Kris Russell takes on bossa nova with “Down in Brazil”


Kris Russell and the Mystery Jazz Ensemble present a CD single, “Down in Brazil,” as a contemporary treatment of bossa nova. On the track, Russell and crew veer away from some of the standards of bossa nova, taking risks that not every music lover will appreciate.

Kris Russell takes on bossa nova

On this new single, Russell and her mysterious backing musicians perform an example of bossa nova with music and lyrics written by Michael Franks–in his own right, an award-winning artist and composer. The musicians are shrouded in mystery–they and their instruments are never listed individually. All the information given about them, is that they are talented musicians from major studios

Credit should be given to Russell and her ensemble for creating new bossa nova music. Well, it’s mostly bossa nova. Some classic jazz lines show up toward the end, which, depending on what listeners want from the recording, could be pleasing or jarring. In classic jazz, the rhythm lends itself to swinging (hence, swing music, swing dancing).

Bossa nova on the other hand, is better suited to swaying. While it doesn’t have its own dance, bossa nova could, and the moves would be different from swing dancing. So, when the mood changes, listeners might wonder, “what’s the purpose?”. It could be that the performers just wanted to be artful, and that’s fine. But if a song is touted as bossa nova, there are bound to be purists who expect certain standards to be met.

A voice suited to bossa nova

Vocally, Russell’s alto has an almost rustic charm. Her voice warms to the descriptions of “old Brazil” that make her sound as if she is a tourist telling listeners what she sees. She is not world-weary or people-wary. She observes the women, the mood, and the natural world in a manner consistent with bossa nova songs. There is a fault in one of the lines where it sounds as though too many syllables were pushed in. Audiences have to contextualize with the line before and the one or two words at the end of the rushed line to make out what was probably said.

Russell’s musical background

 California-based Russell grew up learning the folk and rock songs popular during the years of her childhood. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she discovered that jazz was something she could participate in by singing. She had been singing other forms of music since age seven. Russell’s parents were part of a jazz quartet, and Russell had access to numerous jazz recordings during her formative years.

About bossa nova

Bossa nova became popular and was created in the 1950s and 1960s in Brazil and quickly became popular with jazz performers and audiences worldwide. The swaying rhythm puts an emphasis on the second beat of a measure. The lyrics typically cover women (moods and appearances), natural environment, love and desire, and usually avoids politics.

This release is Russell’s second recording. In 2016, Russell released her first single, “I Concentrate on You”– Cole Porter’s classic is also a bossa nova selection. Russell’s commitment to bossa nova is laudable, and her treatment of it might help ensure that the form continues to evolve. However, if “Down in Brazil” had stayed true to all of bossa nova’s attributes, it would have been an even easier listen.



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