Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

My musical life in Belo Horizonte: Part 1

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

I spent 18 months conducting dissertation research on music and politics in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 2011 and 2012. Thinking back on a few of the performances that have touched me the most, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. In retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me. I have ended up performing far more American jazz—and unfortunately far less Brazilian music—than I anticipated.


On the one hand, it has been infinitely rewarding to feel the genuine appreciation and warmth from audiences towards my jazz singing and improvisation. I have dedicated years trying to develop my own “voice,” in the sense of interpreting lyrics with conviction, but also in trying to develop my improvisational voice like any other instrument.


On the other hand, sharing this part of my musical life with Brazilian audiences has kept me from learning more Brazilian music. That being said, my jazz performances did open new doors to me.


The first open door actually came from a performance I did last summer in July 2010. Knowing I sang jazz, my roommate Ana invited me out one night to hear her cousin play a trio gig at a newly opened club called Nelson Bordello. From the outside, the club looked like a decrepit garage and, in fact, the entrance was through a metal garage door. But the interior had been renovated with a long skinny bar, simple wooden tables along the opposite wall, and ending in a small stage. Above the stage was a more intimate lounge with additional tables overlooking the first floor. Tables spilled out the entrance onto the concrete underneath the iconic Viaduto Santa Tereza. The place was truly charming.

Viaduto Santa Tereza

Viaduto Santa Tereza in Belo Horizonte. Photo by Alexandre Costa.


The trio sounded great. Ana introduced me to her cousin João Antunes and convinced him to let me sit in with them, much to my terror. I have never liked sitting in on someone else’s gig, or showing up to jam sessions. I am awful at remembering lyrics—a terrible affliction for any singer—so spur-of-the-moment performances are often stressful. Not one to back down from a challenge, I sang well. João and his trio even invited me back the following week.


After a single rehearsal with João and bassist Trigo Santana, we had a fabulous time at the gig. João had also invited drummer Guto Ferreira—son of legendary drummer Esdras “Nenêm” Ferreira—and saxophonist Chico Amaral to join him. I was really touched by their dedication to learning my arrangements.


I can remember feeling a buzz of nervous excitement before the show. The buzz was from having had such a blast with João and Trigo at rehearsal. There was no sense of just going through the motions—they gave their all every moment. The nervousness was my usual worry for how the audience would receive me, particularly as a foreigner.


Before stepping on stage, each musician greeted me with such enthusiasm, I felt buoyed with positive energy. I stepped onto the tiny stage for sound check and began to unroll a little carpet I bought for gigs. For anyone who has ever worked on balance skills as part of a workout, you’ll know that balance is most difficult to do with your eyes closed. As a singer, I sing with my eyes closed almost constantly, and, though I have never fallen down, I have waivered dangerously in high heels while singing a particularly impassioned passage.


Two memories of that night stick with me until today. The first is the transcendent feeling that set in almost immediately—every member of the band really listened. And it was contagious; the more they listened to me, the more I listened to them, eyes tightly shut, turning my smiling face towards the guitar, now bass, now drums, now saxophone, reacting to them reacting to me. I barely opened my eyes, but when I did, bright friendly eyes met mine.


The other memory I’ll never forget was a comment from the drummer as I started to count of the Chick Corea tune “Sea Journey.” Though the audience was engaged with us, they were also drinking, chatting, and “feliz da vida [happy-go-lucky],” making it hard to talk to each other on the bandstand. As I counted off, Trigo asked the drummer Guto if he could hear me. Looking down at my bare foot, he replied, “Não, mas vou olhar esse pézinho aquí [No, but I’ll just watch this little foot here].” Ha!


Sadly, my research grant ended just a few weeks later, and I left Belo Horizonte that August. I have never had the chance to perform with that great quartet since.


But there would be other performances.

Review in Guitar International: Milton Nascimento at the Barbican

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Many thanks to the editors at Guitar International for their interest in publishing my recent review of Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican in London on 20 October 2013 as part of Milton’s tour 50 anos de Carreira – Uma Travessia [50-Year Career – A Taverse].

As published in Guitar International, 2 December 2013.

2013 has been one of celebration for Milton Nascimento. Besides celebrating his 71st birthday on 26 October, Milton has been commemorating his 50-year career as a musician that began with the EP Barulho de Trem recorded in Belo Horizonte in 1963. If the London installment of Milton’s tour 50 Anos de Carreira—Uma Travessia [50-Year Career—A Traverse] is any indication of his vibrancy, then I expect to see many more commemorations to come.

