The Brazilian Jazz Legend On Her New Album, Airto, Monk And Dizzy.
“I talk too much,” says Flora Purim with an infectious, self-effacing laugh when I tell her the countdown on our Zoom video call says that we have ten minutes of the interview remaining. She’s speaking to me from home in Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil, and we’ve been talking for over an hour, but I’ve only managed to ask the venerable “Queen of Brazilian jazz” two questions from a long list I’d prepared. The situation where an artist goes “off-piste” for a long time is usually a nightmare scenario for an interviewer trying to extract precise information in a limited timeframe but in Flora Purim’s case, her personality is so warm and the conversation so captivating – free-flowing with surprising twists and turns, like the sinuous improvised melodies that characterise many of her songs – that I go with her flow and enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it proves to be; an exhilarating journey through a life that has been an extraordinary adventure and which has, to quote the lyrics from a 1974 song Flora wrote, “thousands of stories to tell.”
Flora Purim’s story began in Rio de Janeiro 80 years ago, where she was born into a Jewish middle-class family. Music played a vital role in the Purim household; her father, Noam, a classical musician, played the violin but it was from her mother, Rachel, whose musical tastes were more eclectic, that Flora fell in love with jazz. “My mother played piano and she loved Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Errol Garner, who she played all the time,” she tells me. And it was from her mother’s collection of 78 rpm records that she heard the great African American singers that would fuel her passion to become a jazz singer: legendary names like Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan.
In December 1967 at the age of 25, Purim realised a long-held dream by moving to America, the home of jazz. “I went to the US to meet my idols,” she reveals. “To see them live and find out how they could play the way they played and how they lived. I wanted to know what they ate and how they dressed.”
By then, she already had a debut album under her belt – 1964’s ‘Flora E M.P.M.’, a beguiling collection of bossa nova-tinged pop released by RCA that is now a collector’s item – but in America no one knew who she was, and she had to start her career from scratch. Life was tough at first – Flora travelled to America alone, leaving her family behind – but eventually, the spellbinding quality of her six-octave voice and unique way of interpreting melodies and lyrics got her noticed. The saxophonist Stan Getz – whose love for Brazilian bossa nova music brought him a new, much wider, audience in the early 1960s – heard her and was instantly captivated. She went on tour with him and then recorded as a guest artist on recordings by the Blue Note Records’ pianist/arranger, Duke Pearson, in the late ‘60s. (
But it was meeting the remarkable pianist Chick Corea – who had been a key figure in Miles Davis’ jazz-rock experiments – that led to her joining his ground-breaking jazz-fusion band Return To Forever as a founder-member in 1972 along with her husband, the drummer, and percussionist extraordinaire, Airto Moreira. It was as a member of Return To Forever that Flora’s career went stratospheric; especially when the group’s second LP, ‘Light As A Feather,’ came off the press. One of the highlights of that classic album was an iconic track called ‘500 Miles High,’ which Flora has recorded herself several times, most recently on her new album ‘If You Will,’ released last April.
Amazingly, ‘If You Will’ is Flora Purim’s first solo release in a decade-and-a-half. “I was already retired many years but I was bored and so I said I’m going to have some fun,” she says, explaining her decision to come out of retirement. But before she could get back in the studio, the global pandemic brought the world to a halt. “Covid 19 came in and studios were not open,” she says. “Musicians were not available. They would only do it virtually because everybody has a small computer. They send you the track and you work on it back and forth and that’s how this record was made, except for two songs.”
‘500 Miles High’ was one of the songs that Flora cut at a nearby studio in real-time with local musicians in Curitiba once the lockdown was lifted. She recorded it as a tribute to Corea, who died in February 2021. She confesses, though, that the keyboardist might not have approved of her new version. “Well, I committed an infraction,” she laughs. “The original key was very high so the first thing I did – I thought Chick was not around, so he won’t be mad at me – was to change the key and lower it from G to B flat. I asked Davi Satori, a beautiful keyboard player who’s a classical piano player, to transcribe it. The arrangement felt so good that I didn’t need a saxophone player, so we did it, just a trio and me.”
Flora also reveals that Airto, her husband of 50 years, who played drums and percussion on the original version, decided to sit the new version out. “He didn’t want to play on it,” says Flora, “so I called a local drummer, Endrigo Bettega.” She adds, “He played very softly,” which, she says, she preferred to her husband’s high-decibel drumming. “Airto used to bash behind me so badly because he got so excited,” she laughs. “When the band blew, he’d go with them and wouldn’t come back down dynamically. So, when I had to go back into the song, it was up there in volume.”
