Growing up a few blocks away from each other in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, Claudia Villela and Ricardo Peixoto walked the same streets and marinated ino the same mix of samba jazz and experimental pop. However, it wasn’t until years later when they’d both settled in California that they met as promising new voices on the Bay Area’s Brazilian music scene and decided to team up.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, where he rubbed shoulders with future jazz guitar stars Bill Frisell and Mike Stern, the Oakland-based Peixoto brought a deep knowledge of jazz harmony and form to their collaboration. His seven-string guitar work served as a rich, propulsive foil for Villela’s sumptuous voice, evocative lyrics, and expert percussion work. Collaborating throughout the 1990s and early aughts, they honed an extraordinary body of original songs that came to fruition on 2001’s “Inverse/Universe,” an album that captured their poetic and melodically intoxicating brew of Brazilian jazz.
Their musical partnership ended not long afterwards as they pursued their own projects. But on Sunday, Jan. 31, Villela and Peixoto will take a rare plunge back into the “Inverse/Universe” material with a livestream concert at Piedmont Piano Company. They will be joined by the influential Oakland pianist, composer, and educator Marcos Silva, who also hails from Rio.
“We all came here at different times for different reasons,” Peixoto said. “If we lived in Brazil who knows if we would have ever met, though now when we go back to Rio, I can walk to Claudia’s house in five minutes.”
In many ways the triumvirate of Cariocas, as Rio natives are known, embody the way that the Bay Area has nurtured some of most original Brazilian artists in North America. However, while Oakland and San Francisco have fostered these collaborations, the region lacks the music industry infrastructure necessary to propel artists to national attention. Instead, Los Angeles has played a far more visible role in the history of Brazilian music on the West Coast.
Carmen Miranda’s meteoric run as a Hollywood superstar in the 1930s brought numerous Brazilian musicians to the Southland. The lure of work in the film studios continued to serve as a magnet, drawing composers like guitarist Laurindo Almeida and multi-instrumentalist Moacir Santos, while the massive pop success of Sergio Mendes in the 1960s brought another wave of ambitious artists to LA, which also boasts weather and beach culture amenable to Cariocas.
But without the commercial pressures of LA’s scene, the Bay Area seems to have provided the creative soil for some particularly rarified musical blooms, like Silva, a commanding pianist and composer whose music has been recorded by jazz artists such as Herbie Mann, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo, and vocalist Flora Purim.
Silva moved to the East Bay in 1986 to join the popular band Voz do Brasil at the invitation of Brazilian-born drummer Celso Alberti. In the Bay Area his most profound impact has been as an educator.
A founding faculty member at the California Jazz Conservatory, Silva has introduced hundreds of Bay Area musicians to Brazilian rhythmic concepts and the vast trove of tunes that make up the ever-expanding Brazilian songbook. He’s been a lot less visible as a bandleader in recent years, but in 2019 Silva released his first album under his own name in 30 years, “Brasil from Head to Toe.”
Dividing her time between Oakland and the Santa Cruz area, Villela has been championed by some of jazz’s most illustrious stars. Pat Metheny is a fan, and the late harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, a devoted lover of Brazilian music, contributed to “Inverse/Universe.” She’s recorded with the late tenor sax great Michael Brecker and teamed up with piano maestro Kenny Werner on the 2004 album “Dreamtales,” a startlingly beautiful and cohesive set of spontaneous compositions.
In 2019, she released Encantada, a collection of live tracks recorded in a variety of settings with collaborators such as Werner and Brazilian pianist Jasnan Daya Singh. Her multi-octave voice, which can evoke a flowing stream, a muted trombone, or a rainforest aviary, tends to draw all the attention, but Villela is also a gifted composer.
“It’s a totally different animal playing your own music,” she said. “I haven’t played those ‘Inverse/Universe’ songs in ages, and it’s great to do them with Ricardo and Marcos. They understand the lyrics. There’s a richness because of all the details of life that we share.”
Piedmont Piano Company’s pandemic business is booming, and livestream concerts support musicians
It’s no coincidence that Villela, Peixoto, and Silva are performing at downtown Oakland’s Piedmont Piano. The shop has long served as the East Bay showcase for artists in town to teach at the annual California Brazil Camp in Cazadero. With the piano business booming—many long-delayed keyboard dreams seem to have been unleashed during the pandemic—the store covers all of the production expenses and pays musicians all of the funds raised by their livestreams. Performances are also archived on Piedmont Piano’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
“I’m afraid to look and see how much we’re actually spending,” joked Jim Callahan, Piedmont Piano’s founder and president about the support his shop is providing to musicians.
Early in the spring, Callahan decided to invest in new video and audio gear to ensure the Piedmont Piano livestreams look and sound crisp. Co-produced by Jordan Perlman and run by Noah Hendricks, the concerts feature a diverse roster of artists.
Next month’s schedule includes the bodacious New Orleans funk and soul of Chelle’s Juke Joint (Feb. 4), the rockin’ string slingers Dirty Cello (Feb. 7), jazzy blues diva Maria Muldaur (Feb. 14), and Cuban piano maestro Omar Sosa (Feb. 21).
“We’re just trying to put money in the pocket of musicians,” said Callahan. “All the money goes to them. It doesn’t hurt to put the name and face of Piedmont Piano Company in front of every broadcast.”
Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Noah Hendricks’ last name.