When guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria moved from Rio de Janeiro to New York City in the fall of 1994, he was entranced by the diversity of dialects, music and other emblems of culture he encountered just walking down the street from his Brooklyn apartment.
Among Spanish-speaking peoples alone there were Cubans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Venezuelans, not to mention Brazilians such as himself. The polyglot experience was a creative elixir for a singer/songwriter in his early 40s who had always spun hybrids, from his native bossa nova to the American folk-rock of Crosby, Stills and Nash and on into jazz. More than 16 years later, his voice is charged with excitement at the memory.
"It made me realize how big is America and how open to other cultures it is," said Cantuaria, speaking by phone from New York. "And I wanted to put that in this music."
He is talking about "Lagrimas Mexicanas," a duet recording with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell released last month. The two will perform its songs, and others from their sporadic collaborations over the years, Tuesday at the Cedar Cultural Center.
Cantuaria says the album's lyrics are all "about love, but not so much like 'I love you, you love me.' It might be the love of immigrants coming to the big city and finding a way to leave their family, to help their family, how brave and strong that is. And there is the love of this country, America, taking them in and accepting them."
A fertile partnership
The two guitarists have played together in a variety of live settings since 1998, when Cantuaria, through mutual friends, enlisted Frisell to play on his disc "Tucuma." He returned the favor when Frisell recorded "The Intercontinentals" four years later. It was then that Cantuaria knew he had the right partner to capture the spirit he felt upon his arrival in New York.
It is an inspired and natural pairing. Cantuaria and the man he calls "Beel" have complementary sensibilities, especially a curiosity about the ways that music shapes cultural history. Frisell has frequently strayed from "straight" jazz into various strains of Americana, including bluegrass and vintage Nashville country. On "The Intercontinentals," he broadened his explorations to folk music from other countries.
The consonance of the two men goes beyond taste and intellect, into the texture of the music itself. Frisell's idiosyncratic style features a quavering, yawning tonality, often interspersed with tape loops and gentle sound effects and filigreed picking. The ambience is both panoramic and fragile -- similar to the lapping tidal grooves of some of Cantuaria's discs, which mate bossa nova with soft electronica music, and ideal for what he envisioned in "Lagrimas Mexicanas" ("Mexican Tears").
After years of postponing their good intentions, Cantuaria finally went to Frisell's hometown of Seattle last year, armed with the skeletons of songs and mostly completed lyrics. They knocked it out in a single week, with Cantuaria adding his gorgeous, soothing vocals (in Spanish, Portuguese and English) later.
"I always think it goes great when I play with Bill, but this time something really happened," Cantuaria said happily. "My original ideas are there of course, and what Bill was doing was not surprising, but I am still thinking, 'Omigod, this is really good; we don't need to change anything.'"
New York Times critic Jon Pareles once praised Cantuaria as being "confident enough to choose understatement," a quality that makes sense when you consider that his early heroes included Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bill Evans and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Two months shy of his 60th birthday, he and Frisell have created a collection of fascinating, intimate songs woven with restraint, remarkable for the potency of their understatement.
The live show eschews some of the percussion used in the studio (although they aren't averse to tapping on the wood of their guitars), furthering the intimacy. Cantuaria reports that the response to a recent European tour was very positive.
"Bill is very good at making something gentle and beautiful," he said modestly. (Cantuaria's vocals embody those virtues more than either Frisell's or his own instrumental work.) "This is not meant to be 'boom boom,' but very relaxed. And it is."