Urban Improvisations: The Profanatory Tactics of Spectacularized Spaces

In Memoriam

Pushing at Boundaries: The Path of a Brazilian Instrumentalist

Cliff Korman

In homage to my mestre Paulo Moura,
clarinetist/saxophonist, arranger, composer, improviser, visionary:
July 15, 1932—July 12, 2010.

Credit: 2007 © Alex Almeida.
Presentation with Cliff Korman at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro

His career spanned six decades, from the late 1940s through 2010, and his compositions, arrangements, and recordings can now be considered vital documents of many of the most important trends in twentieth-century Brazilian music. Paulo Moura, the youngest of a family of musicians, began at twelve years of age to play the clarinet professionally with his father’s band in the gafieira dance halls of their hometown in the interior of São Paulo state. He moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro—Brazil’s center of urban music—in 1945. He studied classical theory, harmony, and clarinet at the Escola Nacional de Música and at the same time had his first contact with modern jazz through informal listening and playing sessions, both at the home of an acquaintance who lived near Moura’s neighborhood of Tijuca and as a frequent participant of the Sinatra-Farney fan club (1948-53).

He soon made his mark as a versatile instrumentalist, working as a studio musician and in radio orchestras where he had contact with the top-tier arrangers, composers, and conductors who would inform his musical language and conception, and in the gafieira dance halls that he would eventually use as a platform for his transformative and contemporary view of the genre. He also performed as a soloist with the symphony orchestra of the Teatro Municipal (with which, from 1959-1979, he was featured in classical works for clarinet) and with big bands and popular music orchestras that accompanied visiting international artists such as Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. Along with a group of musicians that included João Donato and Johnny Alf (pianist/composers), Mauricio Einhorn (harmonica/composer), and Dom um Romão and Edson Machado (drummers), he was taken by the sound and language of American jazz artists of the era and worked to develop a similar fluency as an improviser. As a participant in the emerging bossa and samba-jazz movements, he performed, arranged for, and recorded with Sergio Mendes’ Bossa Jazz ensemble. He traveled with this group to New York to participate in the famous “Bossa Nova: (New Brazilian Jazz)” concert at Carnegie Hall on November 21, 1962. Less than a month after that performance, the group went into a New York studio to record with the famous American jazz artist Cannonball Adderley.1

It was at this juncture in his career that Moura’s need to seek out the new, to transform and grow as an artist, first became evident. Not satisfied to ride the wave of bossa nova, he refused to settle into predictable and repetitive projects. His recognition that his most profound and inspiring source material lay in Brazilian culture led him to experiment with, champion, and revitalize a wide variety of genres, including choro, gafieira, afro-samba, samba-jazz, and música erudita brasileira. His projects of the 1960s and 1970s represent the work of an inquisitive and innovative artist dedicated to both excellence and growth, epitomized by his recordings Quarteto (1968), Hepteto:  Mensagem (1968), Fibra (1971), and Confusão Urbana, Suburbana, e Rural (1976).2 His collaborations with Brazilian and international artists resulted in work that combined idioms, created new fusions, and opened paths to new musical vocabularies, while at the same time maintaining the defining characteristics of the Brazilian music and jeito that he embodied.3 Moura’s repertoire included pieces by Radames Gnatalli, Pixinguinha, Jacob de Bandolim, K-Ximbinho, Milton Nascimento, Charlie Parker, and George Gershwin, as well as his own arrangements and compositions that became staples of his performances. His soundscape was often broadened by a fascination with classical and contemporary music that, toward the end of his life, gravitated strongly toward the work of György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen and toward experimentation with graphic scores designed to foster improvisation.

Although the remainder of this text has everything to do with improvisation, it will have little to do with note choice, harmonic paths, and the ability to turn a perfect phrase in the moment of performance. Paulo had accepted and met those challenges early in his career when, in the 1950s, he and a number of Brazilian musicians considered how to interact with contemporary approaches to jazz improvisation. The new developments augmented his already evolved interest in American jazz musicians who had emerged in an earlier era (Barney Bigard, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington) and coincided with his awareness of the advances of Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Horace Silver, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, who were creating a stir within certain circles of Rio’s music scene.  Paulo was immersed in a dynamic and contemporary language of improvisation, one that occurred worldwide amongst musicians who considered themselves jazz practitioners. For Paulo, it was a way of considering sound and introducing new kinds of intentions in performance. The ability to understand, internalize, and transform the information he gleaned from U.S. American jazz was a fundamental part of his personal language.

