There is a power wielded over us by Brazil and its golden age of music. The sixties and seventies was a time of perfect pop: catchy, positive, life-affirming… and yet so much more. It helps to have produced a plethora of masterful songwriters: Chico Buarque, Joao Bosco, Joao Gilberto, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Tom Jobim, Marcos Valle… But for Dutch singer Agnes Gosling, one giant soars above all others. "Through Milton Nascimento I have learned about this totally different style of song," she explains. "His sound is instantly recognisable yet indescribable, and that is something to aspire to."
Nascimento is one of Brazil's most reverred artists, a mystical figure whose first singing partners were "the echoes in the mountains" of Minas Gerais. It was his name that Gosling kept coming back to when she began to select some of her favourite songs her debut album, Cais. "I can't recall the first time I heard Milton," she says, "but I remember listening to the Elis Regina compilation Nada Será Como Antes, and suddenly realising that all my favourite compositions were written by him."
Regina is another titan of Brazilian music, a vocalist whose dynamic range earned her the nicknames "Furacao" ("Hurricane") and "Pimentinha" ("Little Pepper"). It is clear that she – together with another heroine, Dusty Springfield – has shaped the character of Gosling's timbre and intonation as much as Nascimento has influenced her harmonies and arrangements. Two examples are her assured renditions of 'Vera Cruz' and 'Caxangá', each combining a highly attuned rhythm section (Richard Spaven on drums and Robin Mullarkey on bass) with a finely nuanced arrangement (anchored by pianist Gideon van Gelder).
Gosling has always been fascinated by music, particularly harmony. Turned on to seventies' fusion by her parents' record collection, she enrolled at the Rotterdam Conservatory, excelled in the Brazilian Jazz department and was soon travelling the world, writing, performing and honing her craft. One of the places that quickly became a key musical touchpoint was, not surprisingly, Brazil. "I love how life is all about the outdoors, how music is alive everywhere you go, how passionate and positive the people are…"
Although Cais was recorded intermittently over a six-month period – working around the schedules of in-demand players for the likes of Jose James, Jessie Ware and Eska Mtungwazi – the album's gestation period was in fact two years. This is due to Gosling's studious nature and her deep respect for Nascimento's music. She needed to take time to understand Nascimento. She needed to "get it". So she ventured to Brazil to meet two of his closest collaborators: lyricist Fernando Brant and guitarist Wilson Lopes.
Gosling explains that she wanted the sentiment of the songs to be of its time, a turbulent period in the country's history when Brazil was under military dictatorship and all forms of artistic expression were censored. According to Brant, this angered even Nascimento, the most mild-mannered of people, whose 1973 album Milagre dos Peixes (two songs of which are given new lease of life here, the title track and the anthemic 'Caxanga') was targeted. Nascimento has never categorised himself as a politically motivated protest singer, nevertheless he channelled his frustrations into spiritually charged soundscapes, using his voice as a beautiful cry for freedom.
"It's impossible to ignore the political undercurrent when you are an artist," she says. "A song like 'Milagre dos Peixes' speaks to this quite clearly; the idea that on the surface everything is fine, but look closer and you see that all is not well. I wanted to learn more about the original lyrics and, with Wilson's help, to understand the importance of specific harmonies to each composition. It's a case of being faithful to that atmosphere and the resulting sound – right down to the phonetic, wordless nature of Milton's vocal – while also adding my own perspective to each arrangement."
Gosling certainly shows great promise as an interpreter of songs. Her version of Nascimento's 'Lília' is a more tense and quietly menacing take than the original and more sparse than Nascimento's alternate version with Wayne Shorter on Native Dancer. She wails and simmers with echoes of Tori Amos, elevating the song from overly reverential cover into the realms of intrigue. Switching moods, her cover of Dorival Caymmi's samba classic 'Vatapa', featuring guitarist and "King of Groove" João Lyra, should get the hips swaying. But then there are the original compositions as well: lovelorn ballads 'Como é Que Eu Não Sei Te Amar' and 'Sin Despedida', the latter written by accompanying pianist and long-time collaborator Abel Marcel. Gosling appears able to seamlessly transition from defiant spirit to wounded soul.
Under the watchful eye of studio wizard Vincent Helbers (Flowriders, Seravince), an astute director, these recordings flutter and fizz with life. Cais is an album of sincerity and sophistication – the bridge between Nascimento, Regina, Lenine and Maria Rita – and will certainly give fans of Brazilian jazz a few goosebump-inducing moments of beauty to savour.