The Brazilian jazz great Flora Purim has many stories to tell
By Brad Farberman
Once, at a Miles Davis concert, Flora Purim was sitting alone. Janis Joplin took the seat next to her, and a friendship was born. Upon moving to New Jersey, Purim discovered that she was neighbors with João Gilberto. He invited her over and beat her at Ping-Pong. In 1965, at the João Sebastião Bar in São Paulo, Purim was installed as the singer with a band called Sambalanço Trio; on drums was her future partner, Airto Moreira. Chance, one could say, has played an outsize role in her life.
But skill — not luck — is what made Purim a star of the 1970s jazz scene. A nimble, inventive vocalist steeped in the mystical, Purim made a near-immediate splash when she moved to New York from Brazil in 1967. After an ill-fated run with Stan Getz — for one thing, she didn’t want to sing “The Girl from Ipanema,” feeling it belonged to Astrud Gilberto — Purim became the frontwoman of Return to Forever, Chick Corea’s innovative jazz-rock-Brazilian-flamenco fusion band.
Alongside Corea, Moreira, bassist Stanley Clarke and saxophonist Joe Farrell, Purim recorded fusion classics like “500 Miles High” and “Light as a Feather.” After splitting with Return to Forever in the early ’70s, Purim’s ascent was threatened by a drug conviction that landed her in a California prison. But while Purim was behind bars, George Duke and the band Santana released albums featuring her vocals, and not long after her release at the end of 1975, she signed a major-label deal with Warner Bros. A slowdown was not in the cards.
Work with Dizzy Gillespie and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart followed. Grammy nominations came for the 1986 and 1987 awards, and the following decade saw the flourishing of Fourth World, a collective including Moreira and Brazilian guitarist José Neto. But in terms of studio albums, Purim went silent after “Flora’s Song” in 2005. The music returns Friday with “If You Will,” a pressing, luminous album featuring Moreira on percussion and a song each by Duke (“If You Will”) and Corea (“500 Miles High”), both originally recorded with Purim. The LP is a glance at the past and a survey of the present, with what Purim once referred to as her “Brazilian Raw Approach” still in effect.
During a two-hour video call from her home in Curitiba, Brazil, Purim, who turned 80 last month, left no stone unturned, leaping from life on the road with an infant to leaving Scientology to a middle-of-the-night studio session with Carlos Santana. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Jazz fusion in the ’70s was male dominated, to say the least. How did you navigate that scene?
A: They would appreciate my musicianship. They would take me in as a musician and make sure that I knew that. One time, at the Royal Festival Hall with the Dizzy Gillespie band, I knew they were going to do a video of that particular show. I made sure that I always wore pants. Beautiful leather pants; nice tops; nice makeup — but my legs would never be exposed. That day, for some reason, because it was a gala night, I decided to put on a dress that was above my knees, and high heels. And as I walked onstage, the whole band started to whistle at me. I could die. But I stood my ground, I did my part. I like to move and shake and do. With a dress, it doesn’t feel very good, it’s very constraining. And if you’re wearing pants, then you’re cool.
Q: One of your signature songs, “Light as a Feather,” was a collaboration with Stanley Clarke. Where did the lyrics come from?
A: I wrote the lyrics on my way to Detroit, in a car. We were going to play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. At that time, I was part of a Scientology thing that Chick got me in for a minute. The word “clear” was very used in Scientology. If you go through some of their classes, there’s one where you hold two cans and the E-Meter — which is more like a lie detector, you know? They ask you simple questions at the beginning. But if you lie, you have a tendency to hold the cans stronger, or move or fidget, and they figure your low point. And I didn’t like that. That’s one of the reasons I quit right away.
Q: You were pregnant during the recording of the first Return to Forever album. How did that shape the music?
A: I sang until I was almost six months pregnant. The touring was a very heavy schedule. We were in the studio (for the second Return to Forever album, “Light as a Feather”), and I had this baby. No females — only males — and nobody wanted to hold the baby. And the baby was beginning to cry. So I’m recording “Light as a Feather.” I grabbed her, gave her my breast and started to sing “Light as a Feather.” And I want you to know that they have no teeth, but their gums push to grab the milk, and it hurts. And I’m trying not to bring pain into my singing. But I endured with her at my breast. And that’s how I recorded “Light as a Feather.”
Q: So you were breastfeeding while recording that song?
A: Not just that. And then we had a three-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, in London. I was singing, and the owner of the club would come in front of the stage and point to his mouth, which meant the baby in the dressing room was crying. And I said, “Joe, play another five choruses. I’ll come back.” (Laughs) I didn’t have a bassinet or anything. So she was inside of a drum case, with pillows. At eight days, Diana, who is my source of inspiration nowadays, for everything — music and all — she actually was making her debut at Ronnie Scott’s.
Q: You’ve appeared on albums by Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart from the Grateful Dead. Were you following rock music in the ’60s and ’70s, and what artists like them were doing?
A: I was not into the rock world, even though I knew who Carlos was. But I didn’t hear his music very much. He used to come to the Keystone Korner (jazz club in San Francisco), almost every night, and sit there — not even talk to anybody, maybe a couple of musicians with him — and watch the show. By the end of the first week, he waited until the second set was over, and he approached me and said, “Listen, I am doing a record, and I will be honored if you and Airto come and play.” And I said, “Carlos, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning.” “The studio is open for me.” “OK, let’s go.”
Q: Even when you weren’t physically in Brazil, it was present in your music.
A: I left Brazil because of the military coup. But Brazil never left me. In here, you know? (Points to heart.) It’s something I can’t explain. There is a word that has no translation, it’s called saudade. And I sing a song about it. I say, “Saudade has no translation if you never felt.” Saudade means “heartfelt missing.” You never miss the bad stuff. All you miss is the good stuff.
Q: You took a long break between this album and your last one. When you were recording “If You Will,” did you feel a new sense of purpose or creativity?
A: When I saw what was happening with the world, I felt that God didn’t give me the gift of singing for no reason. I think he had something in mind. I’m supposed to help. And I cannot omit myself any longer from what’s going on in the world. So I’m going to take it in stride, and I’m going to go back.