But Airto plays on a second older track that Flora decided to revisit on her new album, adding his trademark jungle percussion to ‘If You Will’s title song, another tribute to a fallen comrade; the late keyboard maven George Duke, who played on many of the singer’s ‘70s albums (some of which he also produced). ‘If You Will’ spotlights Flora’s daughter, Diana, a talented “chip off the old block” and was a Brazilian-flavoured tune that Duke wrote and recorded for his 2000 LP, ‘Cool,’ with Flora on guest vocals. “He wrote the song with me in mind,” explains Flora, who says that “it was the lyrics he wrote” that prompted her to record her own version of a song whose theme is the healing property of music. “It’s a great message. It says things like if you sing this song – even if you sing out of tune – it will bring you peace and joy.”
Another highlight of ‘If You Will’ is ‘Newspaper Girl,’ Flora’s interpretation of the title track from an album written and recorded by her long-time collaborator, guitarist, and songwriter Jose Neto with his group Netoband in 2012. The original was a guitar-led instrumental, but on ‘If You Will,’ the song is transformed into a breezy Brazilian groove where Flora caresses the song’s melody with wordless vocals.
Recalling how she came to record the tune, she says: “I needed one more song, so I called Jose and said, ‘I’m in trouble. I have to deliver this record in time, and I need one more song.’ He said, ‘I was talking to Celso’ – who was a drummer in our band – ‘and he told me to send you ‘Newspaper Girl’ because he thinks it’s good for you.’”
Neto sent Flora the backing track to put her vocals on but when Airto heard that there was already percussion on it, he felt there was no room for him to contribute anything. Flora, however, encouraged Airto to use his voice as a percussion instrument, which gives the song’s groove a unique flavour. “Nobody does the mouth percussion thing like him,” Flora says. “I said, ‘Airto, do some sounds,’ then he took one pass and did it all. As we mixed, we brought him up and we put the other percussionist on the level of the background music.”
The new album has elicited enthusiastic reviews and marks Flora’s first offering for Strut, an eclectic UK label offering both reissues and new releases sourced from around the globe. It was established in 1999 by the DJ, avid crate-digger, and music connoisseur, Quinton Scott. “I love Quinton,” gushes Flora. “He’s above and beyond. Strut is very small – they are a label of a big company, i7, which is in Germany – and they have very little money, but I love them.”
Having tasted life at an affluent major record company – she was signed to Warner Bros in the late 1970s where she released three albums including ‘Carry On’ that married Brazilian jazz with American funk – Flora knows that Strut is the kind of recording home she prefers. “When I was in New York promoting for Warner Brothers, they wanted me to look like a star and drove me around in a limo, which I don’t want to do ever again,” she says.
Though being with a major label might have appeared glamorous to outsiders, the reality was that they always kept tabs on her whereabouts by keeping her under surveillance. It was her friend, the Brazilian bossa nova legend Joao Gilberto, whom she got to know while living in New Jersey, that made her aware of how controlling big music corporations could be, sometimes in a sinister way. “He said, ‘Flora, the drivers of the limos are spies.’ I said ‘Joao, come on. You’re freaking out,’ but he said Flora, ‘they tell the company where you are and what you’re doing. When the company wants to find you, they will know exactly where you are and who you are hanging with.’”
Though she got to experience life at a major American label, Flora began her career in the USA with a smaller, independent record company; producer Orrin Keepnews’ jazz-focused Milestone label, which she joined after leaving Return To Forever in 1973. Her debut album for the label, 1974’s ‘Butterfly Dreams,’ was a landmark recording in the history of vocal jazz which succeeded in anointing her “First Lady of Fusion.” It featured a stellar supporting cast – including keyboardist George Duke, bassist Stanley Clarke, and saxophonist Joe Henderson – and found Flora patenting a unique style where her vocalisations ranged from barely audible whispers to piercing screams and she improvised like a horn player; she also mimicked sounds in nature, producing a series of echo-laden animal cries, bird songs, and jungle noises.
The jazz world had never heard anyone like Flora Purim before and the impact she made was powerful enough to win her Downbeat magazine’s much coveted Best Female Jazz Vocalist award, which she won four times in succession. Her fame caused some envy among other female jazz singers who’d been around much longer, as Flora remembered: “They didn’t treat me very nicely. Most of the jazz singers didn’t understand how a white Brazilian Jewish singer could be voted by the critics and the readers of Downbeat magazine as the top female jazz singer for four years in a row. What did I have that they didn’t have?”
