BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
When Sammy Figueroa starts talking about some of the best musicians he’s ever played with, you would assume he means Miles Davis or David Bowie or Dr. John — one of the scores of legends the revered percussionist has recorded or toured with over the past four decades. In fact, Figueroa reserves the title for a band of lesser-known Brazilian artists including guitarist Chico Pinheiro, pandeiro player Bernardo Aguiar, bassist Fernando Rosa, pianist Bianca Gismonti and singer Glaucia Nasser, all of whom he recently worked with on the new multicultural album “Talisman,” which merges Figueroa’s Latin jazz flavor with Brazilian pop sounds.
“These guys are masters at what they do,” Figueroa says, admitting that at first he wasn’t sure how the recording would pan out with two such distinctive schools of music. But over the course of a week of recording in late 2013 at Sao Paulo’s NaCena Studios, traditionally built to bring back Figueroa’s heyday of recording in 1970s New York, he says something “incredibly magical” started to take shape. “There were a lot of creative juices flowing, and with each day the sessions just kept getting better and better. …I was honestly shocked that everything went so perfectly.”
It was one of the reasons the album was named “Talisman,” since good luck seemed to precede the project from the very beginning.
THE ‘TALISMAN’ PROJECT, WITH SAMMY FIGUEROA AND GLAUCIA NASSER When: 8 p.m., Oct. 16 Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph Tickets: $26-$30 Info: citywinery.com/chicago
A couple of years ago, Figueroa was invited by his colleague Gene de Souza (both have shows on the Miami radio station WDNA) to join him at a concert by Pinheiro; opening for the guitarist was Nasser, a Brazilian solo artist who has been recording in the Minas Gerais tradition of Clara Nunes and Milton Nascimento since 2004. “I didn’t know who she was; I didn’t even know Chico had an opening act,” Figueroa recalls, but watching her sultry, crisp performance was, in a word, “wonderful.”
Backstage there were formal introductions; Figueroa gave Nasser a CD that she immediately took back to her hotel room and devoured. “Before Sammy I didn’t know a lot of jazz,” says the singer who grew up in a farm family listening to rock bands like YES and Led Zeppelin, “but I quickly became a fan of his, and listening to the way his congas played, I thought how beautiful would it be if this mixed with Brazilian music.” The next day Nasser had a proposition for Figueroa — come to Sao Paulo and do a show together.
After a wildly successful performance at Brazil’s Bourbon Street Music Club, the two continued the conversation, this time with Figueroa’s longtime producing partner Rachel Faro interjecting. “I knew there was something special there and I said why don’t you take what you did on stage and put it on a record,” she recalls. The three started recruiting the group of Brazilian musicians and set up sessions at NaCena.
That’s when Figueroa again met fortune when he heard his longtime friend Roy Cicala, the sound engineer behind John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” had moved to Brazil and put together a new studio. “He insisted the vocals should be done with him,” says Figueroa, but Cicala was gravely ill and died last January before it could happen — but not before putting together his recommendations. “A lot of the record was in his honor,” says Faro, “it continued to become such a blessed project.”
Even now, the show continues to go on. The “Talisman” troupe has put together a short list of North American tour dates, including Chicago, which will be a “mirror sound of the album,” says Figueroa, as a way to introduce a new audience to the music he, too, fell in love with the past few years. “Brazilian music is just beautiful and it deserves to be heard.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.