Paulo and I met at the Creative Music Studio’s five-week World Music Seminar in 1981.4 I attended as a student and he participated as one of a rotating group of teachers. We hit it off immediately, maintained contact in the ensuing years, and first performed as a duo in 1995. Although we came from different generations, different cultures, and different countries, we shared a few important things. Each of us was steeped in what I’ve come to call the “Popular Instrumental Improvised Music” of our respective traditions. We also shared a love for each other’s worlds: he for the sound, swing, and repertoire of American jazz; and I for similar components in the Brazilian popular expressions of choro, gafieira, samba, and bossa nova. Finally, we both believed that improvisation exists not only in sections designated for melodic invention, but also in the essence of an approach that permeates every moment of performance. From our first rehearsals and presentations, we sensed an empathy and musical understanding between us that we knew deserved nurturing.

As our relationship developed, we began to consider our work a reflection of our respective cultures of origin and a celebration of the links we found between them: rhythms, melodic fragments, mood, swing. The raison d’être of our duo was a constant search for common ground on which to explore these links—a common playground, if you will. We filled it with the standard repertoire from Brazilian and American songbooks, with the vast library of popular instrumental music from Brazil and the U.S., and with original compositions that freely crossed styles and genres. Sections meant for melodic improvisation were often based on song forms, although they also relied on harmonic interludes created to provide contrast and variety (e.g., a piano solo of “Tico Tico” discussed below). Before a performance—especially if a long time had passed since the previous one—we would spend some hours rehearsing, sometimes reworking material, adding repertoire, or simply getting back in our groove. In spite of all of this preparation, I never felt quite certain of where the adventure would lead as we entered each stage. Paulo was unpredictable in the best of ways: he was very willing to take risks—to “throw curveballs”—and, at the same time, was seemingly quite certain that everything would work out. His serenity, eventually, was infectious.

I carry with me the memory of our last moments on stage together. This memory is multi-faceted, its elements visual, auditory, tactile: it conjures a sense of the breath and spirit of the musician channeled through his clarinet, an instrument that he loved, and from which he teased a myriad of subtle variations of expression. I knew that he was struggling with a cancer that would soon take his body, but had no idea how close we were to his passing. What I felt, as his pianist and sparring partner, and what struck me with great certainty and impact, was that Paulo had reached yet another level of expression. Though still attentive to the details of melody, harmony, and arrangement, his performance was now focused on the essence of his artistic intent—on gesture and sound.

To illustrate, I’ll describe a few moments from our last duo performance, which took place at the Espaço Centroequatro in Belo Horizonte, Brazil on May 8, 2010, two months before Paulo passed away. With a focus on sound, pulse, and time flow, I’ll attempt to recreate my thoughts and my decision-making process as I shared the stage with this creative and vital musician. For examples, I’ve chosen performances (of the songs “Travessia,” by Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant, and “Tico Tico no Fuba,” by Zequinha de Abreu) that poignantly represent the immediacy and joy of the experience I was so fortunate to live. I remember well my impression as we left the stage: Paulo had led us into new territory, and in doing so had asked me to reconsider my role as an accompanist, to change my approach from one that provided a harmonic and rhythmic foundation—something of a chão (floor)—to one that was more contrapuntal in terms of both melody line and rhythm, and certainly less predictable. I was free to create new elements, to be more conversational, and he was happy to engage. This was riskier, as if the safety net of habit had been pulled away, but was also somewhat frightening and certainly exhilarating.

“Travessia” first appeared on Nascimento’s recording of the same name.5 Soon after its release in 1967, it quickly became a staple of the popular music repertoire from the state of Minas Gerais. I feel it in 4/4 meter. The body of the song includes an intro section that returns as an interlude to link important structural moments—the A and B sections, both 16 bars in length, always have the last measure elided by the interlude. Each section contains one theme, designated respectively as Theme I and Theme 2.