After a captivating performance by the performer-composer Siba from Pernambuco state in northeastern Brazil, the audience murmured with anticipation while the crew changed the stage to receive Milton Nascimento and his band. Much of this buzz was in Portuguese—in the lobby, in the ladies’ bathroom, and from my own friend from Lisbon who joined me for the concert. A mug sat prominently on a stool next to Milton’s microphone showing his own drawing of the mountains from his own state Minas Gerais that also adorns the cover of the album Geraes.


Album cover from Milton Nascimento’s 1976 release Geraes, featuring his artistic rendering of the mountainous landscape of Minas Gerais state.

Album cover from Milton Nascimento’s 1976 release Geraes, featuring his artistic rendering of the mountainous landscape of Minas Gerais state.

Milton entered the Barbican auditorium to enthusiastic applause, and the slow pace of his ginger footsteps gave him all the more time to soak it up. As a commemorative show, the repertoire drew largely from Milton’s best-known albums of the 1970s (see full set list below). The group kicked off the evening with the rousing anthem to liberty and optimism “Credo [Creed].” Though it is a song that few would name as a favorite (through no defect of its own), it sums up Milton’s ability to compose veiled protest song that functions equally well as a timeless rock anthem about the hope invested in Brazilian youth:


Caminhando pela noite de nossa cidade

Walking through the night of our city

Acendendo a esperança e apagando a escuridão

Lighting hope and putting out the darkness

Vamos! Caminhando pelas ruas de nossa cidade

Let’s go! Walking through the streets of our city

Viver derramando a juventude pelos corações

To live pouring the youth through our hearts

Tenha fé no nosso povo que ele resiste

Have faith in our people that they resist

Tenha fé no nosso povo que ele insiste

Have faith in our people that they insist

E acorda novo, forte, alegre, cheio de paixão

And awake new, strong, happy, full of passion.”


Many shouted along with the band’s punctuated accompaniment to the word, “Vamos! [Let’s go!]” It struck me that such socially conscious song is as relevant in today’s democratic Brazil, rife with political dissatisfaction and social protest, as it was in the dictatorial Brazil of the 1970s.

Guitarist and musical director Wilson Lopes, Milton’s constant companion since first working together on Angelus in 1993, provided sensitive accompaniment on “Cais [Quay]’, one of Milton’s best-loved songs. Fans and journalists alike have recently criticized Milton for not using as much falsetto as he once did or for the occasional out-of-tune notes at the extremes of his range, but I feel that these critics are missing the point. Milton’s voice is still quite strong and rich, and it is the conviction with which he sings that is most beautiful: “Eu quero mais! [I want more!]” For the famous closing theme, pianist Kiko Continentino left his perch allowing Milton to take over the grand piano. Drummer Lincoln Cheib—a joyful performer and attentive collaborator—helped build anticipation first with the toms, then with the full drum set until the group reached a bombastic peak.

Kiko’s lush piano accompaniment segued directly into “Vera Cruz.” First recorded on the album Courage in 1968, the session was held at the legendary Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey alongside jazz legend Herbie Hancock and Brazilian arranger and organist Eumir Deodato. As a young jazz singer in Michigan, this was the first song I ever heard by Milton Nascimento. For my generation of jazz musicians, it has remained a fervent favorite, and it is no wonder why, after witnessing the exuberant solos by saxophonist Widor Santiago and each of the band members in their turn.

Another strong theme in Milton’s music is that of fraternity and friendship. The medley of the songs “Clube da Esquina” and “Clube da Esquina No. 2” by Milton and Lô Borges celebrated his lifelong friendships with the collective of musicians that became known by the name Clube da Esquina [Corner Club]. The latter song became perhaps most poignant as Wilson and bassist Gastão Villeroy contributed backing vocals for the first time, while Milton performed lyrics that play with the sound of repeated words. Speaking at first about childhood friendships, then adult friendships, the lyrics eventually expand to include the universal friend, that is, Milton’s fans from all over the world: “Quero ver então a gente, gente, gente, gente, gente … [So I want to see the people, people, people, people, people].” Raising his arms in offering to the crowd, ecstatic cheers from the audience confirmed that the sentiment was reciprocated.


Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican, October 20, 2013.  Pictured from left: Kiko Continentino (piano, keyboards), Widor Santiago (saxophones), Pedro Nascimento (vocals, cavaquinho), Gastão Villeroy – obscured (electric bass), Lincoln Cheib (drums, percussion), Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Wilson Lopes (musical director, guitar).  Photo by Matthew Warnock.

