Remarkable ‘Samba in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse 1966–68’ from Bola Sete Trio Showcases Classical Guitar Influences
The great Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete (born Djalma De Andrade; 1923–1987) carved out a unique niche in the late 1950s in Brazil and the ’60s in the U.S., where he first gained renown playing alongside horn titan Dizzy Gillespie, then through a stint with pianist Vince Guaraldi. Along the way, he also established a career as a leader, fronting guitar-bass-percussion trios. Playing a nylon-string classical guitar, he was a masterful improviser, with influences that ranged from jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt, Barney Kessel, and Charlie Christian to Brazilian players including Laurindo Almeida, Baden Powell, Luiz Bonfá, and João Gilberto. His popularity was both fueled by and fed the worldwide intertest in samba and bossa nova during that era.
You’ll find plenty of jazz extrapolations on both of those styles on this new set of live recordings of the trio of Bola Sete, bassist Sebastião Neto, and percussionist Paulino Magalhães, captured during visits to the Penthouse club in Seattle in 1966, ’67, and ’68, each year represented by a disc in the CD version. That means there are tunes by Bonfá and Antônio Carlos Jobim (including “Garota de Ipanema,” a faster take on the classic hit), and also a couple of Sete originals that explore samba and bossa. The trio members are in perfect sync throughout, easily moving from one groove to the next, giving each other both and space and support. Sete is a remarkably supple player, able to unleash fast, Django-like flurries of notes one moment, and etching expressive balladic lines the next.
What I frankly did not know nor expect is that Sete was so strongly influenced by his early classical guitar training in Rio (where he was born) and Sao Paolo. Although I have not seen it mentioned in the various biographical profiles I’ve consulted, it seems likely to me that he must have been influenced considerably by Andrés Segovia who, during Sete’s early maturation as a guitarist, was the first recording classical guitarist to perform Bach, the first to embrace the works of Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, and the guitarist who set the standard for all who followed when it came to Spanish repertoire. So, on this set we find some Bach, two of Villa-Lobos’ wonderful “Preludes,” Enrique Granados’ “Spanish Dance No. 5,” Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias,” Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña,” and Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” —all are de facto standards of the modern classical guitar repertoire, but they weren’t in the late ’60s, when Sete performed them. And though he doesn’t play them as perfectly as a contemporary classical guitar audience would probably expect (especially “Recuerdos,” with its unforgiving right-hand tremolo), it is still amazingly good and he must have blown many a mind in jazz clubs and concerts with those pieces. He also shines on another of his originals, “Flamenco Fantasy,” which dips into that bag quite nicely. Two versions of Ellington’s “Satin Doll” show another side of his interpretive genius.
Bola Sete’s career didn’t end in the late ’60s. He recorded and performed sporadically and made at least two later albums worth checking out: Ocean (1975), co-produced by Sete admirer John Fahey for his Takoma label; and his final effort, Jungle Suite (1985), on George Winston’s Dancing Cat Records. But the generous collection of tunes on Samba in Seattle captures him at his artistic peak and reveal an incomparable guitarist graced with tremendous depth, sensitivity, swing, and chops.
Also worth noting here is the splendid album package, which includes a 40-page booklet loaded with rare photos and illuminating writings and interviews with colleagues and admirers such as Carlos Santana, Lalo Schifrin, George Winston, Sete’s wife, Anne, and perhaps coolest of all, the enigmatic John Fahey.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.