeated, “Not anymore.”
As we were about to start our talk, Portinho recalled an encounter with a journalist in Brazil: “You know, before I played with Gato Barberi, nobody interviewed me. They didn’t know I existed. Then, I happened to be in Brazil when this young lady reached me and asked to meet up. The conversation had just begun when she asked, “Portinho, how much money do you make with Gato?” So I said, “This is done, get out, the conversation is over.” And she left. Sometimes, the journalists are gossip mongers, and they want to know too much, like the brand of the soap you use. No, no, no. I don’t like that, and I don’t like people who ask so many questions.
As I am about to do? I asked. He laughed. “Yes, I will try to bear it,” he said and laughed again.