“Tico Tico no Fuba” was composed in 1917 and was made popular when Carmen Miranda performed and recorded it in the United States in the 1940s. I feel it in 2/4 meter. The structure and harmonic relationships follow a common model for choro: AABBACCA (with A in A minor, B in the relative major C, and C in the parallel A major). Paulo’s arrangement adds an intro, interlude, outro, and coda. Our performance follows both the form and spirit of choro: improvisation is often present in variations and embellishments. Paulo’s approach also allowed for the invention of melody while maintaining the harmonic progression more associated with jazz. As I listen to these clips, I try to capture the musical flow and the dynamics of improvisation behind the notes.

My relation with Paulo Moura helped me define a process that only begins with note choice, appropriate scales, and sources of motives, all things that were part of our preliminary exchanges. We had a dimension of hic et nunc that transcended those preparatory conversations. For example, at 2:43 on the video recording of “Travessia,” I expect Paulo to take the melody, but he turns it back to me with an eye signal and pushes me to syncopate the next melodic statement for variation, only then adding a complementary fill. This is a perfect example of improvisation applied to decisions of arrangement and counterpoint, a moment in which the fluidity of roles between us becomes evident. Paulo expects that I know not just the forms and harmonies of the pieces in our repertoire, but the melodies as well. By demanding that I take this role, he challenges me to demonstrate my musicianship in the moment of performance. I know this well from the jazz world of New York City, and have seen it to some extent in choro rodas (performance circles). A similar event occurs at 5:12, where I confess I had no idea what was about to happen. I attempt to communicate my doubt with hand signals. Paulo responds by playing the melody of A, then improvising over this section. I go into full accompanist’s mode, intending to provide a well-defined bass line and harmonic cushion, and to strike a balance between creating an interesting part and maintaining a supporting role.

In our performance of “Tico-Tico,” there is a moment that epitomizes the relation between chance and “error” that improvisation often entails. I use the word “error” in its root sense of “erring”—proceeding through unknown pathways. At 4:10, Paulo plays the melody while I improvise a contra-canto (counter-line). This type of secondary line is fundamental to the performance practice of choro. While many such lines have become codified over the course of the tradition’s long history, choro remains a genre in which improvisation is common and expected. Immediately thereafter, during the coda, we have to deal suddenly with a potentially disconcerting, and certainly dissonant, “error”: off a semi-tone from one another, we play two different versions of the whole-tone scale simultaneously. Paulo looks for a good note to resolve the two divergent paths and ends up finding a link between the melodies of “Tico-Tico” and “Happy Birthday”! I opt for a standard jazz punctuation point, which for me serves two purposes: it evokes a style to the knowledgeable listener and provides a definitive conclusion to the somewhat vague last measures.

Beyond the details of note choice and harmonic construction, however, what were we improvising in this “hic et nunc”? Can musicians in conversation improvise the flow that occurs in musicking: the timing of breath, inflection, and timbre; the subtle differences in accentuation and sub-division that are fundamental to the feel of a style, a genre, and even a culture?

To consider this final question in relation to its elements, I’ve chosen a number of representative instances in which Paulo uses them to create modes of expression that became fundamental to our performances. My descriptions are best understood by witnessing and sharing the experience, and here I encourage the reader to refer to the attached video clips.

In “Travessia”

Throughout this performance, character and time are the principal elements of improvisation. Our attention to working in these realms impacts our note choice, our fluidity of roles, and our manipulation of timbre and sonority.

  • In the intro, I establish the somewhat pensive mood from which we will develop the performance. Until the melodic statement of 1:15, I am playing with the idea of maintaining a drone while coloring it with varying segments of the harmonic series. The passage is improvised until Paulo enters with the first statement of the theme at 1:25.
  • From that moment until the next appearance of the interlude, we work to complement each other’s sound. An interesting passage occurs from 1:46–2:05, during which I play the outlines of the melody, creating unisons at certain instances. The example at 1:50 stands out in particular: we both simultaneously opt to color the melody note, Paulo by bending upwards into it, I by falling off into a chord voicing. It’s hard to tell who went first.
  • From 2:05-2:14, as I play the interlude, Paulo demonstrates his ability to work with timbre as he sustains the last note of the melody: he varies its color and intensity in minute increments.
  • At 2:25, Paulo provides accompanying lines in the low, rich chalemeau register, which he will return to at 5:24 (see below).
  • At 3:24, a change of subdivision occurs as I definitively establish a Brazilian feel. This illustrates how we use time to establish architecture in performance. Other instances occur at 4:58 as I introduce the double-time feel, which we continue to access over the course of the performance, and at 7:04 when we become somewhat pointillistic in our approach.
  • From 3:42-4:00, by stating the melody in different registers, Paulo uses the full range of the clarinet to add color by changing intensity levels.
  • From 5:24-5:50, as he again explores the chalemeau register, Paulo eventually reaches the lowest note of the instrument. For an improviser, this freedom to choose between different ranges is fundamental and profoundly impacts the emotional content of the performance. Most pertinent to this article, his decision changes the content of my accompaniment: I reduce the volume and intensity levels and bring my lines down to the middle and low ranges of the piano.

