Name: João Donato
Occupation: Pianist, composer, arranger
Current Release: João Donato is the latest artist to be invited to the Jazz is Dead series by bassist and producer Adrian Younge and hip-hop-legend Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Although JID007 doesn't stray too far from the sounds and tropes that the Brazilian pianist and composer has built his 7-decade-long career on, this is the exact opposite of a trip down nostalgia lane: Propelled forward by warm rhythms, spiritually lifted by soulful vocals and transported by the chirps of cosmic synthesizers weaving pastoral tapestries of beautiful alien planets, the mini-album feels as contemporary as Donato's work did in the 60s and 70s, when he was instrumental in fusing jazz with Brazilian grooves and establishing the bossa nova. It's not the first time Donato has shocked the retro-brigage. Already on Sintetizamor, a collaboration with his son Donatino, synthesizer fireworks replaced piano sentimentality, vocoders and autotune effects surreally bent the curvature of vocal lines and thick, punching beats swept up 21st century dancefloors. "Music is a medicine for the soul", João Donato says in this interview – clearly, he has been taking the right dose of it for his entire life.
Recommendations: Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra.
If you enjoyed this interview with João Donato and would like to find out more, you'll have to do some digging. Despite his impressive record, Donato does not have a website and he's not on any of the usual social media channels. He does have a Youtube channel, though, and there is a pretty comprehensive fan page which offers quite a bit of information.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started with music when I was around seven years old. I wrote a tune for a girlfriend of mine, Minnie.
My early influences were some 78 RPM records that my father had in the house. I used to play them and I was enchanted by "Sadness of love" by Fritz Kreisler. What drew me to music was the sentimentality it conveyed. The nostalgia of the of the music drew me to it.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
As a kid, it used to be the same for me as everybody else. There were all these influences from what was going on around me – people I knew, what was playing on the radio and whatever kind of sound you could hear … different bands.
I was developing my own my own style growing up in this blend, influenced by everything that was around me.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My creativity came from my hometown in the Amazon region, the Amazon forest, the Amazonian jungle. I used to swim in the river and I slept on a hammock. This influenced my creativity.
I came to Rio de Janeiro when I was 11 years old. I was impressed by the movies and by the music played in the movies. Other influences included jazz, which I would hear through records, as well as friends and the people in school.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
To me, my muse and my physicality are one inseparable thing.
My creative challenges were mainly to be able to play the songs of the moment. First, I would play what was playing on the radio. Later on, I started getting interested in studying Debussy and Ravel, which I both loved very much. My creative challenge of today is to write something in the vein of Ravel.
There was another important inspiration. When I heard the Stan Kiento Orchestra, I was very impressed. I actually lost my sleep! My hairs stood up and I could not sleep the night I heard the Stan Kiento Orchestra for the first time on an old 78 RPM record. And I keep this with me until today - because that's the most amazing sensation that you can have: to lose your sleep because of a sound that you heard somewhere.
Later, I met Tito Puente. He asked me to do an arrangement for him. The thing was, I had never written an arrangement before. And I said: "What am I going to do?" A friend of mine said: "We better do it! Because somebody else is gonna do it if you don't." So I gathered the necessary courage and I wrote an arrangement for him and it sounded better than I imagined. And then we recorded the song called "Sambaroco" on the record called Vaya Puente. I even played the trombone solo!
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Back in the beginning, we didn't have so many facilities. We just had a cassette for recording. Later on, it became a 7,5 recording machine. I rented a recording machine to do some recordings of Chet Baker. He was playing with me in Sausalito at the Trident.
Later on, I was invited to record a record that became A Bad Donato for Blue Thumb Records. This was, in a way, my breakthrough record. I has been invited by Bobby Krasnow, director of Blue Thumb Records to make a recording. He travelled with me to Japan. There, we were making presentations. He liked my music and he said when we came back, that he would like me to do a recording for him and do whatever I wanted to do.
So I walked into the studio and they had all kinds of instruments, keyboards, and machines and clavinets and Yamahas. They gave me everything, all the tools I needed to record an I was free to record with whomever I wanted to record. They also gave me all the records that were successful at that moment. But the only thing I liked was James Brown. His music was the only one that I enjoyed when I heard the bunch of records that they gave me. So I I recorded something with his influence. The result was a very good album called A Bad Donato.
And then, when I came back to Brazil, I did a record with with lyrics. It was my first record with lyrics and it was called Quem É Quem. Those two works, A Bad Donato, and Quem É Quem were very important for me.
Another work that I am going to record in the future is going to be with music by Debussy and Ravel in France.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Of course! Together with my son, Donatinho, we made a record, Sintetizamor. On that album, I played with keyboards, MIDI and different sounds. I did miss the presence of human material, but somehow it did get to be satisfying in the end.
The technology for making music today is very good. I very much enjoy doing things with my my son who likes to play with keyboards, and different techniques of recording.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
First, I learned how to play trombone on the telephone - my teacher taught me how to play on the telephone! He answered me on the other side. It was one of those public telephones. They only had a three minute time allowance. So after three minutes, the machine would end the call. (laughs) So that was the end of the lesson.
But today it's very nice. Just the other day, I record with a friend in Rome. I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he was in Italy. And we did the recording together - amazing how things can change! I can now make music with people in Sao Paulo and in the United States, we can connect and make songs. It's a very nice form of working. But generally speaking I like to work with friends in person and not online, to with people directly, with the presence of people. And I miss that kind of way of working because at the moment, with the pandemic, we have to work separately. Each one at their house doing things together, which are not really together. I definitely prefer to be in the same room with the drums and bass and flute. I like to exchange ideas with my friends.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I'll wake up and will have breakfast and start listening to music or playing the piano or writing a song or writing an arrangement or whatever. Then, I'll listen to a song again, I like to listen to music all day long. Or to play music. But there is no routine, nothing is fixed. No schedule fixed. The muse, it comes and it stays with me all day long.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have to be at peace with myself. I have to have peace of mind. There needs to be a quietness. You have to feel good in order to write songs. You don't write songs when you feel bad - unless you want to write the blues, which I don't like very much because it talks about suffering and all those kinds of things. I like music that makes you feel pleasant, that produces serotonin.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music can heal – yes! Medicine can heal the body and music can heal the soul. Music can produce serotonin which makes you feel comfortable, makes you feel good. It can give good health for people that are sick. I think music is very important.
You can use it in different aspects. You can develop songs for religious rituals, the way I used it on "Emoriô" on the album Lugar Comum. We can also hear birds sing and enjoy that.
This is the way birds will sing when they have children in other nests. And when I was at the river banks of the Rio Branco, I heard somebody going by on a boat whistling (whistles a melody). I felt very comfortable, mellow and nice and lovely and lovable. And I never forgot that - this was my first song! It was about something that I heard at the river banks when I was very small. From then on I kept looking for that inspiration, for that aspect of feeling that music can bring, a sentimental feeling.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I think that smell has much to do with sound, because you know, some perfumes, some mother's perfumes, some girlfriends' perfumes, all those things they can be music, too ...
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Music is in everything. Everything is music, everything makes music. Music is in the air, it's on the television, the radio, in the movies, on the streets. Music is everywhere. Without music, there would be no universe.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is a sentiment, a feeling that goes into you, into your soul, your spirit. And music can hold you, can comfort you when you are sad, can make you comfortable when you are well. It can make you well if you are sick.