Nilson Matta – Samba Meets Jazz and more.

Written by | Featured Interviews, Interviews, News

Recently we published a news item alerting our readers that in April this year, the Samba Meets Jazz Workshops, directed by Brazilian-born, Nilson Matta (bassist for, Trio da Paz, Yo Yo Ma and Luis Bonfa) will be returning to Europe after a two year pandemic enforced pause. The workshops offer students a week-long immersion into the world of Brazilian music and dance. The coming workshops will take place from April 17 to 21 at the Paulushuis in the Belguim city of Ghent and joining the faculty for this year’s workshops will be renown  jazz guitarist and pedagogue Jeanfrançois Prins, tenor sax player John Snauwaert and the internationally acclaimed Tap Dancer and choreographer Felipe Galganni.

With this in mind, I was fascinated to find out more about this event and how Tap Dance fits into the curriculum and reached out to Nilson and find our more. Also while preparing this piece I previously had the opportunity to speak with Felipe Galganni to shed some light on this from his perspective.

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.

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 several Albums on Motema Music as well as 5 albums with his trio “Trio Da Paz”.

Andrew Read: Hi Nilson, thanks some much for taking the time to speak with me. Can you tell us a little about Samba Meets Jazz Workshops and what the line-up will be this time around?

Nilson Matta: The Samba Meets Jazz workshops is constantly evolving in terms of looking for new ways to teach the participants (students). This time the faculty will be guitarist Jeanfrançois Prins, tenor player John Snauwaert, Tap dancer Felipe Galganni and myself teaching Brazilian music, percussion, dance and ensemble classes.

Over the last 2 years, we’ve added Tap Dance into our program, as well as percussion and batucada ensembles. Each year updating the curriculum for them to better improve their knowledge of music, in this case, Jazz, Brazilian Music, Afro Cuban Music, World rhythms, harmony and jazz improvisation. That is our goal each year at our Camps; Bar Harbor-Maine (U.S.A.) and our overseas program that we have been presenting in Brazil and Europe so far.

Nilson Matta – Samba Meets Jazz

AR: The last time Samba Meets Jazz workshop were in Europe was in Sicily. The following edition was planed for Paris but was cancelled due to the pandemic. Now that you’re back, what prompted the choice for Ghent as the location of this year’s event?

NM: Sicily was the second time SMJ was in Italy, the first time was in Ferrara in 2017. So, with that in mind we then decided do another one in Italy and this time in Palermo in Sicily as our regular participants loved Italy and Sicily has its own culture. It was just a great time over there teaching and playing with the students at our final concert. We did have a workshop planed for Paris in 2020 but this edition had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. This year it was Alice Schiller’s, SMJ’s executive producer’s idea to present the workshops in Ghent. We can’t wait to be in Belgium this time around teaching and enjoying the beautiful city with the students. The great thing is that most of the students also see Samba Meets Jazz is a vacation!

AR: I see the Brazilian Tap Dancer Felipe Galganni will also be on the faculty. Can you speak a little about the Tap program and how Tap fits into the program overall?

NM: Felipe, was also going to join the faculty for the Paris edition so we’re thrilled that he’ll also join us in Belgium. Felipe is from Brasil and he is living in New York City. One of our students mentioned she had been taking tap dance and Alice, Luisa Matta (my wife) and I thought it would be an interesting idea to have an expert tap dancer (Felipe Galganni, who knows Brazilian rhythms), join the program. It couldn’t fit better as far as we are concerned. Felipe teaches different Brazilian styles of rhythms and Jazz tap so the tapers will have the opportunity to learn new techniques and dance while being accompanied by our teachers under Felipe’s choreography.

Felipe Galganni Photo by Caio Gallucci

AR: In early 2020 I had the chance to speak with Filipe in the lead up to the Paris workshops. With Filipe returning for the Ghent workshops, I revisited my previous interview. The first question I had asked Filipe was; “For most Europeans, Tap Dance would not be a genre that you would immediately associate with Brazil. I asked Felipe How Tap fits in with the traditional Brazilian genres, if at all?”