In “Tico Tico”

  • At 0:23, Paulo uses his breath to create slight, continuous variations in tuning; this strikes me as a vocalism similar to a “blue note” from jazz. He will return to this later in the performance.
  • At 0:37, a quick upward gesture, using the chromatic scale, elicits my almost immediate response as a sign to Paulo that he has my attention. These improvised gestures now become components of the language of this performance.
  • The first repeat of the A section occurs at 0:49. By varying not just the melody, but, with his breath, the color of each accent, Paulo creates a sense of displacement in both the rhythmic and expressive realms.
  • From 1:01-1:07, Paulo subtly but perceptively demonstrates his ability to flow between Brazilian and jazz moods. He emphasizes triplets using a grammar suggestive of bebop, and I respond in kind. At 1:08 (section B), he returns to the 16th notes more common in a Brazilian tempo.
  • As we return to the A section (1:47-2:05), Paulo hardly refers to the melody; he replaces it with blues-tinged vocalisms and improvised lines that seem to loosen the tempo.
  • The C section at 2:06-2:44 exemplifies the conversational character of our performance: although Paulo remains in the lead, he leaves space for my lines and responses and allows them to suggest his next phrase. In these moments, we are truly improvising a duet—this is one of the most satisfying and bittersweet passages for me to view and remember.

In this article, I’ve attempted to illustrate, from my perspective as Paulo’s partner, the numerous components that entered the immediacy of our performance. I must mention as I conclude that in this duo performance, which sadly turned out to be our last, I experienced a force and clarity of intent that literally emanated from the man who took me on as his apprentice. In retrospect, I realize that after a lifetime of pushing at boundaries—musical, stylistic, cultural—he had succeeded in distilling his language into the gesture and sound that I have referred to here.

I believe that musicians, by dedicating years to the study required to perfect technical and improvisational skills, prepare themselves to become masters. The transition to this phase is not achieved by all: it requires perhaps immeasurable qualities and parameters that include artistic vision and a commitment to making one’s voice heard. I witnessed Paulo make that transition, and I am convinced that he was operating that evening in Belo Horizonte with the intent to transmit his musical self through breath and sound. Though we used songs as pre-determined structures, the nature of that performance becomes tangible only by considering the parameters I cite above. By including these parameters in a definition of improvisation, I believe that music can lead us, in each performance and in each subsequent analysis, to connections that go beyond the physical—to pure communication and the essence of musical relationship.


1 Cannonball Adderley with the Bossa Rio Sextet. Cannonball’s Bossa Nova. New York: Riverside RM455, 1962.

2 Quarteto. Rio de Janeiro: Equipe, 1968; Hepteto: Mensagem. Rio de Janeiro: Equipe, 1968; Fibra. Rio de Janeiro: Equipe, 1971; Confusão Urbana, Suburbana, e Rural. Rio de Janeiro: RCA, 1976.

3 Jeito is a term from Brazilian Portuguese slang literally meaning “way” (in the sense of an ingenious, flexible way of doing things). Implicit in this term is a sense of recognizable and perhaps slightly transgressive style.

4 These summer intensives combined an immersion in musical improvisation, often from the perspective of the free jazz scene, with investigations into the languages of a number of music traditions from around the world. For general information on CMS and its founder Karl Berger, see www.creativemusicstudio.org

5 Nascimento, Milton. Travessia. Rio de Janeiro: A&M, 1967.

Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.
ISSN: 1712-0624