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Pioneer in Jazz Sambaby Philip Booth
Copyright © 2000 Philip BoothPortions of this piece previously appeared in Jazziz
Few of bossa nova's pioneers were as successful as Manfredo Fest in keeping alive the distinctive fusion of samba rhythms and American jazz he helped create four decades ago in his native Brazil. The pianist brought his hard-swinging, infectious sound to Minneapolis in 1967, joined the Sergio Mendes-produced Bossa Rio in Los Angeles and later relocated to Chicago, playing there and on the Playboy Club circuit.
Fest, 63, died of liver failure in Tampa, Florida, not far from his home in Palm Harbor, where he had lived for 12 years. Fest's sudden passing means the loss of another vital living link to bossa nova. The pianist, who was born legally blind, was classically trained, but at 17 plugged in to the work of the George Shearing Quintet and the Bill Evans Trio.
"That was my introduction to jazz -- how you phrase lines, improvisation, all the creative possibilities," he told me once, relaxing at the sunny West Central Florida home he shared with his wife, singer-composer Lili Galiteri Fest. "The concept changes from time to time, and I incorporate new elements in my playing. It's a matter of continually hearing and growing."
After college, Fest found himself in the thick of a musical revolution, and gained steady work recording and performing in bossa nova-crazed Sao Paulo. "That's when he came into his own," according to his son, guitarist Phil Fest, a frequent collaborator. "He forever embarked on his own path. He felt the responsibility of doing it. He felt it was work he had to do. That's what kept him going."
Throughout his career, Manfredo Fest remained passionate about the "new thing" of Brazilian music. In 1998, he saluted legendary bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim with Just Jobim, a well-received disc on which the pianist was backed by bassist David Finck, drummer Steve Davis and longtime collaborator Cyro Baptista on percussion. The collection, featuring vibrant interpretations of "Wave," "Desafinado," "The Girl From Ipanema" and other favorites, was his fourth recording for DMP, the same label that released Fest's debut album, Jungle Cat, in 1978.
Along the way, he also released four widely praised albums for Concord, including 1995's Comecar De Novo and 1997's Amazonas, both featuring German-born vibraphonist and chromatic harmonica wizard Hendrik Meurkens. Over the years, he recorded and/or toured with a variety of upper-echelon Brazilian and American musicians, including saxophonist Scott Hamilton, trumpeter Claudio Roditi, drummer Portinho and bassist Paul Socolow.
The pianist, a semi-regular at Fandango's on Siesta Key, near Sarasota, Florida, where he was often joined by bassist Billy Pillucere and drummer Tom Carabasi, was seemingly on the verge of a career upswing. He had recently completed a half-dozen tracks for a project with Orlando singer and guitarist Michael Radi, and a rhythm section featuring Phil Fest, bassist Patrick Bettison and drummer Joe Renda.
Also in the works was a live disc, recorded at Vartan's nightclub in Denver, with bassist Harvie Swartz and drummer Claudio Sloan. Fest had been scheduled to leave Oct. 5 for a tour of Germany with Meurkens, to be followed by a recording session.
Audiences everywhere from the Clearwater Jazz Holiday to the Jazz Cafe in London, festivals in California and Pennsylvania, and other venues around the U.S. and Europe, were fortunate enough to enjoy Fest's buoyant music and gentle personality.
"Anytime I go anywhere, people seem to be familiar with my work, and that's great," he said not long ago. "One thing is for sure -- for the audience that I play my music to, I always get a favorable response. The next step is to get more recognition from the general public. I'm close to breaking into a bigger circle. I think I have my foot in the door."
Baptista was 15 years old when he first caught Fest, in Sao Paulo. The percussionist subsequently played on Jungle Cat, as well as 1992's Oferenda, and Just Jobim, and made several concert appearances with the pianist.
"He played many notes, but they made sense," Baptista recounts. "He had incredible swing. For me, as a percussionist, if somebody plays more, then I have less space. With him, even when he was playing a lot, there was something that kept us glued together. He swings (with a sound) that was like a train. That's what Brazilian music is all about -- simple and direct. A strong aspect of his piano playing was that he played it as a percussive instrument. He was like a percussionist. And he improvised a lot."
Fest, a warm-spirited, generous artist, also worked alongside a variety of other Brazilian and American musicians, including Lili, drummer Portinho, bassist Paul Socolow, and guitarist Richie Zellon. His compositions, including "Seresta (Serenade)" and "Brazilian Dorian Dream," were recorded by the likes of Shearing, Paquito Di Rivera, Buddy DeFranco and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
"Everything was delivered so clearly and with such a superior time feel that you just followed him, and everything turned to swing anyway," says Meurkens. The two collaborated on Dig the Samba, released in Europe two years ago on Candid. "And his personality -- he was just plain good news. There was not a bad bone in his body. Everybody loved him. He spread out good vibes to everybody.
"He was an authentic representative of that nearly lost art of samba jazz," Meurkens adds. "Jobim is gone. And now one more of the guys has passed away. He was one of the originals."^ Top
Philip Booth is a jazz writer and bass player based in Florida. His work appears in Jazziz, Billboard and other publications.