Milton Nascimento e Banda at the Barbican, October 20, 2013.
Pictured from left: Kiko Continentino (piano, keyboards), Widor Santiago (saxophones), Pedro Nascimento (vocals, cavaquinho), Gastão Villeroy – obscured (electric bass), Lincoln Cheib (drums, percussion), Milton Nascimento (vocals, guitar), Wilson Lopes (musical director, guitar).
Photo by Matthew Warnock.

The rest of the show was peppered with crowd pleasers, favorites for the connoisseur, and an obscure gem. Milton’s gypsy samba in ¾ time “Cravo e Canela [Clove and Cinnamon]” got the crowd to groove and sing, but the band also showed appealing versatility by ending with a stripped-down, bluesy and gritty version at half tempo. Another crowd favorite came in the form of the psychedelic rock song “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada [Blind Faith, Sharp Knife],” a song rarely played by Milton in live shows. Faltering slightly on the falsetto melody, the song once helped launch the career of fellow performer-composer Beto Guedes when they shared lead vocals on its 1975 recording.

For the connoisseur, Milton played a lovely instrumental medley in dedication to his mother Lília. Adopted at an early age by Josino and Lília de Brito Campos, Milton described her influence on him as inestimable: “You can look for … [his English falters] poesia … o que é que é poesia? [he asks the audience what is it that is poetry? someone answers] … poetry, books, the world. Never you gonna find something as beautiful as my mother. She is the goddess that made me a musician, a person, everything.” The wordless theme “Lília” is perhaps not what one might expect of a doting son. Rather than a sentimental ballad, we hear something more akin to film music—perhaps cowboys crossing the vastness of the sertão [Brazilian hinterlands] at a punishing pace.

“Lília” moved seamlessly into a wordless version of “Maria Três Filhos [Maria of Three Children],” and the playfulness of the band was in full force. Used as a vehicle for improvisation, each member played cleverly with the theme, that can be divided simultaneously into either 4 beats or 5 beats, including a particularly satisfying exchange between drummer Lincoln Cheib and Milton’s percussive guitar chords. In an ongoing tribute to family and fraternity, Milton introduced his own adopted son to sing and play cavaquinho—a 4-string instrument similar to the ukulele used commonly in samba and choro styles—on “Circo Marimbondo.”

As for the rare gem, Milton sang his Portuguese version of “Amor e Paixão,” a song he performed and recorded with the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan as “Love and Passion” in 1987. He has never recorded the song as a soloist, but remarked that he still intends to do so. Milton did not leave his most dedicated fans in the lurch for popular hits. He handled the vociferous fans with grace as many shouted out requests throughout the night, while others insisted, “Deixa ele cantar o que quer! [Let him sing what he wants!].” Each hit was cheered as he sang “Para Lennon e McCartney [For Lennon and McCartney],” “Maria, Maria,” and closed the show with the song that started his career “Travessia [Journey].”

The real demonstration of the fandom present at the Barbican came when he asked the audience to sing to him. He has been making this request of audiences for the past few years, and London did not disappoint. If somewhat bashfully, one could hear “Canção da América [Song of America]” from beginning to end. Though composed in Los Angeles, for many the song is an homage to Brazilian friendship (the first line sings, “Amigo é coisa pra se guardar debaixo de sete chaves [A friend is something to be kept under seven locks and keys]”), for others an analogy for shared struggle and oppression throughout Latin America. Perhaps in the Barbican, the best metaphor was one of a friendship that can dissolve the constructs of nation, borders, and cultural difference. Surely, one thing Milton best demonstrates is the power of music to unite and delight.

Author’s Note: Milton Nascimento recently donated thousands of items from his personal archives to be shown on digital display at the Jobim Institute in Rio de Janeiro. Music fans can stream many of his albums for free: Follow the link to the website, click on Audio and Video, then scroll down to the album covers and choose from more than 30 recordings released throughout Milton’s long career.

