Nilson Matta – A Brazilian in New York

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Nilson Matta has long been considered one of the top bass players on the scene today and since his arrival in New York in 1985, he has become the first-call bassist for many renowned US musicians. Born in São Paulo, Matta studied bass at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro with Sandrino Santoro, Brazil’s premier classical bass player. At an incredibly young age, Matta was already recognized as one of Brazil’s most impressive bass players, and while living in Brazil he played with such luminaries as João Gilberto, Hermeto Pascoal, Roberto Carlos, Chico Buarque de Holanda, Nana Caymmi, João Bosco, Johnny Alf, Helio Delmiro, and Luis Bonfá. Since relocating to New York, he has performed and recorded with such renowned artists as Joe Henderson, Paquito D’Rivera, Slide Hampton, Herbie Mann, Mark Murphy, Oscar Castro-Neves, Don Friedman, Paul Winter, Gato Barbieri, and many others.

From 1995 through 1998, Matta worked extensively with saxophonist Joe Henderson, playing a vital role in the recording of Joe Henderson Big Band, which took home a Grammy® for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance in 1998. When Yo-Yo Ma went looking for band members to fill out his new Brazilian project, Matta was the obvious choice on bass. He recorded Obrigado Brazil and Obrigado Brazil – Live in Concert with Yo-Yo Ma, both of which were also Grammy® winners. These albums prompted a worldwide tour that lasted for two years and which touched every corner of the globe. Matta also joined forces with Yo-Yo Ma on Songs of Joy & Peace in 2008.

As a leader, Nilson has released a number of Albums on Motema Music as well as 5 albums with his trio “Trio Da Paz”. Recently we hear that Nilson will be leading the faculty at the Samba Meets Jazz Workshops later this month in Palermo Italy. Reason enough to take the time to speak with Nilson to find out more.

Andrew Read: Hi Nilson, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I’d like to start by asking you a little about your background. I believe as a young child in São Paulo you were introduced to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim by your father and in particular the music from the soundtrack Black Orpheus. Your last album on Motema was also titled “Nilson Matta’s Black Orpheus” – can you tell us more about how this early influence lead to the album?

Nilson Matta: Before Black Orpheus (composed by the great Jobim for the Play Orfeu Da Conceição in 1956), and in fact since the 1920s Brazilian Music has been played intensely on the radio. So back in the 50s, I would listen to this music with my parents. My mother was an amateur classical pianist and my father was crazy about all kinds of styles; American music, Mambos from Cuba and of course, Brazilian music. Also, my brother Andre Matta was a band leader at the time playing the drums.

By 1957 I had fallen in love with Jobim’s compositions, especially the Overture of Black Orpheus. That’s why I decided to record the album, released on Motema. The album was entirely based around compositions from the stage play from 1956 and also from the 1958 movie ‘Black Orpheus’. It was a Dream Come True!

AR: Motema described the album as a “jazz-flavoured re-imagining of the music from both Orfeu da Conceição and Black Orpheus.” I also believe you said about the process “In thinking about recording this music, I had to first consider the Brazilian rhythms that are so important to the movie’s Carnival setting.” how did you go about choosing the line-up for the album.

NM: The film’s subject is about a carnival love affair combined with the Greek tragedy of Eurydice and Orpheus. That is why I decided to have 3 great Brazilian percussionists and 2 drummers. Plus I also invited American musicians that I knew loved Brazilian music very much, like jazz pianist Kenny Barron, clarinet player Anat Cohen, Randy Brecker and singer Gretchen Parlato and they fit perfectly with all the Brazilians involved on the album.

AR: While in Brazil, you notched up a long list of credits with many of the leading Brazilian artists of the time including João Gilberto, Hermeto Pascoal, Roberto Carlos, João Bosco, and of course Luis Bonfá. What impact did these artists have on your development as a bass player?

NM: One of the things I’ve learned since I started playing the bass at the age of 10 was to observe and listen to the elders and masters of their instruments. Even up to this day I feel I’m still learning, it’s an endless process. I had the privilege to work with many great and unbelievable talents from whom you can learn something new either playing or just talking about music with them.

AR: Many of the musicians you worked with in Brazil can be seen as leading exponents of the MPB (popular Brazilian music) movement. What impact do you think this movement has had on Brazilian music today?

NM: Brazilian composers like Noel Rosa, Ari Barroso, Baden Powell, Donato, Dorival Caymmi, Jobim and many others influenced the new generation of composers. You cannot compose a Brazilian song without drinking from their fountain!


AR: As a lover of Chinese food I’ve realized there is a huge difference between the westernized version and the authentic cuisine. Do you think this is also the case with Brazilian music?

NM: Brazilian music started around 300 years ago, mixing rhythms from Africa with European harmonies and Gregorian Chants. I think Brazilian composers influenced many other musical cultures and subsequently, we have been influenced by these cultures as well, especially from European classical music and North America music. Important Brazilian composers like Villa Lobos, Ari Barroso, Antônio Carlos Jobim, Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho, Noel Rosa just to mention a few maintain our music’s authenticity and syncopation rhythms. Of course, if you are not Brazilian you will always play our music at some point with an accent – just like we do when we play Jazz.

AR: You moved to New York in 1985. Can you tell us a little about your journey as a Brazilian bassist based in New New York?

NM: Again, it was another dream come true! – My wife Luisa and I decided to come to New York to spend 3 months just to see how the jazz music scene was.

