The Queen of Fusion Returns

By Holston, Mark | Americas (English Edition), July 2001 | Go to article overview

The Queen of Fusion Returns


Holston, Mark, Americas (English Edition)


Flora Purim has a nighttime ritual that has varied little in recent decades. "There are two albums that are at my bedside," she confides, revealing the kind of musical inspiration that has spurred her evolution from a vocalist with a largely Brazilian perspective four decades ago to one whose style today incorporates a virtual universe of influences. "They are Miles Ahead, the first collaboration between [jazz trumpeter] Miles Davis and [orchestrator, composer] Gil Evans and Blow by Blow, by [guitarist] Jeff Beck. They are with me every night."

When she was an aspiring singer, Purim's first album, the mid-1960s release Flora e M.P.B., found her interpreting classic bossa nova tunes by Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal. Her journey from the comfort zone of her country's mainstream popular music to the eclectic, genre-defying world of artists like Davis and Beck has proven to be a story of artistic growth virtually without equal for a Latin American vocalist.

Purim's initial interest in music was shaped by her country's popular samba and bossa and a healthy dose of classical, blues, and jazz styles. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, she married the up-and-coming drummer and percussionist Airto Moreira, who had already established his career in such groups as Quarteto Novo, a combo led by multi-instrumentalist and composer Hermeto Pascoal. By the late 1960s, the couple was on their way to the U.S. to attempt what many Brazilian musicians before them had tried with limited success--to establish themselves as key figures in the highly competitive jazz scene.

Initially, the pressure on Purim was enormous to conform to the sex kitten image Astrud Gilberto had made all but mandatory for female Brazilian vocalists five years earlier with her seductive version of "The Girl from Ipanema." She had to take a few requisite bossa nova-style gigs to gain entree into Big Apple jazz circles, including a tour with saxophonist Start Getz, whose recordings with Gilberto had helped establish bossa nova as a popular style in the U.S. But her mission from the beginning was to take Brazilian music in another direction. "I am not a bossa nova singer," Purim maintains to this day. "I never was. I'm a fusion singer."

Indeed, Purim's fame as a vocalist was solidified in the decade that came to be synonymous with the "fusion jazz" movement. When she and Airto joined pianist Chick Corea's Return to Forever band in the early 1970s, it was more than the mere melding of jazz, funk, rock, and other styles they had in mind. Introducing global audiences to the post-bossa generation of new Brazilian music was--and continues to be--their artistic mission.

Her work on Corea's Light as a Feather album quickly attracted the enthusiastic attention of a broad audience. The timbre of her voice and her unorthodox technique, which drew upon an ever-expanding reserve of groans, squeals, grunts, and electronic distortion maximized the effect of her multi-octave voice. The full array of Purim's vocal prowess was something even the most sophisticated jazz aficionados had seldom experienced in such a focused, explosive package of raw talent. "She was so free melodically that she sounded like a horn player," commented keyboardist George Duke, a frequent collaborator. "It was absolutely new music, free as a bird."

An arrest for cocaine possession and subsequent incarceration proved to be only a temporary setback. Indeed, the ever-resourceful singer drew inspiration from the experience, finding musicality in the range of ambient sounds that filled prison life, from the clanking of steel doors to the cries of gulls circling the prison courtyard.

Her recording career hit full stride in the mid 1970s, when a series of albums featuring Airto, Duke, and such other notables as Carlos Santana, saxophonist Joe Henderson, and bassist Stanley Clarke attracted critical acclaim and an unusually high level of commercial success for what were essentially jazz releases. …

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