I was first introduced to Benji Kaplan when I reviewed his album Chorando Sete Cores about 18 months ago. Kaplan, a guitarist, has a distinctive tilt to his arrangements that recalls the whimsical and upbeat orchestrations made famous by Van Dyke Parks, especially with those recordings with Joanna Newsom. I wrote this about Chorando Sete Cores, which encapsulates his sound: “This is fanciful music that hasn’t an unkind thought or a menacing note.” On Benjy & Rita, Kaplan teams up with Brazilian singer and lyricist Rita Figueiredo, a woman with a big, bold voice that’s ideal for storytelling.
These stories, which are told in Portuguese, recalls some of the wonder I felt earlier this week when I reviewed Sofia Ribeiro’s Lunga. If you’re a fan of Brazilian jazz, you’ll understand the draw of such an exotic language, that feeling that comes from knowing Spanish and wondering if there’s an entry point for understanding what’s going on. (Sometimes I can almost translate Portuguese into Spanish when I see the words on paper, but not by ear.) Brazilian jazz tends to attract English-speaking jazz fans because of its life-affirming sound, the easiness of the delivery, and the idea that there’s a glamorous life that’s worth embracing. Benji Kaplan, who is of Cuban heritage, filters Figueiredo’s tales with a broader world-view, something that’s captured in these ornate musical arrangements.
Benji Kaplan met Rita Figueiredo while he “immersed himself utterly in the music and language of Brazil.” The two met in Rio after a show, and the spirit of collaboration became so compelling that “they decided to share a life.” That’s why there’s so much love in the music in Benji & Rita, a sense that the two have inspired each other to create a whole new world of fascinating music. Figueiredo’s lyrics deal with the juxtapositions of Brazil the country, the idea of tropical ecosystems dotted with the occasional sprawling metropolis. There’s a swiftness to the sound here which reinforces the idea that there’s plenty to write about if you just stop and look around.
As an arranger, Benji Kaplan is a master of detail, and this recording is fine enough to present all of the independent elements of the music–the strings, the woodwinds, and Kaplan’s own intricate guitar runs. Figueiredo sings with such clarity and compassion that the listener might be compelled to learn a little Portuguese just to capture all that nuance. If you love Brazilian jazz, or the country’s unique folklore, Benji & Rita is a brilliant and energizing entry point for these totally esoteric yet mesmerizing sounds.