This duo of trombonist, singer, and songwriter Natalie Cressman and guitarist, composer, and vocalist Ian Faquini is relatively rare in terms of instrumental pairings, but Auburn Whisper is their second, following 2019’s successful Setting Rays of Summer. This project, recorded during the pandemic months, gave them plenty of time to develop more expansive arrangements that blend traditional Brazilian rhythms. Oh, and they had the luxury of using the studio of Cressman’s dad, the renowned trombonist Jeff Cressman, who together with the duo, serves as co-producer.
Readers of these pages who may be more familiar with Natalie Cressman for her previous stints on the jam band circuit with bands such as Trey Anastasio Band, Peter Apfelbaum, Big Gigantic, and Umphrey’s McGee may wonder why Brazilian music has captured the fancy of the trombonist who has long put those jam band years behind her. Her friendship with native Brazilian Faquini, who had relocated to northern California at the age of eight, began when the two met at Brazil Camp, held in the redwood forests, first attending with their parents when Natalie was seven and Faquini was only eight years old. Intervening years obviously had them dabbling in other genres and geographies, but Faquini was especially stricken when he met the legendary composer and guitarist, Guinga, at Brazil Camp at the age of 15 and has stayed focused on Brazilian music ever since. He and Natalie met at Brazil Camp again as adults and bonded both musically and personally.
The album has both English and Portuguese titles and lyrics. The latter comes courtesy of Iara Ferreira, a frequent collaborator of Faquini’s, who wrote the majority of the album’s Portuguese lyrics as first heard on the opening track, “Afoxé pra Oxum.” This, like so many, have authentic Brazilian folklore references. Here, Oxum refers to the goddess of rivers, waterfalls, and freshwater. Set to a foundational ijexá rhythm, the brimming track includes a traditional chant to the deity, who is also a symbol of fertility, beauty, and wealth. Other examples include “Curandeiro,” which also mixes in the indigenous language. After all, the music and culture of Brazil is shaped by a mix of African, European, and indigenous traditions. In that tune, the duo sings about a healer who cares for the Mundukuru people of the Amazon.
The brightest tune of all may be “Benção de Iansá,” which, offers a blessing to Iansá, the goddess of winds, storms, lightning, and fire, who is frequently called upon to ease the pain of life’s difficult moments. Listen to the opening of the tune and you’ll hear multiple trombones, unfolding into a highly lyrical solo, and then a chorus of ‘bones underpinning her vivacious vocal.
Cressman typically writes the English lyrics and on this project, as alluded to, Cressman broadened her work as an arranger (she is only in the credits three times as a writer) given the luxury of time afforded by the pandemic to add additional nuanced trombone (she is playing both tenor and bass trombone) and layers of vocal harmonies. Her light airy vocals are consistently beautiful, taking on a slightly different, and eminently more Brazilian tone timbre when her partner harmonizes, and most certainly on the tunes where Faquini is the lead such as his own “Gazadero.” The layered approach reveals itself in the title track which traces their time at Big Brazil from those early childhood years to the present day. The song also includes a nod to Guinga, who may see himself as an eventual matchmaker of sorts for the duo.
Similar yearning and longing are found in “Segredo De Dadá,” where Faquini sings, longing to visit his grandmother (nicknamed “Dadá”) in Copacabana. When Faquini sent the emotive song to Guinga, the composer felt his own sense of nostalgia for Brazil Camp, which was canceled amidst the pandemic. Inspired, Guinga added lyrics, conjuring surreal, juxtaposed imagery of Rio and Northern California. Many of the other songs bear the imagery, moods, and contemplative thoughts induced by the pandemic. Similarly, we have “Rear Window” (named for the classic Hitchcock film), painting a scene of isolation and desire. At the other end of the spectrum, the dreamy “Already There,” which the couple dubs their “Pandemic Anthem,” is about accepting one’s current state and stoically facing the unknown. Throughout, it’s rather remarkable how many orchestral roles Cressman’s trombone(s) fill whether it be the melody, (i.e., the instrumental “Doutor Escobar”), the equivalent of tenor and bass harmonies to the vocals, or just supplying a robust bottom, serving like cellos or bowed bass, for the lightness of the vocals and acoustic guitar.
In the latter part of the album where Faquini is the lone composer or paired with Ferreira, we hear more complex Brazilian rhythms such as in “Ralando Coco” while he proves adept at ballads such as “Hood River” and the closer, “Madrugaga”. This music is just so beautiful, the modern-day version of sorts for those glorious sounds when Stan Getz’s collaboration with Joao and Astrud Gilberto first impacted popular music with the sounds of Brazil. They often had the benefit of a rhythm section too which makes this duo outing of Cressman and Faquini that much more impressive.