Issue one: Flora Purim
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This week: the extraordinary life and times of musician Flora Purim
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The Brazilian singer Flora Purim has a voice that spans six octaves. Put in context, Mariah Carey has five octaves. Prince had four and a half. Kate Bush and Björk have three. Billie Eilish, two and a bit. At a freaky ten octaves, Tim Storms holds the Guinness World Record for the widest vocal range. Reportedly, he is also able to hit a note so low that it is audible only to elephants. Still, a six-octave stride is rare. From your lowest to your highest, it’s 72 notes. If you’re given one, you make use of it.
Purim sings anti-gravity style. Listen to any one of her studio albums or live recordings—they stretch back to the bossa nova craze of the mid-1960s—and you can hear that voice hug the earth, backflip into the clouds, and land on another stage halfway round the globe. She dissolves dreamy lyrics in Portuguese and English into wordless, scat-like vocalizations and percussive yelps. She pilots her voice into graceful slides and swoops, and in her jazz-fusion music of the 1970s, you can hear her plunge it into pools of rippling, psychedelic echo. But for a voice that’s so expressive, she rarely allows it to turn jelly with vibrato and she never rags it with fry. It has a limpid tone, the quality of highly polished glass or clear mountain air. Purim controls her expression rather than let it run wild as, for instance, Yoko Ono does, and for all her skill at handling notes with delicacy, hers is not a voice you would describe as fragile.
The singer turned 80 this year and has just released the album If You Will, which she says will be her last. Her voice has mellowed, a little careworn at the edges, but still possesses unmistakeable clarity. The album was made with her family. Her husband Airto Moreira—a towering influence in jazz drumming—plays percussion, her daughters Diana and Niura join on vocals, and son-in-law Krishna Booker contribute to the songwriting and arrangements. If You Will is warmed by the past. She collects new songs by close friends—the reflective “Lucidez” is a highlight—together with compositions from her long career, including a reworking of her signature jazz-fusion song “500 Miles High,” originally recorded in 1972 with her friend Chick Corea, who died in 2021.
Purim’s life story would make a gripping biopic. Novelist and screenwriter Eddie Bunker demonstrated as much in 1982 with the book Freedom Song: The Story of Flora Purim, strapline: “The moving and magnificent true story of the famous singer’s journey … To hell and back!” Bunker met Purim in the mid-1970s at Terminal Island, a co-ed prison facility on the edge of Los Angeles. He was in for bank robbery, Purim for possession of cocaine; she maintains she was innocent, framed by drug enforcement agents scrabbling for an alleged “Brazilian connection” in New York City. Freedom Song is an as-told-to written at the pace of a pulp thriller. It begins: “Flora Purim stood at the barred window of her cubicle, listening to the harbor sounds and thinking. She half-heartedly picked out the wavering silhouettes of ships in the pre-dawn fog,” and continues at movie-synopsis pitch throughout. It details a career shaped by encounters with extraordinary musicians, and stands as a harrowing record of a dark period in Purim’s life, including accounts of her rape and abuse in prison.
While inside, separated from her family, her reputation in the jazz world skyrocketed, thanks in part to recordings she had been making right up until the day she had to surrender to the authorities. (She won “Best Vocalist” for the influential DownBeat jazz magazine four times in the mid-1970s.) Freedom Song culminates with an account of a concert at Terminal Island in 1975, which Purim persuaded the prison authorities to let her stage. Joined by her husband and a band featuring Cannonball Adderley, George Duke, Miroslaw Vitous, Raoul de Souza, and Ndugu Chancler, it was the first concert in US penal history to feature a performance by an incarcerated person. This bootleg recording of the show is as electrifying as Johnny Cash was at Folsom Prison in ’69, and should be just as well known. Unlike Cash’s gig, which spins around the myth and cult of the man, Purim’s concert repeatedly asserts the importance of music as a group effort, with each player being given their solos and appreciative name-checks between songs. Read any interview with her, and you’ll notice how frequently she credits her fellow musicians, rather than preaching about collaboration while hiding everyone else from sight as some artists do.
Purim grew up in Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of Russian-Jewish emigres, both classical musicians. She made her mark the mid-1960s singing cool and languid bossa nova hits. (Her first album, Flora é M.P.M., made in 1964, gives a good sense of her repertoire at the time.) She met Moreira during a residency at the Juan Sebastian Bar in São Paulo, then the essential place for jazz in the city. Moreira was drumming and playing percussion with the Quarteto Novo at the time, building a reputation for his skillful use of Brazilian and African percussion instruments. Soon after they became romantically involved. The pair bonded over their boredom with the bossa nova sound and Purim turned Moreira on to new jazz coming out of the US: Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Oscar Peterson. After the military junta took power in 1964, it became increasingly hard for the couple to work. In late ’66, Purim moved to the US, with Moreira following soon after.
The stories come thick and fast. Refused entry to a Harlem jazz club, an older man persuaded the doorman to let Purim in; he turned out to be the legendary pianist Thelonious Monk, later an admirer of her music. Through Brazilian musicians in New York she found herself jamming at after-hours clubs with Cannonball Adderley and George Duke. She got work as a backing singer for Miriam Makeba—then at the height of her fame—who helped Purim score her first record deal. It led to sessions with Stan Getz, who had helped popularize bossa nova in the States. Moreira, meanwhile, worked his own connections in New York’s jazz scene. He got to know Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, also on their way up. A chance phone call led to his being enlisted as a percussionist by Miles Davis, then on the cusp of his new electric phase. Moreira played on the landmark Bitches Brew and Live-Evil sessions, and toured with Davis’s ensemble. Davis rarely spoke to Moreira during their time working together, although this footage of the group live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 shows how central Moreira’s battery of Brazilian percussion instruments was in voicing one of the most influential periods in Davis’s music. It was at a Davis concert that Purim befriended Janis Joplin, who by chance had sat in the empty seat next to her.
