Horse and Fish
At first much of Horse and Fish, Vinicius Cantuária’s fifth studio album, would seem to be analogous to pale wallpaper: inoffensive, tame, barely noticeable, not so much music as it is part of the décor. Hence the superficial parallels between this and the sonic ambience being pumped into the downtown Starbucks or countless franchised nightclubs, the stuff scientifically formulated to make patrons feel at once cosmopolitan, sophisticated and mellow, profoundly comfortable but very cutting-edge.
There is, however, quite a lot running under that reserved surface — probably more than even sensitive listeners can take in at once. Cantuária’s self-stated modus operandi is to blend the electro-lounge sound with traditional bossa nova. It’s the standard “turn the old into new” approach cited by about ninety percent of contemporary musicians, an artistic philosophy which itself is now so old and tired that it is in desperate need of some new life. All the same, Cantuária carries this out admirably, using ones and zeroes in the most sensual and refined way possible. His own chart “Quase Choro” is acoustic guitar, Cantuária’s hushed vocals and sparing percussion, all of which is accentuated by the slightly dissonant burbles and sighs of the cuíca. With an electronic nudge, the vocals occasionally shimmer; the cuíca takes on a muted quality. It retains the essence of the most poignant bossa nova — the poetic longing, the saudade — and never once stumbles into the contrivance or triteness of the rest of the lounge genre.
In addition to the six original tracks penned by Cantuária himself (and the occasional songwriting partner), there are four covers, Gilberto Gil’s “Procissão,” “O Barquinho” by Roberto Menescal and Ronaldo Bôscoli, and two Antonio Carlos Jobim charts, “Este Seu Olhar” and “Ligia.” Justification of covers such as these comes when an artist improves upon the original, perhaps drawing out some overlooked musical thread or ridding a song of its more anachronistic qualities. Take, for example, the Jawbox rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Or Minor Threat’s “Stepping Stone.” Or the infinite versions of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight.” The problem, if one can call it that, with the jazz bossa nova of Gil and Jobim is that it still sounds as fresh as ever, thereby making anachronisms difficult to spot; and their own performances of this music are so nuanced, so delicate and rich, that finding a new musical angle — especially finding one for the sake of “contemporification” — risks destroying the timeless qualities of the original, a pejoration from eternal into ephemeral. But Cantuária takes each composition and distils it to some fundamental emotion and chord progression, then builds on that core in his characteristically minimalist style. Thus the first Jobim song becomes a more shadowy version of itself, not a fawning attempt at homage using more modern studio equipment. The Gil chart is something of a beautiful paradox: wholly familiar but wholly transformed.
At best, Cantuária’s latest album will introduce the electronic generation to the progenitors of jazz bossa nova like Bôscoli, Jobim, Gil and João and Astrud Gilberto, and it will firmly establish the musician himself as one of their most unique and noteworthy successors. At worst, it will soothe a roomful of coffee drinkers or tipsy socialites. Of these two possible outcomes, we should all hope for the first.
Bar None Records: www.bar-none.com