JAZZ / Sink and swim: Phil Johnson reviews Airto Moreira and family at Ronnie Scott's, London

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The Independent Culture
'WHEN listening to this music, sit or lie down comfortably with your eyes closed. If you wish, you can stand up and move your arms and legs in slow, wide tai-chi motions as if you were underwater.' The percussionist Airto Moreira's latest album, The Other Side of This (Ryko), makes uncommon demands on the listener. The sleeve- notes include instructions to imagine you're a tumbleweed or a fish, or to 'stand up and stomp on the ground repeating the words 'Hey Ya' over and over again'. At Ronnie Scott's, where floor space is at a premium and the minders shush you for just talking, it was always going to be difficult to do a live set based on the album. Wisely, Airto (pronounced Aye-Air-Toe) didn't try. The only New Age trapping was a cone of incense that burned throughout the performance, giving the faded red plush setting of the club an incongruous head- shop smell.

Playing in a trio with the occasional addition of his wife Flora Purim on vocals and his daughter Diana on backing vocals and hand percussion, Airto demonstrated the more obvious message of his album: that while you can take Brazil out of Africa, you can't take Africa out of Brazil. Scholars have written papers on African retentions in the blues, but there is a whole series of books to be written about how the music of Brazil - Villa-Lobos to Sergio Mendes - is built upon the foundations of slave culture from the old Portuguese African empire. This is especially evident in the use of percussion, but to call Airto merely a percussionist is to understate the case. Until Airto came to the US in 1968 and started playing with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Weather Report and Return to Forever, a percussionist was someone with a conga drum and a frilly shirt. Airto brought the role into the foreground of the music and enlarged the customary battery of instruments until it threatened to include everything but the kitchen sink.

At Ronnie Scott's, the sink may well have made an appearance, though it was difficult to be sure. Standing at a workshop bench, overflowing not only with wooden off-cuts and bits of plumbing, but gourds, shakers, strings of shells, whistles and rattles, and abutting on to a more conventional drum- kit, Airto never stopped moving for the whole set. As a trap-drummer he is superb, driving the pulse of the music while never playing simply on the beat. Even when drumming he's always doing something else: singing guttural Angolese chants into the mike, hitting an industrial-size gong, or risking injury by sticking a whistle up his nose to create birdsong noises. On a solo feature with only an unpromising tambourine to play with, he conjured up the sound of a whole samba school.

The band, with Gary Meek on saxes doubling flute and keyboards, and Jose Neto on guitar, was quite outstanding. Meek has a tough yet supple sound on tenor sax that recalls the great Joe Henderson. Neto strums and plucks with his fingers, covering up the lack of a bass with thumb-slaps to the top strings so adeptly that a man from the Musicians Union may well be coming round soon to ask questions. How you react to Purim's singing is a matter of taste. Though she is pleasingly husky-voiced on intimate ballads, her up-tempo scatting and vocalese can tend towards the screechy. Daughter Diana takes a supporting role, singing a chorus here, rattling a gourd there. Airto, small and stocky, sweating buckets as well as hitting them, is very much the star. Even seated hunched over a table rather than lengthening your spine on the floor, 'imagining you are flying over the desert in the late afternoon', he's a pleasure to listen to.

Airto, Flora Putim and Fourth World continue at Ronnie Scott's, Frith Street, London W1 (071-439 0747) until 30 August, when they move to Ronnie Scott's, Birmingham, for a further two weeks.

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