What can you say that hasn’t been said about the man known as Pixinguinha, certainly one of the greatest Brazilian composers of the 20th century? Some would call him THE greatest. I personally liken him a little to Duke Ellington: a brilliant arranger and composer as well as a solo artist. Yet, for someone with such a sterling reputation, with such a varied and lengthy career, you’d really have to dig just to find decent transfers of a handful of his early discs, at least in the US and Europe. Many in the West have only heard covers of his most beloved and swoony compositions, like “Carinhoso” and “Lamentos.” In reality, Pixinguinha rarely recorded as a solo artist and primarily recorded with groups. A little rundown:
Pixinguinha was born Alfredo da Rocha Vianna in 1897, in Piedade, a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. His father was an amateur musician, keen on choro music, and who kept stacks of choro arrangements at home. Their address became a gathering place for local musicians to jam. Pixinguinha learned cavaquinho by the age of 10 from his brothers Léo and Henry, and began to accompany his father. Soon after, he was an apprentice of a musician and composer named Irineu Batina, and learned flute, which became his primary instrument through the late 1930s. By age 14, he was composing. In the 19-teens, he was playing with João Pernambuco, a revolutionary Brazilian guitarist (who, again, recorded only a handful of solo pieces) and a fellow musician who became a colleague throughout the rest of their long lives, Ernesto Joachim Maria dos Santos, known as “Donga,” who had a hit record in 1916 with a tune titled “Pelo Telephone,” considered to be the first recorded samba (though Donga’s authorship is disputed).
One of the reasons that Pixinguinha is considered a pioneer is because of the band he formed in 1919 to play at the Cine Palais in Rio, which was named Os Oito Batutas (“The Eight Amazing Players”). Pixinguinha led an integrated band – four white and four black Brazilians (Pixinguinha, his brother China, Donga, and Nelson Alves who had played with Chiquinha Gonzaga) – and they were controversial and criticized both because they were mixed and played in upper crust dance halls, and because they played tunes that, while jazzy and contemporary in many ways, were Brazilian or even Afro-Brazilian in style, like lundu and batuque songs. The band became huge and toured Brazil. In 1922, they were invited to Paris for a six month stay. When they returned to Brazil they toured Buenos Aires with a different lineup, and that is where Pixinguinha first appears on record. Os Oito Batutas recorded 10 discs for Victor in Argentina in early March of 1923. Despite those hot performances, most of those discs sold a mere 600-700 copies and are very rare. The irony continued, as the group was attacked for being multi-racial, and yet not being Brazilian enough – in other words, too cosmopolitan, too influenced by North American jazz.
The term choro didn’t really appear on disc in the early days of recording, though the music certainly was around, developing in the late 19th century; tunes that were in fact choros that appeared on record prior to the 1920s were sometimes called “polkas” or “Brazilian tangos.” A three part rondo, some liken choro to ragtime. Yet, while influenced by Brazilian song styles like the maxixe and lundu, choro is clearly also influenced by European dance forms. One of the quintessential aspects of choro is known as malícia, a kind of competitive back and forth between musicians during a performance – each trying to outdo each other. Another is the ability to improvise within that strict, syncopated form. The better musicians were able to turn on a dime and embellish their melodies with breakneck, intricate playing and surprises. Some of the greatest musicians who played choro were at their peak in the late 1920s, including bandolim master Luperce Miranda, trumpet player Bonfiglio de Oliveira, saxophonist Luiz Americano, guitarists Rogério Guimarães and João Martins, and without question Pixinguinha on the flute.
After the Batutas sessions, Pixinguinha continued as a performer and bandleader, recording for the Brazilian branch of Odeon (known as “Casa Edison”) with his Grupo do Pixinguinha. For those sessions in the mid-1920s, he also recorded his first pair of solo flute choros, “Sapequinha” and “Tapa Buraco.” In mid-1927, electric recording with microphones came to Brazil and Odeon was among the first to experiment (though the first 150-200 issues or so still had quite poor sound, considering). Pixinguinha recorded with a new iteration of the Oito Batutas for Odeon within the first year of their new effort, both as a group act and accompanying other singers. He also recorded a few solo flute choros. This piece, “Numero Um,” issued in April of 1928, is among his rarest. It’s unclear who is accompanying him on violão and cavaquinho – could it be Donga and Alves?
Pixinguinha’s life changed not long after this record was made, and the rest of his storied career is well-documented elsewhere (though, sadly, not nearly enough in English). Most importantly, he recorded “Carinhoso” for the Parlophon company in 1928 and through the strength of that arrangement got the job as the house arranger for Victor records. Unlike their business in the rest of South America, Victor had arrived quite late to the party in Brazil, and didn’t establish a studio there until 1929. They immediately became a force to be reckoned with, however, issuing 1,000 discs in 8 years. Pixinguinha was a major part of that success, whether it was arranging the backup band for samba crooners like Silvio Caldas, or arranging outstanding Afro-Brazilian music by his own band of classic musicians many of whom he’d known for decades, the Grupo da Guarda Velha (the “old guard”). His own works were performed too, and in the first year or two of his Victor employment, he managed to cut a few more solo flute choros. Single sides, only – always the exception, not the rule.
Alfredo Vianna (Pixinguinha) – Numero Um
Issue Number: 10158
Matrix Number: 1569
The Batutas. Pixinguinha at center with saxophone.
For more, please visit the Instituto Moreira Salles, nestled in a neighborhood in Rio in a beautiful Oscar Niemeyer home. Through their curators and collection, they have provided us with this Pixinguinha website (used as a source for this little write-up).
“Negro, tu tienes dos alas / Y volando por losnidos / Recogistelos sonidos / em caprichosas escalas” – poem about Pixinguinha in the La Razon journal, Buenos Aires, 1923.