She remembers that Carmen McRae didn’t her success too well. “She was really jealous,” discloses Flora. “She lived in Beverly Hills and when she turned 60, she gave a big party and invited anybody that was anybody. Everybody was singing and doing their thing – including Sarah Vaughan – while I was quietly watching respectfully. Then Carmen, in front of everybody, said to me, ‘Hey, top female jazz singer, why don’t you sing something for us?’ She had her trio there, piano, bass, and drums.”
Although Flora was put on the spot by one of her idols, she wasn’t fazed and immediately rose to the challenge. Instead of trying to wow McRae’s guests with an athletic up-tempo number – the kind of technically dazzling bebop number that McRae excelled at – she surprised everyone by doing a slow, quiet ballad called ‘Like A Lover’ that McRae had recently recorded for her 1975 Blue Note album, ‘I Am Music.’
Flora says she realised the power a ballad could have in transfixing an audience when she opened her 1976 live album ‘500 Miles High: Flora Purim At Montreux’ with a slow Brazilian song called ‘O Cantador.’ The idea to start with a slow number on that occasion had been the idea of bassist Ron Carter – “He was really nice, he was one of my mentors,” she reveals – and its success gave Flora the confidence to sing one of Carmen McRae’s own ballads at the singer’s birthday concert. Before she sang a note, she spoke to McRae’s trio: “I said, ‘Let’s do it acapella from the top until the second verse. On the second verse, we’ll start a 4/4 tempo.’ I caught the singers’ eyes. They were all watching me telling the band. Then I said, ‘Okay, give me the key you gave to Carmen, I’m sure it’s going to work out.’ I went on and they did exactly as I asked them to do.”
Flora sang softly but with deep emotion and the effect was more powerful than if she was singing at full volume. “That’s what Joao Gilberto taught me, to sing very low so the people have to come down to listen to you,” reveals Flora. “The audience goes very, very quiet because when you don’t sing loud you don’t have to do all those scales.”
So, how did Carmen McRae react when Flora finished singing the song? “Carmen never acknowledged me and told the band: ‘How come you don’t play like this when you’re backing me up?’”
Flora laughs at the memory of the story she’s just told me but the style and manner of the performance she gave that day encapsulated her unique artistry as a vocalist. She didn’t think of herself as a star on a pedestal set apart from the accompanying musicians and so could enter a deeper communion on stage with them. Explains Flora: “Carmen didn’t catch the vibe that I sang for the band. I was not the singer; I was part of the band. So, I would listen to the keyboard player and would not come in until he’d finished saying what he had to say, and then if the bass player would come in, I’d stop and let the bass be heard. When it’s only the four of us, there’s a lot of space. It’s my concept of music and I think it should have been hers too because she could play piano and was a musician, but I think she and people like Ella (Fitzgerald) and Sarah (Vaughan) got caught in the swing/bebop era when they became divas.”
Flora has many stories about some of the greats from the jazz world. She remembers one night after she hadn’t been in America long that she tried to gain access to a jazz club in Harlem and the doorman wouldn’t let her in. “I was arguing in broken English, saying, ‘I come from Brazil. We don’t have this type of segregation in Brazil. Blacks and whites hang out and they play together, and they do things together.’ He said, ‘Snow White, you don’t belong here, go find another place.’”
Witnessing the commotion was a 6’ 3” middle-aged black man with an imposing, 200lb physique. Says Flora: “He was going from the bar to the table and went past the door. He saw the guy call me Snow White and said to him, ‘What are you doing?’ He scolded him and then put this huge hand out and said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, give me your hand, you are my guest, come in.’ And he pulled me into the club. I didn’t know who he was but when the main band came on, the announcer said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, now will you put your hands together for Thelonious Monk,’ and the guy that gave me his hand to come into the club walked on stage.”
Flora knew everyone who was someone on the New York jazz scene – from the ultra-cool Miles Davis and warm, jovial Cannonball Adderley to the bebop architect Dizzy Gillespie. One of the high points of her career, in fact, was the three years she spent touring with Gillespie as part of his United Nations Orchestra in the late ‘80s. During that time, she and the trumpeter forged a close friendship. “I often went to Dizzy’s suite with (percussionist) Giovanni Hidalgo and sat on his bed listening to him telling his story from the 30s and 40s and talk about his sisters and his religion.”
