God bless John Zorn. The guy knows his Ornette Coleman, his klezmer and his Napalm Death metal. He also knows Cyro Baptista.
I had the good fortune to hear Zorn’s Electric Masada at Tonic, and they ripped my goddamned ears out. Masada is a downtown supergroup with a rotating cast of jazz thugs, led by the man himself with trumpeter Dave Douglas. Their style is not the exotic blend of free jazz and hardcore that made up Naked City, Zorn’s rock band. It’s more like a meeting between hot post-bop and traditional Israeli music.
The alternate “Electric” incarnation of the band has a more rock-oriented sound, featuring organist John Medeski (Phishheads be damned, he’s a gifted instrumentalist). Also present is the king of Lower East Side Guitar, Honorary Cuban Marc Ribot. The whole band is loud as hell and incredibly precise, but the most interesting part of the mix was the bizarre percussion sounds Cyro Baptista kept pulling out from behind the curtain. A Brazilian import, he’s survived a long and exotic career backing stars from Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson and Herbie Hancock to Sting, Paul Simon and Robert Palmer. Don’t hold those last three against him; in any context Baptista holds his own as a master drummer. The man’s got to get paid.
Baptista’s first solo album, Vira Loucos, released in 1997, is a thorough pillaging of 20th-century Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos’s back catalog. Far from Starbucks “world” music, the record rubbed bizarre loops of Brazilian percussion against acoustic tension, complimented by layers of female vocal aerobics and Baptista’s own trance-like murmurs. The record only confirmed his talent as a bandleader.
And Beat the Donkey is his Masada, a gang of Brazilian natives in tribal headgear that bounces around the stage under Cyro’s direction, banging on whatever they can find. Oh, there’s also bass, drums, a Fender, a keyboard or two, and any number of guest shots, from Zorn’s saxophone to solo classical work from Ribot. The liner notes list “refrigerator,” “frog bells,” and “vacuum cleaner hose” as percussive tools, giving you some idea of the choreographed mayhem.
“Caranguejo Estrela Brilhante (The Crab and the Shining Star)” enters dangerously with backbeat-heavy drum rolls before breaking into a short lesson in tasteful Brazilian metal. Oxymoron, you say? Can’t be done? This is a flawless performance, down to the pelting of the individual guitar strings to make their distorted tones crunch just right. More harmonic vocals fill out “Sapo and the Prince” and “Cyrandeiro,” with Ribot’s nylon guitar complementing a basic South American folk melody. The music is airy and pleasant, but feels light at points.
The bells come in at “Rio de Jakarta”, and it’s frightening in spots. Baptista overlays the chimes as simple repeated melodies floating on a cavernous reverb for a sound both childlike and proficiently surreal. His melodic standard, “Ama,” and its smooth samba guitar stylings, bear the closest resemblance to old-world Brazilian pop on this album. Seemingly spontaneous percussion workouts dominate almost every track, projecting a hyperactive energy well beyond the confines of rigid song structure. “Tapping the Stars” and “Anastacia” are two live drum circles which slide into each other seamlessly, weaving a relative calm before the onslaught of Zorn’s shrieking sax piece to close out “Mr. Bugaloo.”
The last track is a live number from La Plaza, location unknown, and the quality of rhythmic improvisation only makes me want to see what type of stew they can cook in a concert setting. Surely Baptista will showcase much more than tapping bongos. Despite suffering from some of the inevitable stiffness associated with the studio setting, the album is both meditative and aggressive, but never lazy. Excellent.