Where We Begin

SSC1733 2024-07-05

Track List

Chorinho - 4:40
Bebe - 6:15
Mira Eso - 6:18
Within - 6:02
Milonga Gris - 5:24
A Ostra e o Vento - 7:38
Mamulengo - 6:51
Elvin da Bahia - 5:39


John Ellis - clarinet, saxophone
Magos Herrera - voice
Chico Pinheiro - guitar
Helio Alves - piano, fender rhodes
Joe Martin - bass
Alex Kautz - drums

As drummer Alex Kautz sees it, there are two parts to his musical brain: the Brazilian side, developed while growing up in São Paolo, and the jazz side, which came later, opening his ears to a wide world of musical possibilities. Those two approaches developed separately for Kautz and were initially fueled by different inspirations. Upon moving to New York City in 2007, though, he found a musical community that encouraged both, soon pushing him to new heights. “New York makes you find your uniqueness as a musician,” Kautz explains. “You really need to find a voice to fit. There are so many people playing so well and so many artists with their own ideas.”

Kautz’s approach to drumming now manifests his popular and traditional Brazilian influences and his jazz experience—steeped in foundational greats like Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, and Tony Williams—as well as the intrepid melding of those worlds found in the music of Airto Moreira. His work as a side musician reflects his varied interests, and since embedding himself in the New York scene, Kautz has landed gigs drumming alongside artists including Tim Ries, Magos Herrera, Nilson Matta, Lenny Andrade, Fabio Gouvea, Chico Pinheiro, Robert Rodriguez, Steve Wilson and Helio Alves among others.

On Where We Begin, the drummer’s debut recording as a bandleader, Kautz has assembled a band that includes saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Helio Alves, bassist Joe Martin, and his frequent collaborator Chico Pinheiro on guitar. Vocalist Magos Herrera—with whom Kautz has worked extensively—serves as co-producer and contributes vocals on two tracks. Together, the ensemble explores the musical common ground between New York’s jazz and Brazilian musical communities. “Sometimes it goes more jazz and sometimes more Brazilian,” he says of the record. “Without changing anyone’s sound, we found a way to play within the different influences of different cultures.” He attributes this to each of these veteran musicians’ “openness” and adds, “Within the jazz language, everything can come together.”

The ensemble proves themselves to be a well-oiled syncopation machine from the thrilling twists and turns of opener “Chorinho,” by keyboardist Lyle Mays. Its fast, fluid unison melody is delivered with laser focus by Pinheiro’s guitar and Ellis’ clarinet. Not far behind them, Alves delivers funky stabs on his electric piano, bridging the lead voices and the energetic, bouncy pulse issued by Martin and Kautz. A pair of solos from Pinheiro and Alves briskly navigate the high-speed hairpin turns of this exhilarating opening statement. More importantly, though, “Chorinho” serves as a thesis for Where We Begin: “It’s a Brazilian thing mixed with something else,” Kautz explains. “This is the idea for the project, to be in and out of jazz and Brazilian all the time.”

The band deliver on that promise throughout the set, which includes Alves’ “Bebe,” pianist Carlos Aguirre’s “Milonga Gris,” and three of Kautz’s compositions, “Mira Eso,” “Within,” and “Elvin de Bahia.” The latter of those songs offers a climactic closing statement as the bandleader and Pinheiro drop a percussive drum-and-guitar breakdown behind Martin’s melody-driven bass solo into a knotty, odd-meter modern-jazz excursion that gives each member space to shine.

Herrera joins the ensemble for Pinheiro’s “Mamulengo”— a driving, serpentine modern-jazz workout led by Ellis’ soaring melodic lines—and Brazilian singer/songwriter Chico Buarque’s ballad “A Ostra e o Vento.” With breathy restraint, the singer amplifies the latter song’s gentle, eloquent longing. Over more than seven and a half minutes, the band’s sparse support grows into a springy bossa nova feel as Herrera reaches a crescendo before delivering a gentle, masterful landing. “The bossa nova groove, that element in Brazilian music is so important, I had to have that color,” says the bandleader.

Alex Kautz found his voice as a drummer long ago, but Where We Begin marks a new era in his career. “When I decided to become a musician,” he recalls, “I was interested in the craft of music, and I did not know if I was going to be a session musician or a solo artist instead.” But over years of playing under other bandleaders and in collaborations, he was exposed to “a lot of different ways of thinking, and you need to adapt. I realized I had a more personal way of creating and approaching music.”

As Kautz’s debut recording as a leader, the title of Where We Begin can be taken literally. But the album far exceeds that limitation. Across eight tracks, Kautz and company paint a colorful picture of a bridge between contemporary jazz and Brazilian pop and folk styles. On Where We Begin, Kautz presents a musical voice developed over his lifelong musical journey and promises there’s much more to come.