Gillespie was a devotee of the Bahá’í faith, which was established in the 19th century in the Middle East and whose central tenet is unity, peace, and religious tolerance. Gillespie, who converted to the faith in 1968, carried a prayer book everywhere he went. “It was made specially for him and had his name engraved in gold,” recalls Flora, who says that the trumpeter could recite any prayer for the book by memory. One day, unexpectedly, he handed her the book that Flora had seen him carry everywhere for two years. “It’s yours, take it,” he told her and then invited her to a Bahá’í meeting in Australia though “he never told me to become a Bahá’í,” says Flora. Even so, she was smitten by the faith and its philosophies. “I really wanted to be part of that, and I was for a while,” she reveals.
Of course, Flora Purim’s name will be forever associated with Airto Moreira, the genius percussionist who has been her husband for half a century. Their relationship goes further back than that, right to 1964 when they first met at a gig. I ask Flora whether it was a case of love at first sight to which she laughs heartily and says, “No, no, it was hate at first sight!”
Sparks flew between them, but not the amorous kind at first. “I was hired by a club in São Paulo and flew from Rio to sing with one of three bands that were playing in the first club where people couldn’t dance or talk during the set. There were no lights, only candles. No food was served but drinks were served. And if anybody spoke during the set, they were cordially invited to leave. So, I got there, met the band, and went to see them play somewhere else. I thought, Okay, they are good. Airto was on drums but when I started singing with them, he played so loud I couldn’t hear myself. There were no dynamics. I couldn’t whisper because he’d be covering me.”
After the gig, Flora sought Airto out. “I attempted to talk to him, and he wouldn’t even speak with me,” she says. “He finished the set, left the club, and disappeared until the time we had to play again. This went on for a whole month.”
Eventually, Flora made her mind up to confront him about his hostility towards her and followed him to a park where he met some friends. “I said, ‘please, listen, I need this gig as much as you do. If you don’t come down (in volume), I cannot do it.’ Then I made the biggest mistake by saying to him, ‘Could you play more like Dom Um Romao.’ He was a wonderful drummer 20 years older than me who I used to live with and played with Weather Report later. When I said Dom’s name, that was it. I blew it big time. Airto got so mad at me that he would bash his drums even more behind me.”
Eventually, though, the ice between them thawed. That was when one of Airto’s friends, another drummer, turned up in the park to give two-dozen red roses to Flora on her 23rd birthday and invite her out for pizza. Jealous and afraid Flora would find someone else, Airto sprang into action and intervened. “When he saw that happening, he knew he could lose me and made a move. That’s when I knew he was falling, and so I started to look at him differently. Then I realised that even playing that loud, he was very musical.”
Like every couple, they have had their difficulties over the years, but they remain together, as inseparable as Brazil and the bossa nova beat. And they’ve been pioneers who, following in the footsteps of their forbears like the great bossa nova popularisers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto, created jazz with a unique South American flavour. Says Flora: “Airto and I spread the Brazilian feeling post-bossa nova because even when we were doing jazz, we were putting our mojo, our sauce, in it.”
Looking beyond ‘If You Will,’ a new biography is on the horizon, which will be the third book on her life and music. The first was 1976’s Freedom Song, which Flora reveals was based on a movie screenplay of her life commissioned by the noted Columbia Pictures film producer Martin Poll; when the movie deal fell through, it was turned into a book written by the American crime novelist Edward Bunker and mostly focused on the harrowing eighteen months Flora spent in a Los Angeles prison after she was framed for cocaine possession by unscrupulously corrupt police officers.
The second book, Spirito Liberi, was written by the Italian musicologist Giancarlo Mei and chronicled both Flora and Airto’s musical adventures up to the early 2000s (To date, no English translation exists of it, unfortunately). The new, as yet untitled biography, proposes to bring Flora and Airto’s story up to date and has two authors, as Flora explains. “I met two incredible writers. One lives in the US, in San Francisco – his name is Richard Graham – and the other one is Brazilian; his name is Pedro Alejandro Sainz. Both know more than Giancarlo and as they wrote down what they knew about my life, they surprised me because they knew things that I had forgotten about and didn’t even remember anymore.”
In a long and eventful career packed with many wonderful memories, Flora says it’s hard to single out individual highlights but one thing that she cherishes, and which is indelibly engraved into her memory banks, is the time she went to Japan with Chick Corea’s Return To Forever in the early ‘70s. “When we arrived in Tokyo, we couldn’t get off the plane because there were hundreds of people at the airport with banners with our names on them,” she says, smiling at the recollection of the band’s popstar welcome in the fabled Land of the Rising Sun. “Chick stepped off the plane first and because he had his camera with him, he took a shot of the people taking pictures of us. He caught everybody by surprise. It was very funny, and they needed to call the police motorcades to take us from the airport to our hotel. That was amazing!”