Amanda Ruzza, who likes to interact verbally as well as musically with her accompanists, broke for a funny spoken bit in the middle of her Amanda Ruzza Group gig last week at Cornelia Street Café.
The peripatetic bass guitarist/composer prefaced her composition “Larry And I" with a conversation with her guitarist Alex Nolan—though she spoke for both herself and Nolan.
The tune is a tribute to her favorite bassist Larry Graham--Sly and the Family Stone’s pioneering stylist--that depicts an imaginary trip taken with him that was inspired, Ruzza related, by the fateful day she almost met him, but didn’t.
According to Ruzza, Nolan, whom she likens to an octopus for her mutifaceted instrumental facility, couldn’t care a whole lot less about Graham, being more a fan of Hendrix--whom Nolan then tributed herself with a few Hendrix guitar licks.
All this said, “This is so not important information,” Ruzza concluded.
Then again, Ruzza, who hails from São Paulo, Brazil—and has visited 45 U.S. states--can herself really play just about anything—and loves doing it.
“I play with all different bands and genres, from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule to Latin jazz pianist/composer Arturo O’Farrill, African/blues/ jazz guitarist Leni Stern and cellist/composer Dave Eggar’s rock/electronic/folk/bluegrass duo Deoro,” says Ruzza, who toured with Nashville-based country show band Mustang Sally before moving to New York. She had just returned, following her Cornelia Street gig, from a one-night road trip with Sage, and all-girl jazz band.
She also performs with groups including Global Noize and her trombonist Chris Stover’s Caetano Veloso Project, and is preparing to go on tour with Deoro as well as play the World Music Festival Chicago with Stern.
She formed her Amanda Ruzza Group while obtaining a dual degree in jazz bass performance and liberal arts at The New School in New York, having first studied bass performance and contemporary writing and production at Berklee College of Music following her arrival in the U.S. 11 years ago after receiving the Latin American World Tour Scholarship. She's recorded with her band as well as the likes of Bebel Gilberto, Jason Miles, Simone Giuliani and Jamiroquai guitarist Simon Katz.
“I love music—and don’t care about the style,” adds Ruzza (pronounced ROOTS-a). “I play three, four nights a week at least and do a lot of studio work—dance and pop recordings and smooth jazz things. I just recorded with Evanescence for a movie, and with a couple superstar names I can’t say. I’m on the soundtrack of the Whitney Houston documentary and tomorrow I’m playing with a Columbian artist.”
And on Sept. 24 she’ll celebrate the release of Phantom Fish by the esteemed Brazilian saxophonist-composer Sérgio Galvão, which she produced in New York for her Pimenta Music label.
Remarkably, it’s the first album as leader for the 48-year-old tenor and soprano sax player, who has nevertheless been extraordinarily prolific.
“This guy is incredible!” says Ruzza. “He’s the No. 1 recording musician in Rio for sax: He’s on every album on the radio there since the ‘80s, every soap opera soundtrack. Before he came here to record he sent me a PDF with 175 pages of credits.”
Yet Ruzza had been unaware of Galvão—whose brother is the equally estimable Brazilian guitarist Lula Galvão--until she booked a couple gigs back home, and needed a sax player.
“I called an American pianist who lives there now, and he referred me,” says Ruzza. “My music wasn’t easy, and required a lot of practice. We had one rehearsal and he just nailed it. We connected, and the following year—last year--I went back and did the same thing.”
Galvão played Lincoln Center with his orchestra last December.
“He had no time to hang out, but wanted to come back,” continues Ruzza. “I told him to bring his compositions to show people and play in clubs, and he said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know he’d never written a song before! He locked himself in a room for weeks and wrote songs and made the most amazing demos, and I wanted to do an album.”
Galvão’s compositions, Ruzza notes, were “very, very Brazilian.”
“I told him, ‘You’ve been making the most amazing recordings ever for 30 years, but I want to hear who you are.’ I said, ‘Let’s take Brazil out of you and absorb this idea: What happens to musicians from Brazil who embrace New York culture?’”
Ruzza evokes other Brazilian artists who collaborated with Americans, including Milton Nascimento, Carmen Miranda, and especially Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose albums with Frank Sinatra, she notes, affected change in his music.
“What happens to people when they come here and embrace New York multiculturalism?” she asks, answering, “They make an album like this.”
Galvão, she adds, “goes out every night and sees every sort of band you can imagine. He’s in love with New York, and every music style. There’s so much cultural richness here: His saxophone playing changed every two days!”
Ruzza enlisted New York musicians and worked with Galvão on the arrangements and two days of rehearsals, and recorded Phantom Fish in two days.
“The bass player and drummer [Mauricio Zottarelli] were Brazilian. The pianists [Cuban Aruan Ortiz and Argentinean Leo Genovese] were not. On guitar, Leni Stern brought her whole blues thing and African approach—and is not acquainted with Brazilian music. Alex Nolan is—but she’s a rock guitarist. So we have guys from Argentina and Cuba, two girl guitar players--one German with an African blues sound, the other American with a rock sound. How do you blend this stuff into Sérgio’s music and tell his story?”
Galvão further enlisted Claudio Roditi, a Brazilian trumpet player living in New York for years, to play flugelhorn; Ruzza called in trombonist Stover.
“Every song on the album is written for someone,” she says. “’Casa Amarela’ was all live: We were in a room and I asked him how he met his wife, and the piano player started playing. When he told me her name [Fernanda, who grew up in the Casa Amarela neighborhood in the city of Recife in northeastern Brazil], that’s when the song starts.”
Another track, which Ruzza performed at Cornelia Street, was written for her.
“I was surprised that ‘Mandruzza’ sounds like me musically!” she says of the samba, which on Phantom Fish features a Stern guitar solo.
As for Ruzza’s own music, she calls it “South American funky jazz.”
“I love to play funk and South American grooves, music from Chile, Argentina, Columbia--I love to mix things, not play just Brazilian music.”
It all makes sense in that Ruzza’s mother is an opera fan from Chile, her father a rock ‘n’ roller from Italy.
“My goal is to write music that has my harmonic and rhythmic ideas, that people can sing,” she says. “That sounds obvious, but a lot of jazz musicians write difficult stuff that people can’t understand.”
For Ruzza, rather, “making an album is like reading a book: The storytelling of Crime And Punishment or One Hundred Years Of Solitude gets you hooked from the first scene. You don’t want to put it down. Listen to Jill Sobule. She’s telling people a story—not just saying, ‘I wrote this song. Check it out.’”
“That’s what’s important in doing a show, and that’s what I tried to do with Phantom Fish,” says Ruzza. “Every song has its own story, and then you put them down in a sequence.”
Upcoming now for Ruzza is a Sly and the Family Stone tribute record and tour, “a big deal for me because I’m such a big Larry Graham fan, to record his music and bass lines.” She'll also keep “trying so hard not to be stuck on one thing and only do this and that.”
“I love music so much, and it’s bigger than one thing,” she concludes. “My life would be so boring if all I did was play my music, and I’m very grateful lately because I’m able to perform all these different things.”
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