For a concert dedicated to bossa nova, a music born on the beaches of Brazil, the three musicians onstage at the Green Room last night certainly dressed the part.
Bobby Lee Rodgers, the guitarist, took to the stage in a T-shirt and flip-flops. His drummer, Pete Lavezzoli, was barefoot. The bass player, John Coffman, though not outwardly beachy, wore a serene look of relaxation that could only have come from years of living on the coast. Together, these musicians made up the Bobby Lee Rodgers Jazz Trio, one of the finest bands to arrive on the Ft. Lauderdale music scene and one of Broward County's most talented advocates for jazz.
Bossa nova's introduction to jazz could not have come at a better time in the music's history. During an era where jazz witnessed a rift in its racial and geographical makeup - with cool jazz gaining popularity in the West Coast suburbs and hard-bop struggling to survive in the inner cities of the East - bossa nova served as a bridge between the two audiences, an exotic music that seemed to transcend race and region.
"Bossa nova is a powerful music," said Bobby Lee. "The melody, the lyrics, the content - it's all so powerful."
That power was on full display last night at the Green Room, as Bobby Lee and his band packed a veritable history lesson on bossa nova into a one hour set.
They began with "Wave," a bossa nova classic that has worked its way into the mainstream American songbook. The tune began with the quick, syncopated guitar riff that has become the trademark of the genre, and then quickly dissolved into a smooth and lilting melody. Bobby Lee soloed with incredible dexterity, shining on the fast passages and maintaining an intense concentration during the slower parts. He kept his eyes closed while he played, lost in the act of creation, and didn't even break his focus when a train came rolling past the club, blaring its horn into the night.
"Corcovado," the next tune on the list, opened on a lighter, more graceful note. The bass rang out in the higher register, providing a nice counterpoint to the guitar, and the melody, bright and romantic, seemed to tap directly into that part of the human brain that makes people want to dance. Even Bobby, in his own subtle way, could not resist shaking his hips.
The laid-back island vibe continued into the next song, the medium tempo "Meditation," which featured traditional bossa nova elements and the simplest, most relaxed melody of the night. Through a pleasant succession of harmonies and chords, the musicians floated easily to the end of piece. At that point, Peter the drummer played a solo that seemed to pull the song into some vague, ethereal tempo. It was the perfect ending to a song inspired by meditation, mimicking that state of mind where time ceases to exist and thoughts wander endlessly.
No bossa nova set would be complete without the landmark tune "Girl from Ipanema," and Bobby Lee and his group made sure the audience got its fix. But for a musician of masterful interpretation and spontaneity, Bobby Lee left the tune relatively unadorned. He played it true to its form, resigned to let the flawlessness of the melody speak for itself. It was a classy move, one of quiet respect for a brilliant composer.
The trio's last tune, the funky and up-tempo "Agua de Beber," sounded like something straight out of a '60s-era spy movie. The musicians, flexing their jazz chops, let loose on this song. During his solo, Bobby Lee unleashed a stream of sixteenth notes that seemed like it would never end. Not to be outdone, Don, the bass player, matched him note for note, his fingers marching quick-time over the strings of his bass guitar. The song evolved into a vamp on a two-chord riff, featuring an explosive drum solo that brought the song, and the concert, to a close. It was a thunderous ending to a show that, in all other respects, had been, for the audience, a day at the beach.
Talking to Bobby Lee after the concert, I could sense his passion and reverence for Antonio Carlos Jobim, a man he calls "the father of bossa nova."
"This guy created a genre," he explained. "He created a type of music all by himself. That's intense. That's what it's all about."
In the slow Southern drawl of his native Atlanta, Bobby Lee tells me about his own musical aspirations, and what role he wants his concerts to play in teaching people about jazz, the music he grew up on.
"It's up to guys like me," he said, "to bring the music to the people of Broward County, to let them know it's here. That's all I have to do. The music will speak for itself."
The music he's describing is some of the best jazz written during the past 50 years, by some of the best jazz musicians in history. Lucky for us, it's also being played by Bobby Lee, one of the best jazz musicians you'll hear in South Florida. But Bobby, humble as he is, would be the last person to let you know that.
"I'm just trying to get better at my instrument," he said. "That's all I'm trying to do. "