Tom Zé: Estudando A Bossa [Nordeste Plaza]

Combing through hundreds of old Brazilian tracks unexpectedly ignited my passion for Tom Zé. In fact, riding the zeitgeist like a slack-jawed surfer, I had caught the first wave of enthusiasm for Zé which coalesced around the rediscovery of the Tropicalia movement. I dutifully picked up the Luaka Bop "Brazil Classics 4" compilation but can't have properly engaged with it - listening back the material is good, but it unnecessarily butchers Zé's great works. In fact I even saw Zé play with Tortoise at the Barbican in April 2001. Yeah, that was OK, a bit long-winded though I remember.

The Tropicalia connection is a red herring. Tom's first, Tropicalia LP is decidedly average. Barring the stunning "Jimmy, Renda Se" the second LP in 1970, by which time Tropicalia was receding in the rear view mirror, is only good. My guess is that come 1972's utterly divine "Se o Caso é Chorar" commercial expectations for him must have shrunk drastically. Embracing this ignominy, the hermit drive engulfed him for the darker, compulsively eccentric "Todos Os Olhos" (the cover famously features a marble placed over an asshole) in 1973 and the community woodshedding of "Estudando O Samba" in 1976. These last three I'd rate as highly as any three-run sequence of LPs in the history of recorded music. They are up there with Are You Experienced/Axis/Electric Ladyland or Tago Mago/Ege Bamyasi/Future Days or Pink Flag/Chairs Missing/154 or More Songs/Fear of Music/Remain In Light. Really.

Specifically it was hearing the menacing "" afresh which sent me on a massive tour (binge?) through Zé's discography. I listened to nineteen of his LPs and past these first five it is, while a consistently interesting body of work, perhaps disappointing. This album from 2008, however, generally lightly dismissed, is an absolute gem. The LP was pitched as Tom's study of Bossa Nova and timed "on the hook" for the fiftieth anniversary of 1958, the year that was a watershed for Brazil's status in the world with its first world cup win and the musical revolution of João Gilberto’s “Chega de Saudade”.

Tom's brutal, modern, ugly-as-beautiful music of the ensuing decades, certainly the music of Tropicalia itself, was often styled as a two-finger salute to Bossa Nova's supposedly smooth café stylings. The truth is more complex however, and certainly with regards to João Gilberto, the icon who could justifiably be described as "being" Bossa Nova. Listen to the utterly spellbinding and silently insane "Chega de Saudade" and 1973's eponymous LP (produced by Walter Carlos!) and judge for yourself. This is extremely weird and brilliantly intense music. This LP, subtitled Nordeste Plaza after a shopping mall in São Paulo called "West Plaza" which was laconically renamed by locals after it became full of migrants from the countryside, is in fact Zé's channeling of the true spirit of Gilberto.

Utterly brilliant tune after brilliant tune - it has that same lovely perceptual blurring of track from track that reminds me of listening to records like Dinosaur Jr's "You're Living All Over Me" or Talking Heads "77". Where it takes repeated listening to just discover the discrete units. OK, so the details of the meanings in Portuguese are completely lost in me but I have an ingrained fondness for Portuguese voices and that spoken language's specialised pronunciations, all those (what sounds to me like) crushed consonants and sliding vowels, especially women's voices which I find irrationally bewitching (hey, it worked for Carmen Miranda and Astrud Gilberto). Given the almost total absence of enthusiasm for the record, perhaps my delight in it must be somehow misplaced? But no, I think not. A future classic.