Multi-faceted percussionist Airto Moreira is one of the main forces behind the infusion of Latin percussive sounds in jazz and, accordingly, one of the progenitors of what is today called world music. Born on August 5, 1941, in Itaiopolis, Brazil, and raised in Curitiba, Moreira (who is known professionally simply as Airto) began studying guitar and piano at an early age. By the time he was six years old, he had already demonstrated a knack with percussive instruments and had won many contests for both his playing and his singing. Before he even became a teenager, Moreira had his own radio show in Curitiba, and at 13 he began playing professionally with local dance bands. Moreira continued his professional career in Sao Paulo, where he moved at the age of 16, and in 1965 he moved to Rio de Janeiro. It was there that he met his future wife and collaborator, Flora Purim, then a singer in a Rio jazz club. Purim moved to Los Angeles in 1968, and Moreira joined her soon thereafter.
The couple then moved to New York City, where Purim sang with South African singer Miriam Makeba. Through bassist Walter Booker, with whom the couple lived for a time, Moreira met and began jamming with a host of jazz musicians, including saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianist Thelonious Monk, and keyboard player Joe Zawinul. Through these connections, Moreira was recommended to legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, who recruited the percussionist for his seminal 1968 fusion recording Bitches Brew. Significant buzz generated over the percussionist’s groundbreaking exotic sounds after he performed with Davis on the cuica, or “talking drum,” at Davis’s legendary 1970 Isle of Wight concert. Moreira stayed with Davis for two years, touring and appearing on such albums as On the Comer and the critically and popularly lauded Live-Evil.
“I was the first percussion player who really played all these different kinds of percussion in jazz, and I brought all these things from Brazil and I made a lot of the instruments myself and introduced them into jazz, and I’m happy because now I’m seeing that almost every band has percussion players who have a lot of little things,” Moreira told Down Beat’s Dan Morgenstern in 1973. “The percussion scene has changed since I’ve been with Miles, and that makes me feel real good.”
Moreira teamed up with Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and drummer Alphonse Mouzon to form the original Weather Report, one of the first and most enduring jazz fusion ensembles. Moreira stayed with the group for only one album, their 1971 self-titled debut, then formed Return to Forever with keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clark, reed player Joe Farrell, and Purim. Again, Moreira left the group after one album, also self-titled.
Although he already had two solo releases on small labels—1970’s Natural Feelings on Skye and 1971’s Seeds on the Ground, released by Buddah—it was 1972’s Free, released by CTI, that established Moreira as a solo artist. The album featured Return to Forever members Corea, Farrell, and Purim and is regarded by All Music Guide’s Scott Yanow as Moreira’s “most famous record.” Moreira and Purim were married that same year.
Moreira relished the more natural approach he could take with his solo career, as opposed to what he viewed as the ego-driven excesses of much ensemble work, though he made clear in interviews that he regarded Return to Forever as an exception to this view. In contrast to what he saw as the emphasis on complexity in free jazz, such as that performed by Davis, Moreira places a high value on simplicity and organic sounds, as well as the spiritual dimension of music. He began making annual pilgrimages to Brazilian villages early in his career to investigate various musical rituals and to attempt to bring such shamanistic practices into his own playing and composition.
“I’ve seen a lot of bands, man, and they don’t seem to enjoy what they’re doing; they’re playing for someone else, for the leader,” he told Morgenstern. “Even when it sounds good, that’s not the thing I want to do anymore, because I feel like music is a beautiful game and must be played with everybody, not against anybody.” This ethos was evidenced by Moreira’s accumulation of scores of obscure, handmade, and self-made instruments. “When I was playing with Miles about two
For the Record…
Born Airto Guimarães Moreira on August 5, 1941, in Itaiopolis, Brazil; married Flora Purim (a singer), 1972; children: Diana.
Began playing professionally in Brazil, age 13; moved to the United States, recruited by Miles Davis to play on Bitches Brew, late 1960s; stayed with Davis for two years, formed Return to Forever with Chick Corea and co-founded seminal fusion group Weather Report; recorded and toured with his wife, vocalist Flora Purim; released 20 solo albums, including Free, Struck by Lightning, the spiritual exploration The Other Side of This, and the club-friendly Homeless, 1970-2000s.
Awards: Recognized more than 20 times in Down Beat critics’ and readers’ polls since 1973.
Addresses: Website—Airto Moreira Official Website: http://www.airto.com.
years ago I counted my instruments and it was 32, but since then I’ve been making and getting some more, so right now I think I have at least 40 and maybe more different kinds from Brazil, from Angola, home-made,” he told Morgenstern. “I haven’t counted them lately; I’ve been too busy playing them.”
