Though he started his career making Brazilian dance music 30 years ago with the short-lived band, Conexão Japeri, Ed Motta grew up addicted to rock, soul and funk. His solo career, which began in 1990, witnessed many stylistic twists and turns, as the Rio-born musician navigated his way through a myriad of different genres in a quest to find his true musical self. With ‘AOR’ in 2013, he seemed to have found his desired musical destination. It was a homage to Adult Oriented Rock that sounded to some like Steely Dan fronted by the smoky, soulful vocals of Donny Hathaway. Motta expanded on and refined the aesthetics of ‘AOR’ with 2015’s ‘Perpetual Gateways,’ recorded in America with Gregory Porter’s producer, Kamau Kenyatta, at the helm. Now, Motta unveils his latest offering, the self-produced ‘Criterion Of The Senses,’ which seems to perfectly crystallise the smooth, late-’70s jazz-soul-rock sound that he has been striving for since 2013.
People often talk about Ed Motta’s influences without praising his originality. Though his musical inspirations are often transparent and immediately recognisable – something he readily admits to – the key to his music is how he filters these influences through his own unique sensibility to arrive at something that sounds fresh, original and contemporary rather than derivative and retro. Containing eight songs and with a running time of only 34 minutes, ‘Criterion…’ might seem a short album by today’s standards, but it’s a substantial artistic statement and, of course, it is ideally suited to vinyl, Motta’s favourite medium for recorded music (he boasts a collection of 30,000 records).
The new LP starts off with a mellow mid-tempo groove called ‘Lost Connection To Prague,’ a meditation on alienation and discombobulation, where Motta’s rich, soul-infused vocals are framed by jazzy Rhodes chords. Also striking is lead guitarist Tiago Arruda’s extended Larry Carlton-esque jazz-rock fretboard tropes.
The soul community will lap up ‘The Sweetest Berry,’ a succulent, romantic, groove ballad that has echoes of Motta’s favourite vocalist, the great Donny Hathaway, in its musical DNA. That particular song’s virtue is its relative simplicity, which means that it contrasts acutely with the taut, sophisto-jazz-funk of ‘Novice Never Required,’ a more cryptic song seemingly about espionage and a shady business deal.
Also draped in mystery is the more breezy ‘Required Dress Code,’ which sonically comes across like Christopher Cross re-imagined by Messrs Becker and Fagen. Its lyrics tell the story of a party where a new, unspecified and perhaps illicit, ‘substance’ is introduced to the guests. ‘X1 In Test,’ on the other hand, enters into the world of sci-fi while ‘The Tiki’s Broken There’– a sinuous duet with female vocalist Cidalia Castro – is steeped in film noir mystique. It’s also distinguished by something you don’t often hear on pop records – a lovely bass clarinet solo.
More direct and less oblique is a humorous chunk of shiny FM pop-rock called ‘Shoulder Pads,’ Motta’s tribute to the 1980s, though one suspects it’s coming from a tongue-in-cheek angle, especially when he sings, “I’m missing the ’80s…my mullet and my car.”
‘Criterion Of The Senses’ is an immersive listen that takes you deep into Ed Motta’s intriguing world where the songs resonate like half-remembered dreams. Ultimately, it’s a supremely enriching experience that is deeply satisfying and yet leaves you craving more.