In a Brazilian double-bill on November 29, virtuoso French violinist Nicolas Krassik leads Cordestinos and guests in a celebration of lively folk and contemporary musical trends, while legendary flutist and improviser Carlos Malta brings Pife Muderno to play traditional flute and drum music. Here, writer James Gavin introduces the Frenchman who has taken downtown Rio by storm.
Late at night in downtown Rio, live music spills out of the bars of Lapa—the dingy historical neighborhood whose streets become one huge party after dark. Several years back, a boyish young Frenchman named Nicolas Krassik began showing up in clubs there with his violin. To the locals' amazement, he played Brazilian rhythms like chorinho, forró, and baião as though he'd grown up with them. He improvised at breakneck speed while never losing his poise or his impish smile. Even his most daredevil solos had a cool French elegance, like that of his late countryman Stéphane Grappelli, the master of jazz violin. Krassik's listeners couldn't keep from dancing. The veteran samba singer Beth Carvalho called him "the most Brazilian Frenchman I've ever met in my life."
Brazil has never had a violinist like Krassik, who traded Paris for Rio in 2001 and has been on the rise there ever since. On November 29 in Zankel Hall, Krassik—now 43—will give his first show in New York, sharing a bill with Carlos Malta, the flute virtuoso from Rio, and Malta's group Pife Muderno. Krassik's guests will include one of his adopted country's legends, Gilberto Gil, with whom he tours. The program will focus on Krassik's specialty, the sounds of Brazil's northeast—notably forró, the polka-like, hillbilly dance music played with accordion, triangle, and bass drum. He has brought his whole band over from Rio—he calls them his "Cordestinos"—a name coined from cordas (Portuguese for string instruments like violin) and nordestino (a northeasterner).
Krassik gained his technical finesse through years of conservatory training. By 19, he'd left classical music behind him in order to join a tradition of French jazz violinists that includes Grappelli, Didier Lockwood, and Jean-Luc Ponty. In the 1990s, Krassik toured with Michel Petrucciani, the acclaimed jazz pianist from France, who died at 36 of a rare bone disease. By then Brazilian music had won Krassik's heart, and he sought it out whenever it came to Paris. Without having learned much Portuguese, he decided to try and start a new career in Rio. He trekked to Lapa night after night, absorbing the music and the language from local musicians. Before long, they'd accepted him as one of their own.
Aside from the four CDs he's made under his own name, Krassik is a recognizable presence on albums by many Brazilian stars, who turn to this foreigner to help make their music sound more Brazilian. On Rita Ribeiro's Tecnomacumba—a techno homage to the country's folkloric gods and goddesses—that's Krassik playing the sinewy, snake-charmer solo that closes Caetano Veloso's "Oração ao Tempo." Pop star Marisa Monte employed him on her foray into samba, Universo ao Meu Redor; while Beth Carvalho invited him to help her salute a beloved sambista on Nome Sagrado, her tribute to Nelson Cavaquinho.
Now Krassik has made it to New York, a city he knew only from movies and stories. He speaks hardly any English, but language barriers haven't stopped him before. "Of course I dream of an international career," he says in Portuguese. "Not for the fame, but to have more places to play and to take my band." Krassik belongs on the jazz-festival circuit, where authentic Brazilian music—not to mention fun—are in short supply. Maybe this Zankel Hall concert will help lead him there.
—James Gavin is an author and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Time Out New York and whose books include Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and the forthcoming Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.
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