Moreira put out two more releases on CTI, 1973’s Fingers and 1974’s Virgin Land, before he was picked up by Arista in 1975. Identity, his major-label debut, was not an unqualified success, however. “[Moreira]’s music is always pleasant to hear, and much of it is rhythmically breathtaking, but sometimes, as on this session, the overall musicality is thin,” observed Down Beat. Promises of the Sun, released the following year, received a similarly tepid reception. “Despite the impressive array of artifacts that Mr. Moreira so adroitly handles each release, the product is usually far from perfect,” Down Beat noted. “In this case, a chronic inconsistency and a lack of focus spoils a technically flawless effort.”
While his studio releases were not tickling the ears of Down Beat’s critics, Moreira was still consistently recognized by the magazine as a major influence on jazz music, so much so that the magazine added the category of percussion to its readers’ and critics’ polls. Moreira has taken top honors in those polls more than 20 times since 1973.
Moreira continued to release an album a year through the 1970s and then slowed down a bit over the next two decades, though he continued to work with numerous well-known artists and producers, including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Paul Simon. In 1985 he released The Other Side of This on Rykodisc, which was inspired by his many visits to spiritual guides and elders in Brazil and his memories of “sessions” attended with his father, a spiritual healer.
As world music became a genre unto itself in the 1990s and percussive music gained popularity, Moreira found himself in demand more than ever. Two of his most visible contributions during this time were to the Planet Drum project, a touring and recording percussion collective spearheaded by the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, and Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nation Orchestra. Both groups won Grammy Awards in 1991.
Ever the explorer, Moreira was experimenting with dance and rock sounds by the end of the 1990s. He played with rock groups the Smashing Pumpkins and Depeche Mode and released his own well-received album, Struck by Lightning, on Venture in 1995. “[Moreira] brings a new sophistication to the electrified samba-jazz he helped pioneer,” Down Beat noted of the album. But this was only the beginning of Moreira’s popularity among a younger generation. The 2000 release Homeless, which features Moreira and Purim’s daughter Diana Moreira Booker on vocals, ventured far into dancehall territory to an enthusiastic reception. “This diverse, highly rhythmic CD draws on everything from pop, funk, hip-hop, and Afro-Brazilian tribal chanting to club and rave music,” noted All Music Guide’s Alex Henderson. “Although Homeless isn’t the least bit predictable, there is something that ties all the material together: rhythm.” At the same time, DJ duo the Bellini Brothers’sampling of Moreira’s “Celebration Suite,” from 1977’s I’m Fine, How Are You? hit the top ten in 23 different countries.
Moreira has become much more selective about his work as a backing musician, a practice he has said can inhibit his artistic freedom. “In the studio you have to play what producers want, and they don’t always want you to play what you may think is right and what really fits well according to your sensitivity as a musician,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “You then become a music worker, and it’s almost like having a nine-to-five gig doing what you don’t like to do.” As he has done throughout his career, Moreira continues to tour and record with his wife, in addition to recording as a solo artist. He told the Los Angeles Times that the keys to working with his wife all these years are love, music, respect, and openness. “Me and Flora, and I can speak for her, have learned a lot together,” he said. “We have learned to suffer quietly, to hold on to each other during the down times, then we say, ‘Let’s do it again.’ It’s been a beautiful roller coaster.”
(With Miles Davis) Bitches Brew, Columbia, 1968.
(With Miles Davis) Live-Evil, Columbia, 1970.
Natural Feelings, Skye, 1970.
Seeds on the Ground, Buddah, 1971.
(With Weather Report) Weather Report, Columbia, 1971.
(With Return to Forever) Return to Forever, ECM, 1972.
Free, CTI, 1972.
Fingers, CTI, 1973.
Virgin Land, CTI, 1973.
Identity, CTI, 1974.
Promises of the Sun, Arista, 1976.
I’m Fine, How Are You, Warner, 1977.
Touching You Touching Me, Warner, 1979.
Three-Way Mirror, Reference, 1985.
Aqui se Puede, Montuno, 1986.
The Other Side of This, Rykodisc, 1988.
Samba de Flora, Montuno, 1989.
Killer Bees, B&W, 1993.
Fourth World, Jazz House, 1995.
Jump, Westwind, 1995.
Revenge of the Killer Bees, M.E.L.T., 2000.
Homeless, M.E.L.T., 2000.
Life After That, Narada Jazz, 2003.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 5, 1990, p. 35.
Down Beat, March 15, 1973; April 8, 1976; April 21, 1977; November 1990.
Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1992.
Seattle Times, April 14, 2000.
“Airto Moriera,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (September 5, 2003).
Airto Moreira Official Website, http://www.airto.com (September 5, 2003).