Music review: Guitar-playing Assad Brothers at Cerritos Center

02.16.12
Sérgio and Odair Assad
Los Angeles Times

By Richard S. Ginell

Brazil’s Assad brothers -– Sérgio and Odair -– have been known for extraordinarily freewheeling programs, as Sérgio has been willing and able to transcribe and arrange just about anything for two guitars. But, at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday night, they played what Sérgio said was their first all-Brazilian program –- thus going against type and reverting to their roots all at once. In any case, it made for a lovely evening, full of luscious melodic foliage from their homeland.

Much of what the Assads played was not too familiar to a North American audience, but virtually all of it could be immediately assimilated -– from the sentimental waltz “Eponina” and driving “Batuque” of Ernesto Nazareth to the rolling samba rhythms in the interior of Joao Pernambuco’s “Interrogando.”  On recordings, given their tightly knit blend, it’s difficult to discern who is playing what, but observed live, Odair is clearly more mellow and fluid while Sérgio has a steelier, more staccato edge.

One item that was familiar -– indeed over-familiar -– was Luiz Bonfá’s “Manhä de Carnaval,” here subjected to an elaborate arrangement by Sérgio where the tune was at times almost completely hidden underneath a jungle of counterpoint. But Sérgio needn’t apologize; his treatment made Bonfá’s standard seem fresh and challenging.

There were a pair of explorations into the rich archive of Antonio Carlos Jobim –- the delicate, little-known “Amparo” and a faithful, dynamic arrangement of “Stone Flower” (the latter made famous by Carlos Santana) –- as well as Villa-Lobos’ beguiling “A Lenda da Caboclo” and disruptively dramatic Choros No. 5. 

Alone, Odair Assad gracefully played a suite of short pieces, “Seis Brevidades,” by his brother, loaded with Brazilian color and good tunes.  And to close, the Assads took us even further back to their grandfather’s Lebanese origins with Sérgio’s “Tahhiyya li Ossoulina,” which consciously injected Middle Eastern scales and complex rhythms -– the latter drummed percussively on their guitars’ soundboards.