Guitarist Nate Najar Re-Imagines Seminal Bossa Nova Album
Jazz Samba Pra Sempre Pays Homage to 1962 Charlie Byrd/Stan Getz Recording
It has been 60 years since the release of Jazz Samba, the 1962 landmark album by Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz that launched bossa nova in the United States and predated the best-selling Getz/Gilberto by two years. With Jazz Samba Pra Sempre (Jazz Samba Forever), guitarist Nate Najar pays homage to that groundbreaking album with a “reimagining” of those iconic seven tunes. Playing Charlie Byrd’s own instrument (a gorgeous-sounding 1974 Ramirez 1A nylon string classical guitar), Najar is joined by tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert, bassist Herman Burney (playing Keter Betts’ bass played on the original Jazz Samba), keyboardist Patrick Bettison on Fender Rhodes electric piano and drummer Chuck Redd (previously of the Charlie Byrd Trio). Brazilian vocalist Daniela Soledade guests on two tracks, Joao Gilberto’s classic “O Pato" and Ary Barroso’s “É Luxo Só.” The results are as dreamy as they are exhilarating.
Najar’s latest and 14th overall recording as a leader comes 10 years after his previous tribute album, Blues for Night People: The Nate Najar Trio Remembers Charlie Byrd. “When I first heard Charlie’s records, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” said the native of St. Petersburg, Florida. “I loved his sound. It was something that was really special to me. There was just this elegant simplicity in his playing; it always seemed like just the right way to do it.”
Nate was turned on to Byrd’s music through his teacher Frank Mullen, a Washington D.C. guitarist who like Byrd had studied with the internationally renowned classical guitar pedagogue Sophocles Papas. “The reason that Frank Mullen ended up in Florida was because in the early ‘70s Charlie had this idea to open a bunch of Charlie Byrd music stores all around the country. And so Frank came Florida to run the St. Petersburg branch. Frank used to talk about Charlie, and he talked about Blues Alley and the whole D.C. scene. And by the time I was 20 or 21, I started to go up there to check it out. I was trying to be Charlie Byrd.” Years later, Najar would get the stamp of approval from no less than Byrd’s widow, Becky Bird, who said, “There is no doubt that there is a piece of Charlie’s soul in Nate’s mind, heart and fingers.”
On one of his pilgrimages to Washington D.C., Najar met drummer and vibraphonist Chuck Redd. “To me, he was the kid who played with Charlie Byrd,” he explained. “Chuck was in his early 40s when I met him but on all those records that I had he was in his early 20s. He was the young guy who played in Charlie’s trio. So I hooked up with him in D.C.” (Redd went on to play on 2006’s Swinging with the Nate Najar Quartet and I’m All Smiles, 2007’s Christmas with the Nate Najar Trio, 2012’s Blues for Night People: The Nate Najar Trio Remembers Charlie Byrd, 2014’s Aquarela do Brasil and 2018’s Under Paris Skies).
In recreating the timeless chemistry between Byrd and Getz on Jazz Samba, Najar found the perfect complement in tenor saxophonist Jeff Rupert, whose warm, appealing tone and fluid improvisations play a key role on Jazz Samba Pra Sempre. “Jeff is just very simpatico. He’s a guy who really plays what is happening. He doesn’t play what he wants to make happen, he plays in the moment. So it’s really a joy to be on the bandstand with him.”
The two exhibit an easy rapport with their conversational call-and-response on tunes like Byrd’s “Samba Dees Days,” Baden Powell’s “Samba Triste” and their relaxed take on Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba.” Rupert’s Getzian tenor comes to the fore on Jobim’s “Desafinado” and he brilliantly shadows Soledade’s alluring vocals on a dreamy “O Pato” then doubles her wordless lines on an ebullient “É Luxo Só” before breaking loose for a showstopping solo. “Jeff really nailed it on that solo,” said Najar. “It was like a racehorse coming out of the gate. It was Seabiscuit. It was Man o’ War. I mean, he just came out with ‘it.’”
The use of ‘70s-sounding Fender Rhodes electric piano by multi-instrumentalist Bettison on several tunes here is just one of the ways that Najar sought to distinguish his take on Jazz Samba from the iconic original. “I thought about having a second guitar but I really love the sound of the Rhodes and how it blends with the guitar,” he explained. “And I particularly love the way that Patrick plays because he’s a completely reactive guy. He never plays anything to call attention to himself. He listens to what’s happening and he participates accordingly. And so you just get this little extra padding that’s extremely supportive and colorful. And then on top of that, having the Rhodes gives it a little bit of a contemporary sound. So that was a way to kind of change the aesthetic a bit and at the same time achieve what I was trying to achieve — making a record that shows my love and appreciation for what this music has done for me while paying tribute to it with my own voice. So you hear the aesthetic of what we’re presenting, but it’s not a copy.”
For example, while Getz and Byrd play “Samba Triste” at a languid, slow bossa nova tempo, Najar’s arrangement opens on a melancholy note then shifts to a brisk tempo, incorporating some intricate counterpoint passages between guitar and sax along the way. “That’s really a tip of the hat to Baden Powell,” he explained. “Baden had this thing he worked out between himself and the bass player where they did this whole fugue-like thing that was just really hip. And I said, ‘I want to do that.’ But I didn’t want to do the tune slow like Charlie and Stan did it. I wanted to do it a little hot and exciting and let some things happen.”
The collection closes on an introspective note with a stark solo guitar interpretation of Ary Barroso’s “Na Baixa do Sapateiro” accompanied only by percussion. Said Najar, “That’s a nod to João Gilberto’s version (on his 1973 self-titled album, nicknamed “The White Album”), where the whole thing is just him and percussionist Sonny Carr. And on that record he plays ‘Na Baixa do Sapateiro’ as an instrumental solo. I didn’t play his arrangement, I just used the concept of it and played my arrangement of it. That’s my homage to João.”
He added, “There were certain places on this record where I wanted you to really feel the aesthetic of the original and there are certain places where I wanted to be sure to depart from it. ‘One Note Samba,’ ‘Samba Dees Days’ and ‘Desafinado’ are most like the original record, but they’re still different in enough ways to be us playing it.”
Recorded on August 25th and 26th of 2021 at Najar’s studio in Largo, Florida, Jazz Samba Pra Sempre is a joyful salute to a bossa nova classic. “We really had a ball making this record,” said the accomplished fingerstyle guitarist. “It was one of the most joyous and easiest times I’ve had making a jazz record. It was two days of just, ‘This is what we’re all here to do.’ And man, what a good time we had.”
Jazz Samba Pra Sempre, scheduled for a May 13 release, also features distinctive cover artwork by Puerto Rican abstract expressionist painter Olga Albizu, whose vibrant and colorful work appeared on albums by Stan Getz, including Jazz Samba, Jazz Samba Encore!, Getz/Gilberto, Getz/Gilberto Vol.2 and Big Band Bossa Nova, as well as Bill Evans’ Trio ’64.