My friends, drummers Duduka Da Fonseca and Guilherme Franco, were already living in New York and as soon as I arrived they started calling me for gigs. At the time I had to tell them that I didn’t even have a bass so it ended up that I went to a music store and bought a 65 fender electric bass. So along with guitarist Romero Lubambo, who decided to come with us to America, and Duduka on drums we started to play for fun. I called the three of us “Trio Da Paz”, and the trio is in action till today! At the same time, my friend Guilherme introduced me to a sax player Gato Barbieri and I joined Gato’s band travelling all over the world.

More opportunities came to record and tour with jazz players like Don Pullen, Herbie Mann, Joe Henderson, Paul Winter, Mark Murphy and many others. I love living in America, it’s here where my son Victor was born 28 years ago and I met Alice Schiller my dear friend and business partner in our Samba Meets Jazz Workshops.

Luisa and I are now living in a nice house where we have lots of fun with our friends. Of course, I always return to Brazil to recharge my batteries!

AR: In the early 2000’s you collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma on his “Obrigado Brazil” and “Obrigado Brazil – Live in Carnegie Hall Concert” with Yo-Yo Ma, both of which were Grammy winners. This also led to a number of international tours. Can you tell us a little about this project and how the collaboration came about?

NM: I admire Yo-Yo Ma, not only because he is one of the greatest cello players of all time but because he is an incredible human being. My connection with Yo-Yo Ma began when Sony records put together a Brazilian project CD for Yo-Yo Ma. They titled it “Obrigado Brazil”. Sony’s manager called me to play the bass, I didn’t know what we would record until I got into the studio, and  I met Yo-Yo for the first time. Maestro Jorge Calandrelli gave me the music and we recorded the first song that had a bunch of guests, Paquito D’Rivera, Rosa Passos, Oscar Castro Neves and percussionists from Brasil that the great Ciro Batista put together.

When we finished recording that day Yo-Yo Ma came to me and said, it was a pleasure to play with you” I replied, “I am the one that is supposed to say that to you” we both laughed and within days I was invited to do a two year world tour with him that ended with a live recording at Carnegie Hall and another studio CD with Yo-Yo!

I remember when we were in Tokyo we recorded a live TV Show and he said that the bass was the instrument he would like to play, right away I said: “thank god he plays the cello otherwise I wouldn’t be here!”


AR: After moving to New York City, you co-founded the project “The African Brazilian Connection” with pianist Don Pullen releasing three albums on Blue Note Records. You then went on to form “Trio Da Paz” with Romero Lubambo and Duduka da Fonseca also producing a number of renowned recordings. The last Trio Da Paz album came in 2016, can we expect another release from the group in the near future?

NM: Trio Da Paz came before everything else. The music scene started to talk about us and musicians, promoters and managers loved the way we were playing. When Romero, Duduka and myself, play we still sound fresh today as when we started 33 ago!

Soon, we will be recording another CD,  planning on its release towards the end of the year. We keep the trio going because we love to play together and that is why the trio is still a success today and I believe this is going to be forever!

AR: This coming April you will be leading the faculty for the Samba Meets Jazz workshop in Palermo Italy. The workshop offers a 5-day vocal and instrumental workshop for adults of all levels and musical backgrounds. What can participants expect to get out of this workshop?

NM: Samba Meets Jazz has the power of attracting music students from different cultures, countries that don’t play Brazilian, Afro Cuban or Jazz and they come to us very hungry to learn. I love the positive energy, so that is very special to me. Our music program is, in a nice way, intense, offering classes in harmony, Jazz improvisation and ensembles classes.

We focus on Brazilian music plus rhythms from different regions of Brazil where the students have the opportunity to test their skills, this program is not only for instrumentalists but also for vocalists.

AR: Can you tell us a little about the rest of the Faculty that will take part in the workshop?

NM: In Palermo this year we will have two great teachers, Dominique Eade and Dave Stryker. Dominique is a master vocal teacher from Massachusetts New England Conservatory she has a deep understanding of vocal technique, and her classes about scatting and jazz repertory are just amazing. She has been working with us since 2016 in our summer SMJ workshops in the USA.

Guitarist Dave Stryker is another incredible teacher, he will go over improvisation, ensemble classes, voices and chordal techniques!

I will be teaching Brazilian music, repertory, samba grooving patterns and their styles, Bossa Nova, Middle and Fast Sambas, Partido Alto, Rhythms from the North of Brazil, Bai?o, Maracatú, and we will have percussion samba ensemble as well. Again, all the program is designed to benefit both vocalists and Instrumentalists.

AR: The Samba Meets Jazz Workshops have been running for many years now. There have been editions in the USA and Brazil what was behind the move to Italy?

NM: It was in 2011 when, Alice, Luisa (my wife) and I decided to bring our SMJ to Brazil for a week program. The idea brought lots of students who were interested in learning and at the same time taking some kind of vacation. It was a success and Alice decided to incorporate the overseas program. So far we’ve done Rio de Janeiro, Paraty (4 hours from Rio) Ferrara Italy, Lisbon and now Palermo Sicily.

AR: To finish off, I’d like to ask what’s next for Nilson Matta.

NM: Well, besides our SMJ summer program in the USA I will be touring with a trio called JAZZ CONNECTION with pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Rafael Barata. I am also recording a new project with duets, trios, larger ensembles, and with guests! As well as continue doing master classes and play with my, Nilson Matta’s Brazilian Voyage Band!

Last modified: April 8, 2019