Airto Moreira: Bucking Percussive Tradition

Although Moreira finally was meeting some great musicians, he still wasn’t making any money. Purim was rooming with a friend and Moreira had no place to sleep, so bassist Walter Booker and his wife took him in and let him sleep on the floor. “We were more accepted in the jazz world than we were in the Latin world,” says Moreira. “I met Cannonball Adderly and Thelonious Monk and we would just hang out and jam. Thelonious used to love to sit and listen to Flora play acoustic guitar and sing. At that time we would call each other and say, ’Hey, you want to come over to my loft and jam?’ And everybody would get together and play all night for free.”

Things really took off when Moreira began working with trumpeter Lee Morgan, as well as saxophonist Paul Desmond and keyboardist Joe Zawinul. He had finally arrived on the jazz scene, playing percussion and drums, but still had a lot to learn about jazz.

“I got a call from Wayne Shorter to record an album with him called Super Nova,” he says. “I heard that Jack DeJohnette was going to be playing drums on the session, and I was very excited because Jack is my favorite drummer. Wayne wanted me to play percussion and drums along with Jack. It was supposed to be a really free kind of thing. I got to the studio early and when I walked in there was a guy practicing drums and he was playing some incredible stuff. The producer was Phil Ramone and I asked him if that was Jack DeJohnette playing drums. He said ’No, that’s Chick Corea.’ I said, ’Oh my God, I’m going home!’ I left the studio and started walking down the street, but Flora had come with me and she said, ’You have to go back and play.’ So I went back and did the session and it ended up being an incredible session with some beautiful music. That is when I first met Chick Corea.”

Moreira’s phone began ringing off the hook for sessions and gigs, particularly for percussion. At that time, many of his Brazilian percussion instruments had rarely been heard in American music. His main instruments included berimbau, which has a bow built onto a gourd, and also the cuica, a small drum with a stick inside the shell that is rubbed with the hand or a cloth. Along with bird calls, rattles and shakers, his handmade percussion instruments gave Moreira an individual sound that began to attract more artists. His impact on the music was so strong that Downbeat magazine added a category for percussion to its Readers and Critics Poll, which he has won more than 20 times since 1973. He has also won Best Percussionist awards from every major jazz and drum magazine around the world.

One day trumpeter Lee Morgan came to visit Moreira. As he walked into Moreira’s apartment, the phone rang. Moreira picked it up, listened for a second, laughed and hung up. When Morgan asked who had called, Moreira said that it was a guy playing a joke on him, claiming to be Miles Davis’s manager and wanted him to do a session with Davis the following day. When the phone rang again, Morgan answered. Sure enough, it was Davis’s manager asking if Moreira could do a session with Davis. Moreira played on several sessions for the jazz legend, who eventually asked the percussionist to join his band.

“Miles taught me a lot about playing,” Moreira recalls, “When I first played with him I wasn’t sure what to play because the music was very different and complex. Miles said, ’Don’t bang – just listen and play.’” Davis taught Moreira to be patient, listen with respect for the other players and not worry about playing faster or louder than everyone else. Moreira went on to record with Davis on some of his most influential recordings, including Bitches Brew, Live Evil, Live at the Fillmore and On The Corner.

During his years with Davis, Moreira forged many musical relationships that would pay dividends. Two of his most notable colleagues were keyboardists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, who both enlisted Moreira on the debut releases for two of the greatest electric jazz fusion groups of all time. Moreira recorded the first Weather Report release with Zawinul, but didn’t tour with the band because of his commitment to Davis. But after Moreira finally left Davis’s band, he was asked to join Corea’s newly formed Return to Forever, which also included Purim.

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