I just happened to look in the paper last Wednesday and look who’s in town? Milton Nascimento! So off I go to Jazz Alley to see some live music. Which happens for me now… oh, the phrase ‘once in a blue moon’ comes to mind. So why drop everything for this particular guy? Well, that’s the whole point of this little essay, now isn’t it?
Well, first off, the word ‘legend’ is now something of a joke due to overuse, but Nascimento is truly that. I think it’s fair to say that he is to Brazilian popular music what Miles Davis was to jazz: a guy who maintained the highest level of musical integrity, reached a vast audience far beyond his home genre and who was able to really incorporate a number of other genre’s holistically into his work as he went. And to me—it’s that last part that makes Milton totally ‘prog’.
I first encountered Milton in 1980 working with a friend who was a complete acolyte. How smitten? This guy was trying to learn Portugese simply to get more in touch with Milton’s songs (although there was also this drunken talk about Portugese being the sexiest language on the planet—which is true by the way.) Sexiness aside, all this gushing kinda felt more than a little over the top. Anyhoo, while we were working in Brazil, I dunno how he did it, but my friend finnagled a side job—as an opener for Milton at a small theatre in Sao Paulo. He pretty much blew a week’s salary to make this happen and just so he could say he had been on the same stage as Milton. Presumably he hasn’t washed the shoes he wore that night. In any event, we played in front of maybe 800 people. And I mentioned at the time I found the venue far too big for such an intimate voice as Milton’s. ‘You should feel blessed, my friend’, he said, and laughed at my ignorance. ‘Milton never plays for less than 10,000. His music is all about a big party!’
I want to stop right here and say that you should begin your education with his records from the 70’s. Nascimento’s voice (his cry), while still good, is not quite what it was 25 years ago. No one’s falsetto makes it to seventy in tact. So if your first exposure to him was at a live performance you might wonder why everyone else is so awe struck. But I tell you it doesn’t matter. It’s like Frank Sinatra. Even when he was no longer ‘the voice’, he was still ‘Sinatra’. And Nascimento will always be ‘Mill-tone’.
SO WHY IS MILTON PROG? STEP ONE: THE LYRICS
Most people don’t realise that Brazil was quite the police state back in the sixties. I’ve ranted about this before re. the calypso bands I played with and it was equally true in Brazil. It was the cultural norm among artists to do these incredibly pleasant and innocuous sounding tunes which were filled with the most clever word play about the politics of the day. My guess was that the sweet sounds kept the authorities somewhat flummoxed, but I also think it was remarkably insurgent—reaching thousands of young people who would have been totally turned off by overt expressions of anger. It’s one thing to play Rage Against The Machine to kids who are already pissed off, but it’s quite another to reach people who don’t come to the show wearing tongue studs and Doc Martens. I’ve lost count of people I’ve talked to over the years who were initially attracted to Milton’s tender presentation and then got re-educated. He helped change hearts and minds.
SO WHY IS MILTON PROG? STEP TWO: THE MUSICAL FUSION
As I said, check out any of his earlier works—especially the ones with the astounding Wagner Tiso on keyboards (in fact, check out Wagner’s stuff for one of the only Brazilian attempts at prog of which I know—his solo work is like Tomita meets Weather Report!) Milton’s bands always had smoking musicians and effortlessly fused jazz, samba, pop and folk music into something that everyone could enjoy. It’s one thing to do music of high artistic value and complexity that one should like, but it’s quite another to play songs of that caliber that make 20,000 people want to get up and sing along with.
I DON’T FA LA LA
And to me, that’s the most amazing thing about Milton’s music; the sing-along factor. I can’t think of another artist I would ever want to sing along with at a show. Not one. Even if the Beatles came back from the grave and did ‘Hey Jude’ in my backyard? I don’t think I’d do it. I just don’t feel like doing it, what can I say? Some people are hummers with their lighters raised aloft. And then there are stiffs like me. But at a Nascimento show? I’m not only singing along, I’m going La la la la, la la la, la la la! Like a fuckin’ five year old watching Barney or The Banana Splits. And I tell you truly, Gentle Reader. I did not give a shit. Any artist that can make someone like me get up and ‘fa la la’ without a hint of self-consciousness? He’s got somethin’ goin’ on, that’s all I can say.
GET A ROOM, GUY
If you know me at all, you know that I rarely go on about artists. I’m usually loath to gush about anyone because, frankly, it’s all opinion anyway. But Milton is not just someone I enjoy, he’s truly one of the greats—an artist that you should know about if you don’t. And unlike many of the greats that have influenced my life so profoundly, he’s still around and he’s still worth seeing. In other words, if you can catch him now, you’ll still be able to see what all the fuss was about, rather than just having to take someone’s half-apology about ‘Oh you shoulda seen him when he was younger!’ My guess is that when you see him, you’ll be la-la-la-ing your ass off too, Mr. I’m So Artistic Music Guy. 😀
PS: I want to credit this fine photo to Bruce Hogarth. I had never met Bruce before Milton’s show, but it’s clear that he’s a true music fan (a vanishing breed these days!) In this increasing disposable world it’s always inspiring to me to meet people for whom good music is a sincere passion.