Milton Live At Barbican Set List

1. Credo (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 2 1978)

2. Cais (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Clube da Esquina 1972)

3. Vera Cruz (Milton Nascimento / Márcio Borges; Courage 1968, Angelus 1993)

4. Clube da Esquina (Milton Nascimento / Lô Borges / Márcio Borges; Milton 1970)

5. Clube da Esquina No. 2 (Milton Nascimento / Lô Borges / Márcio Borges; Clube da Esquina 1972)

6. Cravo e Canela (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Clube da Esquina 1972)

7. Amor e Paixão (Milton Nascimento; Recorded as “Love and Passion” on Sarah Vaughan’s Brazilian Romance 1987)

8. Lília (Milton Nascimento; Clube da Esquina 1972)

9. Maria Três Filhos (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Milton 1970)

10. Circo Marimbondo (Milton Nascimento e Ronaldo Bastos; Geraes 1976)

11. Ponta de Areia (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Minas 1975)

12. Saídas e Bandeiras (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 1972)

13. Canção da América (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Sentinela 1980)

14. Fé Cega, Faca Amolada (Milton Nascimento / Ronaldo Bastos; Minas 1975)

15. Para Lennon e McCartney (Lô Borges / Márcio Borges / Fernando Brant; Milton 1970)

16. Maria, Maria (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Clube da Esquina 2 1978)

17. Raça (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Milton 1976)

18. Travessia (Milton Nascimento / Fernando Brant; Travessia 1976)

From the Vaults: Central Park West

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

It seems I am not a frequent blogger so far, but I have my excuses. I moved to Belo Horizonte, Brazil at the beginning of March and have been going through a rather-longer-than-anticipated process of settling in. But, now that I have a fabulous new internet connection in my little apartment in Funcionários (neighborhood in Belo Horizonte), I intend to share my thoughts here more frequently.

Today, I waxed a bit nostalgic and decided to practice a tune I sang for my master’s recital in 2008 at the University of Illinois. Later on, I decided to see what I actually sounded like three years ago, which for many musicians I know can be a cringe-worthy task. I decided that several recordings were passable in general, but for various flaws (at least, in my ears), were not passable for public consumption.

However, one recording actually made me smile. Thank goodness!

YouTube Preview Image

**Note: The video version of the audio allows me to store the information on YouTube, though I have no actual video footage of this performance. Therefore, enjoy some photos of my many trips through Minas Gerais, Brazil.**

This performance of John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” is from a performance at the ArtsGarden in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was recorded about three weeks after my master’s recital, and I think it shows. I sound more relaxed and less measured in my approach; I take more risks, and fortunately they pay off more often than not.

The ArtsGarden is a spherical glass structure that hovers above the intersection of Meridian and Washington streets in downtown Indy. Now, one would think that an entirely glass structure would be a nightmare of a performance space. While I wouldn’t recommend that a percussion ensemble perform there, the acoustic baffling is enough to provide a “live,” yet comfortable, environment. Apologies, however, for the not-so-in-tune piano.


The ArtsGarden at night in Indianapolis (Image Source:

This recording features the following dear friends and lovely musicians (miss you guys!):

Chris Reyman — piano

Jonathan Wegge — bass

Joshua Hunt — drums

The lyrics come from a mental image I developed from the title. I spent an afternoon in Central Park, New York City with my longtime friend Kathy Jacobson in 2005. As I wrote lyrics, I thought back to that time and imagined what it would be like to live nearby and spend afternoons there relaxing on a blanket, a homemade lunch in tow. The story tells of that mental space between waking and dreaming, and seemingly disparate images that form in one’s mind. The singer seeks to accept the unrelated thoughts, and simply enjoy the moment for what it is, allowing the present to begin to feel timeless. A sort of Central Park meditation.

Lay me down in your arms,
I feel you breathe silently, timelessly,
As moments fade into space, not quite awake.
What will be is yet to pass,
So why not make this time a time to last?
This is all, there’s no more to it all,
Our existence here, like waking life dreaming,
Just take my hand…
…Come with me to a place we can flee time’s embrace.

© Holly Holmes 2008

I Love My Ears

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(or, How Musicians Should Get Regular Hearing Tests)

Well, I haven’t always loved my ears. In fact, it has been pointed out to me many, many times that they are actually quite small. Embarrassingly small.

When I was about 8 years old, I took swimming lessons at the local YMCA. One day as I climbed out of the pool, wet hair glued to my cranium, a little boy asked me, “Heeeeeeeyyy–didn’t your ears ever grow?” I had never thought about it…(panic)…maybe they hadn’t…

When I was in my teens, my mom offered to take me to get my ears pierced. But, by that point, the “tiny ears” comments had already soured me on the idea. No piercings for me. They might dwarf my ears even further!

In high school and college, I stopped hiding my ears and became quite satisfied to be the odd one without pierced ears. And, until recently, that was the last time I thought about my ears.

Which is strange.

