With a career spanning almost half a century, it’s probably fair to say that music serves more than a fleeting purpose for Azymuth. Emerging out of Rio de Janeiro’s burgeoning bossa nova and jazz scenes, the three session musicians José Roberto Bertrami, Alex Malheiros and Ivan Conti came together in the late sixties with a shared vision and an unrelenting desire to push experimentation as far as their instruments would go.
At the time there was an abundance of music coming into Brazil from the US and although many Brazilian artists were quick to pick up some elements from the imported sounds, the then-called Projeto 3 were the first to attempt a fusion of this magnitude. The trio quickly became a much sought after sessions band as they merged psychedelic rock, jazz, funk, bossa nova and MPB influences with an all important grounding in samba. “The Rio samba from the top of the hill, it’s our roots man” explains drummer Ivan Conti as he awaits the first leg of Azymuth’s UK tour at Manchester’s Band on the Wall. “When we came together, we changed ideas about how to play. Each one of us had a different perception and that’s how it came together.”
With all three of them living in the same bohemian Copacabana apartment block at a time when it was a bustling hub of creativity and one of the world’s favourite holiday spots, it was clear from the early days that the trio were on to something special as they tapped into a sound that didn’t quite fit the American music it took cues from but was at the same time far separated from anything their peers were creating. This idiosyncratic style became known as samba doido (crazy samba). “In Brazil samba is 2/4 as a minimum” explains Conti “and we play like 2/4 or 4/4, 3/4 or 5/4; we go out of the rhythm but we don’t lose it. This is samba doido.”
José Roberto Bertrami had already worked as a pianist and arranger with some of Brazil’s most prominent musicians including Elis Regina, Robertinho Silva and Candeia, whilst taking numerous trips to America on synthesizers hunts, bringing back the latest ARPs, Minimoogs and Rhodes. “Whenever there was a new keyboard, he’d go and buy it” notes Far Out Recording’s Joe Davis. “Up until the eighties he was one of the few people that had an Oberheim in Brazil.”
A combination of Bertrami’s mastery of the synthesizer, Alex Malheiros’ wonkiest of slap bass sensibilities and Ivan Conti’s unpredictable and mesmerising rhythms proved to be a winning formula but the band’s real success wouldn’t be truly realised until their outernational sound found its way into American and European ears. The wheels were set in motion when they were invited to work with Marcos Valle on the soundtrack to the 1973 film ‘O Fabuloso Fittipaldi’ about two-time winner of the Formula One World Cup Emerson Fittipaldi.
Adopting their name from one of the songs on the soundtrack, they put out the eponymous debut LP ‘Azimüth’ on Brazil’s Som Livre in 1975, fully exploring the new sound they had been working towards and creating a timeless classic in the process – which, forty years on, is still drawing crowds across Europe as they take it on an anniversary tour. The album was unsurprisingly a hit in Brazil but it wasn’t until they were invited to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977 that they saw the real potential for popularity outside the country.
Their follow up album ‘Águia Não Come Mosca’ (Eagles Don’t Eat Flies) was released through Atlantic Records that same year and the ensuing US tour firmly established them as a household name for rare groove aficionados worldwide. “A lot of those DJs who know their big hits from the seventies and eighties see Azymuth as their favourite band” adds Davis “it’s quite incredible.”
Releasing their next album ‘Light As A Feather’ through Milestone Records, the trio found a fruitful relationship with the label and by adding a heady dose of disco into the mix, their popularity skyrocketed internationally – in 1980 ‘Jazz Carnival’ became the first Brazilian record to register in the UK charts. Their output for Milestone was prolific throughout the eighties; releasing more than ten albums over the decade.
However, after reaching their peak, the weight of each of their solo careers started to put a strain on the band, causing them to split in 1988. This was only to be temporary however, and as the lure of Azymuth started to prove too hard to resist, Far Out Recordings’ Joe Davis came to Brazil and convinced them they needed to start making music together again, releasing their comeback album ‘Carnival’ in 1996.
Presenting the band in a way that appealed to younger audiences, Far Out fuelled Azymuth’s resurgence and a string of reworks and remixes from revered producers like Roni Size, 4hero, Ashley Beedle and Jazzanova did much to further cement the trio’s reputation on the modern stage.
Going from the visceral energy and wholehearted performance Sunday’s Band on the Wall gig saw, it looks like Azymuth will be plying their trade for as long as is physically possible. Before José Roberto Bertrami sadly passed away in 2012, he told Ivan and Alex that they must continue to spread the music, so lifelong fan Fernando Moraes stepped in on keys. Moraes has perfectly tapped into the band’s synergy and when all three of them are so clearly driven and energised by playing together it only makes sense to continue. “Until god says stop; let’s go, let’s do it” Conti explains. “If we can walk, we can play,” adds Malheiros.
Win 2 tickets to see Azymuth in Liverpool on Saturday 7th March plus a 50th anniversary CD, click here to find out how to enter.