By the time she was incarcerated at Terminal Island, Purim had developed a distinctive fusion sound of her own; melodically busy, occasionally dizzying, putting jazz in conversation with funk, Brazilian music, psychedelia. She had recorded with Carlos Santana, made four solo albums and two with Corea and Moreira in the virtuoso jazz-fusion group Return to Forever. Throughout the years, Purim and Moreira would write, produce, play on each other’s records, and tour together. In the years following her release, the couple worked on a number of projects with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, including the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now (it’s Purim’s voice that accompanies the death of Colonel Kurtz at the film’s bloody climax) and the sparse, experimental Däfos, “a musical ethnography of an imaginary country.” By the end of the 1990s, Purim had toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra, and been rediscovered and sampled by a younger generation of British acid jazz heads and US hip hop musicians. Moreira’s name was now found on albums by musicians as diverse as the Carpenters, Depeche Mode, Joni Mitchell, Milton Nasciamento, and Paul Simon.
Purim’s song titles push the listener to reach for metaphors of lightness, flight, and ethereality: “Above the Rainbow” “Uri (The Wind),” “Light as a Feather,” “Moondreams.” There’s accuracy in that imagery, but the music is also baroque and labyrinthine and this, for me, is part of its appeal. It is an antithesis to the affectless, to “Work From Home With Minimalism” playlists on Spotify and to the pale vapors of 21st century ambient that wafts from under the door of Bandcamp like the scent from an expensive bathroom candle. Her music is free of cynicism and full of complexity.
“Dr Jive – Part 1,” which kicks off her 1970s fusion era record Butterfly Dreams rips along at breakneck speed and with motorik precision while thick, percussive detailing creates a complex mesh of rhythm. “Casa Forte,” from Stories to Tell, is chatty and vibrates with tense energy, going a thousand miles per second. The songs “Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly” and “Stories to Tell” are muscular, joyful funk tracks. Her albums play with dislocation and unexpected shifts of mood. On the album Stories to Tell, for instance, the opening funk strut is stopped in its tracks with a torch song, “Search for Peace,” which suddenly pulls the listener inside a jazz club full of lonely nighthawks. Her strange album Encounters dissolves sugar-smooth lounge jazz into spaced-out sambas and spiritual incantations—shades of Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. Synthesizer and wordless vocalizations wash over gentle tumbles of percussion and foamy piano. As a listening experience it evokes the feeling of drifting in and out of a conversation, of zoning out, then trying to retune back into the moment. There is a ghostly, disconcerting quality to the album; almost like the dreamy jazz of Twin Peaks, had it been set in southeast Brazil rather than the Pacific Northwest.
Purim’s achievements hide in plain sight. She has played with countless important figures in postwar jazz, yet in books on the genre’s history her name is often mentioned only in passing. Hip reissue labels are not repackaging her 1970s albums in deluxe gatefold sleeves. Ann Powers, in a substantial profile of the singer for NPR, makes the important observation that Purim left Brazil just before the Tropicalia movement came to prominence, musicians such as Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, whose surreal, psychedelic rock-influenced sounds began to be embraced in the USA and Europe in the 1990s. “Her distance from Tropicalismo may be one reason Purim hasn’t often been centered in Brazilian-music hipster revivals since the 1980s, which tend to focus on that movement’s plastic fantastic stylings.” Purim’s music concerns itself with freedom, but it does not correspond to an avant-garde or self-consciously cool idea of what liberation might sound like musically.
There is a passage in Amit Chaudhuri’s 2021 book Finding the Raga that articulates his ideas about the meend, or the use of glissando and pitch bending in Hindustani classical music. He writes: “Distance is made peculiarly equitably by the meend; that is, nearness and far-apartness are shown to be constructs.” What I think he means is that, for a singer, it takes only a split second to travel both a short and a long way in music; from one note to its immediate neighbor, or from an extremely low pitch to an extremely high one. Distance is made moot. Just think of how far you can go with six octaves, and who you might meet at the other end.
NEXT WEEK: An interview with director Lucile Hadžihalilović about her new movie, Earwig, in US cinemas from July 15.
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The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars by Frances Spalding. On cover of this beautifully illustrated and substantial new book is a painting by Eric Ravilious, titled Train Landscape (1940). It shows the Westbury Horse, carved into the chalk of a Wiltshire hill, as seen through the grubby windows of a third class railway carriage. There’s your romance and realism, right there.
Stanley Schtinter’s film The Lock-In did a tour of East End pubs in June, and is currently on view on a monitor lost somewhere deep in the Barbican foyer until July 31. Ninety-six hours of scenes taken from the British soap EastEnders, all set in the Queen Vic pub. A Bunuelian nightmare in which it’s your round, every round, for the rest of time. More info and salted peanuts here.
Olivier Assayas has remade his 1996 film Irma Vep about film director attempting to remake Louis Feuillade’s silent film serial Les Vampires. I am four episodes deep into the mise-en-abyme and my new favourite monster is Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), an appalling crack-addled actor from the black lagoon of Fassbinder’s Id. Every Tuesday on HBO.
I have no particular hook on which to hang Carl Schlesinger and David Loeb Weiss’s 1978 short Farewell ETAOIN SHRDLU, other than it seemed apt for this email. It captures the final day of hot-metal typesetting at The New York Times and the impact of the coming new technology on the printers and typesetters who work there. Watch for free here.