Swingão is a brand new, international Brazilian jazz project. With musicians born around the globe, they play music fostered by a mutual love of samba, chorro, and bossa nova.
Anchoring the U.S. band members is the legendary Brazilian drummer Portinho, alongside harmonica sensation Hendrik Meurkens. The Canada team features bassist Paco Luviano, vocalist Hannah Burgé, and pianist Gord Sheard. The band recently made its Toronto debut at the 2023 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.
Burgé and Meurkens joined us to tell us more about their international collaboration.
I’ve checked the dictionary and I couldn’t find the word “swingão.” Can someone tell me the story behind the group’s name?
Burgé: We wanted a world that would be cool in English, Spanish and Portuguese and that had the concept of swing. If you speak Spanish, there’s a little wink in there. And then our Brazilian friends put the — what do you call that over the a?
Meurkens: That last syllable just means big. Big swing. Great swing.
Henrik, do you recall the moment when Latin music became a subject that you had to study further?
Meurkens: Well, first of all, Latin music and Brazilian music are not the same. I’m really a man for Brazilian music. There’s always a lack of distinction. Brazilian music and Cuban-based music have a very different feel and culture, and all of that. Not that one is better than the other, but they are different. I’m from the Brazilian side of it. When did it start? I don’t know — the first time I heard a record. That must have been in my teen years in Hamburg. I think it was actually Astrud Gilberto singing low-key bossa nova. The rhythm, the vibe, and the whole atmosphere did it. That was maybe the ’70s in Germany, before the Internet, before streaming, before electricity, before the continental drift, before the Mayflower. It was the old days, so you had to actually investigate. You had to look for music, go to the record store and all that. I heard one album, and one became the next, and so on.
Who was the first Brazilian musician that you worked with?
Meurkens: First it was local guys in Hamburg and Berlin, where I lived. But the first big-time thing, maybe Ivan Lins or Claudio Roditi when I came to New York. I’m old, I forget things, but there were a lot.
For those who don’t know Portinho, tell us about him and how he came to be part of the band.
Meurkens: In the ’60s, Brazilian music started to move out of Brazil and throughout the world, thanks to “The Girl From Ipanema” and Charlie Byrd and all that. It became popular in the States, and then Sérgio Mendes came over, and in the mid- to late-’60s and early-’70s, a bunch of Brazilian musicians moves to the States because there was work here. Portinho was one of them. In the early ’70s, he came to America and became the go-to Brazilian drummer. He’s a legendary guy. He moved to New York 50 years ago and everyone who was interested in Brazilian music picked up his style. So, he’s extremely influential. He set the language for it, and everybody copied him. I got to know him 30 years ago. I played with him, and then Hannah got the idea, because he’s around! We’ve got to play with people as long as they are around. Nobody is around forever, but Portinho is around. So, that was the idea to take advantage of that legendary man, and here he is.
Who’s someone in the Brazilian music scene who’s a harmonica player that you would have taken your lead from?
Meurkens: There are a bunch of Brazilian harmonica players, but that’s not what influenced me. My influence on harmonica, there’s one guy and only one guy: Toots Thielemans. I’m not really checking out other harmonica players, because I’m just a musician who happens to play harmonica. My harmonica influence, that’s Toots, end of story. But Claudio Roditi, the trumpet player, would be the man for the language — the samba jazz language. He died a few years ago, but he has a lot of albums. That is how samba jazz should be played.
What can people expect from Swingão on stage?
Burgé: You can expect a pretty swingin’ band. We’ve condensed quite a lot into our 30 hours together. You can expect a lot of great, uptempo music. You can expect to see Portinho doing his thing. You can expect to hear all the beautiful melodies and improv that Hendrik always brings.
This interview has been edited and condensed.