A remarkably gifted saxophonist-composer and in-demand session player making his recording debut as a leader at age 48, Brazilian Sérgio Galvão is a talent worthy of wider recognition beyond his home base in Rio de Janeiro. Produced by Brazilian bassist-composer Amanda Ruzza, who currently resides in New York City, Phantom Fish is a showcase for Galvão’s engaging tunes and potent playing on tenor and soprano saxes.
“The main idea of this album was to keep the bottom of it (bass and drums) Brazilian, but everything else a collection of different musicians that all had one passion in common: groove, harmony and an open mind,” says Ruzza. “I wanted every melody and every groove to be specifically connected to each other, as if the listener would be reading a wonderful novel and feeling that he or she was being told a beautiful story. And that's the story of Sérgio Galvão, the man who went on a trip from Rio de Janeiro to New York and decided to tell his life story (his melodies) with a New York spirit.”
The sixth and youngest son from a family composed almost entirely of musicians, Galvão learned invaluable lessons from his older brothers while growing up in Brasília, the capital city of Brazil. He speaks with pride of his family’s deep musical heritage. “My late brother Carlos was a classical music composer and conductor who also ran EMB (Brasília Music School) for many years. My other late brother Zequinha was a great drummer back in the 70`s and 80`s and a great inspiration for me. My other musician brother (and roommate for years) is Lula, who is one of the great guitarists-orchestrators of our times.”
Growing up in a musical household, Sérgio was exposed to music from an early age. “I recall listening to my older brothers playing at home,” he says. “My brother Zequinha used to play the vibraphone a lot at home. At that time he and Carlos were already recording a few albums and my mom used to show them off to anyone that came by to visit us. A major influence for me at the time was Brazilian jazz saxophonist, Victor Assis Brasil. We had his entire discography and I kept listening to his albums over and over.”
Another towering influence was John Coltrane, whose music consumed young Sérgio. “When I was 15, I used to play basketball a lot and even dreamed of becoming a professional basketball player. One day coming home from practice, I couldn’t stop thinking about Coltrane’s solos, and I decided to borrow a recorder from a neighbor and started learning on that. I also tried to play Coltrane’s songs on the clarinet, which I learned before the sax.”
Galvão’s saxophone epiphany came a few months later when he attended a concert of a sax-playing friend. “After the concert ended, he called me on the stage and showed me his soprano sax,” recalls Sérgio. “It was the very first time I ever had an actual saxophone in my hands. After a few minutes trying to adjust the embouchure, I finally played his saxophone. I closed my eyes and played an Egberto Gismonti tune called “O Palhaço,” and before I could open my eyes, I noticed that part of the audience (which had already left the concert area) had come back to see me playing. And I never stopped playing the saxophone ever since that moment.”
Sérgio studied formally at Escola de Música de Brasília during the early 80’s when his brother Zequinha was teaching at the school. “My mentors during that period were Hugo Lauterjung, Manoel Carvalho and Luiz Gonzaga Carneiro (Gonzaguinha),” he says, “but the major part of my studies was self-taught.” By the mid ‘80s, he was playing and recording with the Afro-Brazilian group Obina Shock, whose first album featured Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa. It was the first of a deluge of recordings to come over the next two decades for the hugely in-demand saxophonist.
The seeds for Phantom Fish were planted a couple of years ago when Galvão met Brazilian bassist-composer Amanda Ruzza, who had hired the saxophonist for some gigs with her group featuring American trombonist Chris Stover. As Ruzza recalls, “Sérgio showed up and played my music better than anyone else in the band. I could not believe his sound. He had the Brazilian groove and the modern American saxophone voice. Incredible!” Adds Galvão, “It was love at first note!” They became instant friends and the following year Ruzza proposed documenting Sérgio’s potent sax playing and fully-realized compositions on his first release as a leader.
Galvão’s vocal phrasing and robust tones is in full effect on the undulating samba opener, “Amphybious,” which has him executing tight unisons on the head with guitarist Alex Nolan before breaking loose for some Herculean tenor blowing. The enchanting “Zuruba” and the beautiful ballad “Casa Amarela” (named for Galvão’s wife) showcase Galvão’s uncanny lyricism. Trombonist Stover (a current member of the Amanda Ruzza Group) is featured on the mellow samba “Meu Nobre (“My Nobleman”). Galvão calls Stover, “the best Brazilian trombonist born in the USA.” Cuban piano sensation Aruán Ortiz and the influential Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi guest on the title track while
“Mandruzza,” Sérgio’s ode to Amanda Ruzza, is a grooving samba that features an expressive solo by guest guitarist Leni Stern. Says Galvão, “Leni is a German with an American vocabulary and an African soul. She brought kindness to this album.” Sérgio’s full-bodied tone and fluid technique on soprano sax is featured on the percolating and rhythmically intricate “Já Íu,” which also features a wonderful piano solo by Ortiz showcasing Zottarelli’s crisp power-precision traversing of the kit. The collection closes on an upbeat note with Galvão’s take on the lively samba, “Vou Deitar e Rolar (Qua Qua Ra Qua Quá),” famously recorded by Brazilian national treasure Elis Regina in 1973 and also recorded by guitarist-singer Powell on his landmark 1971 album Canto on Guitar. Sérgio’s tenor playing on this number is as authoritative and full of abandon as anything on the record.
Nearly 30 years in the making, Phantom Fish (on Ruzza’s Pimenta Music label) heralds the arrival of a new saxophone colossus on the international jazz scene.