From restaurant gigs to Carnegie Hall
A skinny composer from Brazil makes good - at last - and dumps a girl from Ipanema.
NEW YORK — When Brazilian composer/pianist Luiz Simas takes the stage at Carnegie Hall next month, there is one song that will not appear on the program: "Girl From Ipanema."
"I cannot express how much I hate to play that song unless I am free to alter it almost beyond recognition," says Mr. Simas, as he recounts his rise from performing requests in New York restaurants.
Simas came to America in 1989, and during the 10 years it took him to make his mark here, he often played in restaurants where the bouncy tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim was requested almost continuously.
"I would just finish playing it, and the waiter would bring a slip of paper with the request, and I would have to start it again," he says. "Maddening. But when you are trying to survive and rebuild your life in a new country, you do whatever it takes to make your goals."
In his home in Rio de Janeiro, he was a well-established studio musician with a large concert following. When he came to New York, he had to start from scratch.
"I knew nobody and, with no connections, it was very difficult," says Simas, who walked dogs, gave piano lessons, and worked as a macrobiotic chef to make ends meet. "The hardest part was not being able to play my own works, because they didn't fit in with the perception of what Brazilian music was supposed to be."
Simas's style is influenced by classical music, jazz, bossa nova, and Brazilian popular music. At six feet tall, spare, and with penetrating deep-set eyes, he cuts an imposing figure, until his face splits into an enormous grin. His expressions are as fluid as his music, reminiscent of a silent film star, or Roberto Benigni.
At the Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, on March 29, he and special guest performers - percussionist Mauro Refosco, flautist Barbara Blonska, and bassoonist Steve Kowarsky - will deliver a mix of new chorinhos (akin to American ragtime) and several original Simas symphonic pieces.
Since moving to Manhattan, he has recorded several CDs, including "New Chorinhos From Brazil," a collection of his original chorinhos; "Recipe for Rhythm," his original songs written in partnership with American lyricist Ellen Schwartz, and his latest, "Impromptu," with solo piano improvisations in many Brazilian styles.
The composer was introduced to Ms. Schwartz by acclaimed Broadway arranger Sy Johnson, whose "Tonight at Noon" by the Mingus Big Band is up for a Grammy Award this weekend.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Johnson remembers dining with his colleagues every Friday at the now-defunct Brazilian restaurant Amazonas in Manhattan, where Simas performed. Fortunately, he had progressed past the Ipanema days and was playing some of his own pieces at the time.
"His compositions are so harmonically interesting," says Johnson. "He is a very gifted composer.
"We went to listen to him. Then one day he expressed an interest in meeting a lyricist and Ellen and I were working together at the time. It all worked out very well."
Simas has played his way out of restaurants and into wide-ranging venues including the Brooklyn Conservatory, the Polish Consulate, the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival in Boulder, Colo., the Mirage Hotel (Las Vegas), and also in concert halls in Jamaica, the British Virgin Islands, and Trinidad.
"I find it fascinating how he can perform in so many different venues, from symphony to clubs, and always get the audience excited," says Marian Zak, a Polish choreographer and director of New York Dance and Arts Innovations, who has worked with Simas.
He will perform with the dance group at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan on April 25 as part of a celebration honoring the dance group.
Not surprisingly, Simas is a big fan of house concerts, those tiny performances given in private homes and apartments. It was this salon-type venue, in posh Manhattan apartments, he credits with his true launching in America.
"Word spread, and then I was being invited to play in bigger rooms," he says.
Although Simas no longer needs to play house concerts, he does so as a means of testing new material and keeping his skill at engaging his audience finely tuned.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, he made the trek from Manhattan to Princeton, N.J., to perform free at the home of French pianist/teacher Sylvie Webb, who hosted the Belle Meade Friends of Music.
Listeners were by parts amused, entranced, and concerned: the first two by his work and the last by his thin, ascetic appearance.
There was not a woman in the room who didn't grimly steer him to the buffet table, barely summoning the restraint to keep from shouting, "Eat!"
"That happens to me a lot," he laughs. "I connect with people on a very personal level, and at house concerts they are often telling me to eat. It shows they care, maybe because, with my music, I have showed I care for them.
"Or maybe I just need to gain a little more weight?"