Felipe Galganni: Tap Dance as the African American art form that we know does not fit in any of the traditional Brazilian dance genres—it’s technique and history are very specific. In Brazil, we have some very popular dances, like Coco in the northeast of Brazil and Xula in the south, which are percussive dances, and that’s the closest connection you will get with American tap dance.

AR: In 2018 you were awarded the Machado de Assis medal for your work fusing tap dance with bossa nova and other Brazilian rhythms. Can you elaborate on this fusion?

FG: My father was a bass player and my sister is a multi-instrumentalist. I was always surrounded by a lot of Brazilian music throughout my childhood. When I started tap dancing I immediately started dancing to Brazilian music and playing Brazilian rhythms with it. Tap Dance is a really fun dance and instrument because you can tap dance to anything. I did my own fusion because that’s what felt was right for me as a way to express as a choreographer and creator. I love tap dancing to bossa nova, it’s my favourite music to dance to.

AR: Back to Nilson: “I’ve seen that a few years back, Felipe joined you at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at the Lincoln Center for your Brazilian Voyage program. Was that the first time you two have worked together?

NM: Yes, every year I perform with my band, “Nilson Matta’s Brazilian Voyage” at the amazing jazz club in New York, Dizzy’s Club – Jazz At Lincoln Center. That year Luisa gave me the idea to bring Felipe to dance with our band. The results were fantastic and our audience had an awesome time, it came as a great surprise for them.

AR: I bet! Can you tell us a little about the music of the Brazilian Voyage program and will you be touching on this music during the coming workshops in Ghent?

NM: This band doesn’t have fixed personnel. The repertory and the arrangements are the main things. I always have different musicians that understand improvisation and our Brazilian style who always deliver spectacular results. I always explore different composers from different regions of Brazil. As far as the music that we will teach at SMJ, my work is always connected, so the students will get a chance to learn some of the music performed by my Brazilian Voyage. Ghent is going to be great this year and we’re always taking on new students. It’s open to anyone, beginner or not, basically it’s for anyone who wants to learn about Brazilian, Jazz, Vocal and Tap music.

AR: Returning to my interview with Filipe, I asked him if he could tell us what tap dance participants can expect?

FG: Our tap participants will have time to work on their technique and approach me at the beginning of every workday. They will have the unique experience to take classes with Nilson Matta and the rest of the faculty, where together we will be developing new work with live music for our showcase. We will also work on improvisation where tap dancers will be given the opportunities to express and explore their identity and rhythm in a relaxed dynamic environment. So basically lots of fun!

AR: Can you tell us a little about your early days in Brazil and how you became involved in Tap Dancing?

FG: I started taking jazz dance classes when I was around 10 years old and always loved dancing around my family and in school events. When I was around 12 years old my mother showed me a video of Gene Kelly tap dancing, and, from that moment, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Tap dance classes were not very popular in São Paulo at that time, so it took me a few years to find the right opportunity. I was 15 years old when I started and haven’t stopped since.

AR: What brought you to New York?

FG: Tap Dance. I was looking for a very specific approach that I wasn’t finding in Brazil. The people I was interested in working with were all in New York. I sold the car I had and moved to the United States. It was a very challenging beginning as I didn’t think things through. But, I figured things out, studied, got the opportunities I wanted and made wonderful friends in the process. This year is my 10th anniversary living in New York.


AR: Back to Nilson: 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 within 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: That’s so well put. I’d like to go back quite a few years and speak about one of the projects you did that caught my attention. 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: Thanks Nilson  for taking the time, I’m sure the Ghent workshops will be great and hopefully we’ll get to see your Brazilian Voyage project here on stage in Europe in the near future.

If you’re looking to spend a week immersing yourself in Brazilian music the Samba Meets Jazz workshops will take place from April 17 to 21 at the Paulishuis in the Belgium city of Ghent. Special rates have been set for European participants and college students, educators and working musicians are eligible for discounts.

Full details on the complete faculty and prices can be found on the Samba Meets Jazz Workshop website here.

Last modified: February 28, 2023