By Jacob McKean
Jorge Ben is perhaps Brazil’s most iconic musician. Although much of his later music has helped me appreciate the early deaths of some of America’s 1960’s musical icons, his bloc of work from the late sixties to the early/mid-seventies stands as some of the most innovative and beautiful music of its time. Transcending and synthesizing Brazilian and American musical genres, Ben created original and bewitching music that retains every bit of its relevance and easily surpasses the offerings of many contemporary Brazilian musicians in a similar mold.
Dusty Groove, the geek’s geek retailer of obscure funk, jazz, and soul, is now reissuing hard to find music on a label of its own, selecting these two albums from Ben as some of their first Brazilian reissues. While it’s hard to miss with any of Ben’s pre-pop work, his self-titled album from 1969 is a particularly outstanding album that was long overdue for reissuing. The fact that this album was previously available only to the kinds of sweaty fat men willing to pay outrageous sums on eBay for the original LP is a veritable crime against humanity, and while I doubt they’ll be nominated for a Nobel Prize anytime soon, Dusty Groove’s recent reissuing of this album is a serious mitzvah in my book.
Jorge Ben (1969) starts off very strong: “Crioula”, a superior example of Ben’s work from this era, and “Domingas”, a hauntingly beautiful song that highlights Ben’s warbling vocals and guitar mastery. Both tracks showcase his trademark vocal range and the lush, rhythmic backing sound that later made Trio Mocotó famous in their own right. There’s the lightly trippy “Barbarella”, Ben’s tribute to Jane Fonda’s intergalactic sexual escapades in the shlocky Hollywood cult movie of the same name, which was released the year before Ben’s album. The excellent “Pais Tropical” seems to reflect some of the style displayed on the Os Mutantes version of Ben’s “A Minha Menina” from the year before. “Take It Easy My Brother Charlie” is a stand out both for incorporating the horn-heavy big band sound that was an important feature of the samba soul genre and for Ben’s attempt to sing the title phrase in English. Jorge Ben wraps up with a live version of “Charles, Anjo 45”, the album’s hit single, and includes a mind-boggling samba improvisation demonstrating the sheer rhythmic virtuosity of Trio Mocoto.
Força Bruta (1970), re-released last year, may not be quite as scintillating as Jorge Ben, but that’s a bit like saying Elvis’ Christmas album didn’t entirely match Viva Las Vegas. For any other artist, this could be a career-defining masterpiece; for Ben, it’s just another installment in an outstanding series of releases. Força Bruta is understated compared to Jorge Ben: the instrumentation is stripped down, putting greater emphasis on Ben’s guitar work and more intimate vocals, along with the core instruments played by Trio Mocotó, who are once again matchless in their backing role. This album also starts off with a couple of winners in “Oba, La Vem Ela” and “Ze Canjica,” which set the somewhat crunchy, folksy tone; “Ze Canjica” especially is arrestingly gorgeous and may be the highlight of the album. “Apareceu Aparecida” picks up the pace exquisitely and uses backing vocals to punctuate the catchiest hook of the set. “Muhler Brasileira”, which overplays the strings just a touch, and “Terezinha”, featuring some oddly nasal vocals, round out this graceful, lovely album.