I've been very fortunate in my career to have met and sometimes even play with a few musical geniuses. These are special musicians who have developed an intimate relationship between their instrument and their inner selves to transcend the mechanical act of playing into the artistic act of soulful and spiritual self-expression. One such genius is the Brazilian guitarist, composer and singer Toninho Horta.
I first heard about Toninho Horta in the mid 1980's from saxophonist Billy Drewes who was playing in his band at the time. Billy described Toninho as a brilliant Brazilian composer who wrote incredible melodies and harmonies and could play the most amazing voicings on his guitar. A few years later a violinist friend of mine Rudi Berger who had also just joined Toninhos band finally introduced us. When I first met Toninho I thought he could have been actor Gerard Depardieus twin brother as he gave me a big smile and an even bigger bear hug. His warm personality helped me to set aside my normally shy nature as we talked of playing together someday. That day finally arrived in 1993 when I invited Toninho to join me for a couple of cuts on my first recording as a leader for Minor Music called Snuggling Snakes (also with Anthony Cox, Lewis Nash, Chris Potter and Rudi Berger). This is when I first started to realize that I was sitting face to face with a genius. We decided to play one of Toninhos compositions titled Francesca and one of mine called Maloca. At the first rehearsal I pulled out Maloca which is a samba with very difficult chord changes and an equally tricky melody and Toninho played and sang it right down like it was nothing. What technique! What voicings! What a sound! But what impressed me the most was the feeling that came through him. It was magic! A few years later I again got a chance to further my experience with this genius when Rudi Berger invited me on a European tour with Charles Fambrough, Bruce Cox and Toninho. To hear and play with this guy every night for a couple of weeks was truly an inspiring experience. We played quite a few of Toninhos compositions. Every one was a gem and definitely not easy to play. I'll never forget the stunned look on Fambroughs face when Toninho played his composition called Gershwin at our first gig. It really was overwhelming to hear such powerful and beautiful playing.
Toninho was born 53 years ago in the mountainous region of Minas Gerais, Brazil as was the most famous Brazilian musician today Milton Nascimento (both long time friends and collaborators). Minas Gerais is an area whose music has been greatly influenced by the melodies and rhythms of Spain and Portugal. Being from a musical family Toninho also heard the Brazilian Sambas and Bossa Novas of greats like Jobim, Baden Powell and Joao Gilberto. But Toninho and his friends were also checking out the American jazz of Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker and Wes Montgomery as well as the pop music of the 60s especially the Beatles. Toninho mixed all of these influences together to create a unique style of his own.
Toninho first became known as a composer at the age of thirteen when some of the local bands made a hit out of one of his tunes and another a few years later called Litoral, which became an instant standard. As his reputation grew he began to be sought out by the elite of Brazilian musicians like Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Gal Costa, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim as both guitarist (acoustic and electric) and as a composer/arranger. In the mid 1980's Toninho came to New York City to live and play and study arranging at the Juilliard School of Music. A few years later Toninho began recording for Polydor Records with his beautiful album Moonstone and just a year later one for Verve called Diamond Land. Both are absolutely great! The compositions, the arrangements, the improvisation, the sound, the singing: all fantastic! This was followed up a few years later with a wonderful trio album called Once I Loved with Gary Peacock on bass and the masterful Billy Higgins on drums and two gorgeous solo CDs Durango Kid and Durango Kid 2 (on Big World Records). My listening favorite of the past year (I think Ive heard it well over a hundred times) is a solo album he recorded a couple of years ago for Truspace called Serenade.
Toninho has not only traveled around the world playing with his own band and other Brazilian groups but he has also worked with many great jazz artists including Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny (Toninho is one of his heroes), Joe Pass, Toots Thielemans, Bobby McFerrin and many many others. Toninho Horta is truly one genius to go and check out whenever you get a chance!