Milton Nascimento reveals beauty beyond words
Legendary Brazilian singer goes where the road calls
When words fail us, we should feel grateful. It should be a goal, really: to experience something so sublime that language falls away, unsatisfying in its descriptive powers. It's rare and to be cherished. As a global phenomenon, legendary Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento has transcended language for five decades, commanding listeners regardless of their native tongue.
"What I usually say is, 'I go wherever people call me,'" says Nascimento. "I feel very happy for receiving any kind of invitation, without any distinction. I really care about people, and that is what makes me happy."
This sort of humility, to say nothing of humanity, fully imbues Nascimento's voice. His agile tenor has enraptured audiences at every stretch of the stylistic spectrum. Pop crowds have fallen in love with his voice for its seductive, communicative power, whereas serious jazz musicians have recognized Nascimento as possessing an unparalleled prowess. His composition skills are not unworthy of attention, but his voice is the bright star around which his musical universe is organized.
Born in 1942, Nascimento grew up in the city of Três Pontas, where his adopted parents provided him with a key to his future. He was given the run of the radio station where his father worked, hosting his own show as a teenager. "My program was called 'You Request the Song,' but I was the one in charge of choosing the songs," he recalls.
In this grabbing of the reins, Nascimento is not so different from your typical college radio DJ. "I was very lucky; all my music background comes from that time. Before I started my career as a crooner, at the age of 13, I had already listened to music from all over the world, because of that job on the radio. It was a crucial phase in my life."
By the time he was beginning his career as an artist, he'd already accomplished a lifetime's worth of crate digging and discovery. This exploration naturally led to his first success as an artist, the now-legendary album Clube da Esquina. Written in collaboration with the artist collective of the same name, this 1972 album combined rock, jazz, Latin folk, bossa nova, and other genres into an unpredictable but wholly listenable product. The quirky harmony of "Tudo Que Você Podia Ser," the Robert Wyatt-esque piano of "Cais," and the expansive melodic reach of "San Vicente" each offered a spin through the eclectic mental/musical recall of Nascimento and his partners.
Clube da Esquina established itself as a force working alongside but not in direct connection with the Tropicalia movement, perhaps de-emphasizing the psychedelic in favor of a populist lushness. Again, Nascimento's voice played a starring role in the proceedings. As Damon & Naomi's Damon Krukowski once wrote: "if Tom Zé is Brazil's Frank Zappa, Milton Nascimento is its Tim Buckley."
Shortly thereafter, he began to encounter what would become a seemingly endless line of enthusiastic foreign fans-turned-collaborators, starting with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. "I had just recorded Clube da Esquina and was in concert season in Rio when Wayne came to Brazil to play with Weather Report," Nascimento says. "He asked someone to find me but then his wife, Ana Maria, heard about my concert on the news. What happened then was that he started making his concert shorter so he could watch mine. That way we became friends, and in 1974, he invited me to record Native Dancer."
To hear even the first few seconds of Native Dancer (an album whose jacket reads, "Wayne Shorter ... featuring Milton Nascimento") is to fall in love with this wonderful, singular voice. Shorter's lyrical soprano saxophone fits into the same frequency range as Nascimento's opening falsetto, and the two sounds seem to compete for which can be the easier on the ears. While working on Native Dancer Nascimento encountered Herbie Hancock, and the two began a lifelong musical partnership that continues to this day. "The last time I was with Herbie was during International Jazz Day in Istanbul, 2012, and it was a wonderful opportunity," says Nascimento. "I played at a 1,600-year-old church accompanied by Wayne Shorter, Herbie, and Esperanza Spalding. I love Herbie, and I am ready for whatever it is that he invites me to."
Moving beyond language isn't only of use when communicating with audiences or other artists. It's also a useful tool when the written or spoken word is considered dangerous. On 1973's Milagre dos Peixes, Nascimento and his Clube da Esquina bandmates released a collection of largely instrumental or wordless compositions rather than be compelled by Brazil's unfriendly government to alter their protest-heavy lyrics. Still, that was a long time ago, and Nascimento regards the era through a humble lens. "Despite the military dictatorship, I have many good memories, above all, from the friendships I had back then," he says. "It was a very significant period in my life, which I miss a lot."
His interest in issues facing Brazil, however, hasn't faded. "Nowadays, the issue that concerns me the most is the situation with the indigenous people in Brazil," he says. "It is a very dramatic subject, especially in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, where indigenous nations are being destroyed due to the lack of attention to their lands. However ... this happens pretty much all over Brazil. At the same time other countries, as well as the UN, should pay more attention to this situation."
Although Nascimento's half-century in music has yielded four Grammys, about 40 solo albums, and countless tours the world over, this visit marks his first-ever appearance in Atlanta. "I have always cared a lot for what I do, so I consider everything I have done within these 50 years on the road something very special," he says. "Very special," in this context, is a true understatement. As with the best things in life, words fail us once again.