After all, I am a musician. I go to the optometrist every year to check my eyesight, but the last time I had a hearing test was when it was offered as a free public service in elementary school. I used to love those tests! BEEP! [Raise right hand]. Beep! [Raise right hand]. beep! [Raise left hand and wonder whether the sound was actually there, or whether my brain is now manufacturing sounds out of a sense of anticipation].

The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. How could I have gotten through 6 years of music school (I was completing my master’s degree in jazz performance at the time), and never learned about proper ear protection for musicians, especially those that work in amplified environments?

The next semester, I enrolled in a voice pedagogy class. During the second class, we had a visit from an employee at the campus Speech and Hearing Center that was very informative. I vowed to get my hearing tested as soon as possible. But as the semester unfolded, I became ensnared in various assignments and performance commitments, and the urgency evaporated.

My interest never disappeared however, and I would silently curse myself for forgetting my vow every time I found myself in a loud bar or concert. Besides noticing my discomfort, I also began to notice how people talk and think about sight versus hearing.

The prevailing attitude in regards to sight is to be to fix it if you can. In school, I was never one to sit in the back of the room. Though my reluctance to speak in classes kept me out of the front row, I always sat safely (and silently) in the second row. Unfortunately, had I chosen earlier than sophomore year biology class to sit in the back row—I’m looking at you, Jeff Scherwinski! You bad influence, you—I could have avoided a series of ill-fated attempts at hand-eye-coordinated sports.

My point is that the moment I sensed that something didn’t look right—namely, the plethora of biological terms I squinted at from a faraway lab table, or an incoming tennis ball—everyone around me suggested that I get my eyes checked. (You redeem yourself there, Jeff Scherwinski).

Now, how many times have you heard someone recommend that you get your hearing tested? Or even better, have you ever heard the phrase, “Yeah, I just got back from my annual hearing assessment.” The latter simply doesn’t exist!

Clearly, people do get their hearing tested. But, I suspect that only the very young and the very old get any serious medical opinions about their hearing. The fact is that after elementary school, we (speaking as a North American from the midwestern United States) simply hope our hearing will not change. And when it does, like so many ailments and even illnesses, we delay assessment and ignore symptoms for as long as possible. Why?

First, put simply, it’s a cultural thing. People seem to have very little tolerance for hearing loss. If asked to repeat oneself, not once but several times, normally-calm people reach a state of intolerable annoyance. I’ve witnessed it many times–a friend, husband or sister says, “What?” And everyone repeats, “WHAT?!?” in a snide or obnoxious tone. Rather than being a part of the conversation, they never get to find out what juicy tidbit was missed, and try to avoid being in that position ever again. The process of hiding hearing loss has already started.

Second, hearing tests have never become a part of routine health care. Or if they have, hearing exams are certainly not the subject of intense advertising campaigns or public service messages. Unlike eyesight, hearing is simply taken for granted.

At least one otolaryngologist recommends adult screenings once per decade until ago 50 and every three years thereafter. The same report, however, states that 14% of those between 18 and 44 have hearing loss. In the age of the iPod, perhaps once per decade is not enough.

I finally got my hearing tested. It is just as fun as I remember—lots of handraising and the wonder of silence in between beeps. I came away with earplugs designed especially for musicians. Though they have come in quite handy on flights, so far I have yet to use them in a practical situation. They are just not a part of my routine. But they live inside my purse now, waiting for the right moment to protect me from the beautiful (but loud) sounds of the world.

beep. Beep! BEEP!!!

Me and my little ears

Me and my little ears

New Recording Project: Bossa Nuevo

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Last night, I sang with my dear bandmates from Bossa Nuevo in celebration of our self-titled debut release: Bossa Nuevo. The group came together after several conversations about mutual interests in music from South America informed by our training in jazz and classical music. In particular, Bossa Nuevo decided to dedicate itself to two genres and our name reflects this interest–Brazilian bossa nova and Argentinian tango nuevo. Click on the album cover below to hear it!


Bossa Nuevo

Bossa Nuevo ©2010

Our CD release party was a treat! We performed for a very appreciative audience at V. Picasso in Urbana, and now I am really looking forward to your comments on the CD itself. We are distributing the record through CdBaby. If you choose to buy a copy there, we would love it if you left a comment on our CdBaby page. Since our debut primarily features Brazilian bossa nova and MPB (música popular brasileira) songs, we plan to put any profits right back into another recording project that will highlight tango music.

But for now, enjoy the debut!


6th Annual Meadowbrook Jazz Walk

Bossa Nuevo at the 6th Annual Meadowbrook Jazz Walk