On the way back from coffee with Brazilian conductor and composer Flávio Chamis, I watched from the sidewalk as an ancient full-size station wagon, all rust and peeling paint, lurched down Penn Avenue -- with the corpse of a baby grand piano strapped to the roof. Which was almost as incongruous as meeting Chamis himself in the land of pierogies and football.
We'd met at the Curtain Call café, ostensibly to discuss his new album, a collection of compositions that straddle classical music and Brazilian jazz. Called Especiaria, it's now being released via the Brazilian Biscoito Fino label.
But for the most part, I struggled to keep up as Chamis steered the conversation from topic to topic, his gentle, soothing accent belying his keen gaze. There's Brazilian jazz's worldwide dissemination through the American pop industry in the 1960s. Spin magazine, Sergio Mendez, Frank Sinatra, and the legacy of Antonio Carlos Jobim. The relationship between the opening of Wagner's opera Tristan and Isolde ("the beginning of modern music") and the blues scale, a synchronicity Chamis develops in his own piece "Tristan Blues." Whew.
Chamis' classical career began in Brazil, when he decided to give up engineering to pursue music, a journey which led him to the Rubin Academy at the Tel Aviv University and an orchestral conducting degree from Detmold Music Academy, in Germany. Along the way, he became conducting assistant to Leonard Bernstein, and in 1994, when his wife secured a spot in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Chamis moved to Pittsburgh. Now he and Tatjana Mead Chamis live in the North Hills with their daughter and twin boys. "I swore I would never be a suburban -- now look at me, I have a minivan," Chamis said with a wry smile.
But before all that, he was just a teen-ager in Brazil, strumming a guitar and learning popular songs by ear.
Especiaria -- which translates as "spice" -- is a return to those roots, an attempt to capture the spontaneity of jazz, pop and Brazilian music with compositions rooted in the experience, discipline and perspective of a classical composer. "I had to think how to perform that, and to have musicians that are proficient in both worlds," Chamis told me. "There is an extra layer of knowledge there that [popular] musicians use, that classical musicians don't have. So I came very late in my life to that layer down there."
To explore this musical terrain, Chamis recruited an international ensemble that includes Pittsburgh musicians Marty Ashby (guitar), Dwayne Dolphin (bass) and Jay Ashby (trombone), who also produced the sessions at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. But only Brazilians would do for voice and drums. "I can tell the difference, if it's not a Brazilian drummer," Chamis insisted. He eventually secured Tutty Moreno to authentically render the samba and bossa nova grooves, and vocalist Joyce was flown in to perform on six songs, all in Portuguese.
"You wouldn't say 'this is like taking classical music and taking it away from the context.' That is the point -- that is really important for me. The classical part is still classical, and the popular is still popular, and I'm not trying to force them together. They retain their particularities. It almost becomes a third thing at certain times."
Even though Especiaria is just coming out now -- Chamis hopes to find a separate label to release it in the U.S. and Canada -- he recorded it in 2003, and has moved on since then -- to dinosaurs.
Chamis' current project is a 30-minute composition, commissioned to debut in conjunction with a new dinosaur fossils exhibit that will open later this year Carnegie Natural History Museum. "I read some long, serious books about dinosaurs, and I'm trying to take dinosaur facts, and translate that into music," he said, with a slight wave of his hand. "Very hard to say. Once you see the music, you might understand."
It doesn't seem that much harder to understand than, say, a piano rolling down Penn Avenue on a station wagon, or a Brazilian composer and conductor living in Pittsburgh.
Perhaps the Cultural District is a fairly accurate name, after all.