The Tomboulians have a review in Rolling Stone to blame for their addiction to jazz-infused, popish Latin music.
When Lee Tomboulian was 12, he was perusing rock's most respected magazine. In the reviews, he came across an article about an album by Airto, a South American band. That one review led the Tomboulians to their music machine, Circo, and a full-blown exploration of Uruguay's musical lexicon.
"The reviewer, Robert Palmer, said they wrote in 7/4 time and made it groove like the Rolling Stones do in 4/4. It was a really good album and it ended up being important for me."
He bought the album, and loved it. That album led him to another artist, Hugo Fattoruso, who formed a group named Opa with his brother George and a drummer named, of all things, Ringo. Opa was essentially the back up band of Airto.
In 1989, when he was living in Little Rock, Ark., Lee started a group, Circo Verde. At first, the band was an outlet for a group of musicians who happened to like South American popular music, heavily influenced by the Beatles but laced indelibly with South American quirks. If the lyrics seems overly opaque, it's because the country's military dictatorships silenced musicians' political voices through censorship. Yet the sweetness of the music is what gives the music its humanness.
Almost all the members of Circo are unapologetically American, which affords them a shot at being contrary. They can celebrate sweetness and stomach sentiment and let alt-rock outfits do the sullen, angst-milking act. Besides, the Tomboulians are sure of a seriousness if you just scratch beneath the surface of Uruguayan confections. Ricardo Bozas was himself a minor victim of the military dictatorship in Uruguay setup by America.
Elizabeth found Lee in Little Rock. After working as a solo artist gigging in Texas, Colorado, California, Louisiana, and Nashville, she returned to Arkansas. While traveling the country, she had a variety of collaborative ventures, such as a stint as pianist with the Charles Neville House Band for New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In Colorado, while working as a soloist opening shows at the Blue Note, she sang with Charlie Musselwhite, Richie Cole, and opened for Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. She enjoyed beating Tom at his favorite dice game after a show in Fort Collins. While in Nashville, she composed and recorded extensively with a horn band, "Whatever It Takes." After returning to Arkansas in 88, she met Lee at a jazz gig in Little Rock.
"I thought he was doing some interesting things on the piano, and he had a great record collection! Lee expanded my consciousness of South American music way beyond the gorgeous music of Jobim, introducing me to Egberto Gismonti, Elis Regina, Milton Nascimento, Joyce, Toninho Horta, Hermeto, Ivan Lins, and so many great musical wonders of the world."
Elizabeth isn't an ostentatious singer. She is an alto who can turn an effortless soprano. She can handle a lullabye or rise to the occasion when a good jazz tune calls for some range roving. With Circo, she nails the horn parts in unison with wordless vocals. She's a fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, black gospel music, along with popular singers of the Americas, north and south.
After Lee's decision to join the University of North Texas Jazz Studies program, the Tomboulians reincarnated Circo in Denton, Texas, happily bringing original music informed by Milton Nascimento to a broader audience in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"The main thing is that we like to have fun. We think a lot of people find it fun, too."
Percussion is the ruling muse for Circo, if band percussionist Ricardo Bozas, who is Uruguayan, and drummer Dennis Durick, have anything to say about it. But then bassist Brian Warthen raises up a praising angel or two, jamming some funky poetry into the disc.
Lee reminds you that the piano is a percussion instrument, too. He winds his rhythms around the Durick-Bozas affair to a nice effect. He's the group primary composer. He's competent in making melodies and harmonies, yes, but he understands implicitly that hammers and strings are up-town cousins of the drum.
Pete Brewer, the flutist and sax player of Circo, works its on the jazz end, ricocheting from note to note when he's on the flute. He and Elizabeth can be found playing tag with a theme on more than one tune. It's their partnership that gives Circo its intrigue and fleshiness.
All in all, Circo can affect the urban grit of a Meshell Ndegeocello record, braiding what feels like a little bit of funk into an allegiance to jazz technique and spontaneity.
The group's core percussion is grounded by a respect for authenticity. Some of the album uses the candombe, an indigenous Uruguayan percussion style that builds its rhythmic structure from three drums played with the hand and a stick. The condombe form gives new life to "The Old 100th," which is best known as the Protestant offertory "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow." Lee's harmonies are set over the drums, and it represents the celebratory indigenous street drumming in Uruguay.
"We started with the three drums, and then the rhythm is played over and over, adding in more drums. By the end of the song, there are nine drums. I was surprised because eventually, you can hear in the percussion all of these different vocal lines and harmonies, and they are all coming from the overtones of the drums. It's incredible."
It's the candombe that brings out the joy in the traditional, reverent hymn, and is evidence that Circo is a risk-taking ensemble that, like Brave Combo, believes experimentation is a worthy pursuit.
Lee Tomboulian - keyboards, Piano, Percussion, Accordion
Elizabeth Tomboulian - Vocals, Guitar, keys, Percussion
Lee Tomboulian, Imaginarium (solo piano) released December 2012
Lee Tomboulian and Circo Return to Whenever (Released 2005)
Circo, North/South Convergence, TBS 101 (released 2000)
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Circo: North/South Convergence Circo plays bold, spirited music that has the root element of the ...Circo: North/South Convergence
Circo plays bold, spirited music that has the root element of the Latin culture embedded within a Jazz framework. Rhythmic drive is at the core of the band's music, and it moves at a quick pace to the solid percussion of Dennis Durick and Ricardo Bozas.
Circo is also a vocal group. Both Tomboulians harmonize the words of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" as a springboard to "Ariel," and elsewhere they include voice additives to supplement the instrumental playing. Betty Tomboulian competes on most cuts with non-verbal voicing that flies above the rhythm. The two Tomboulians are also the composers of most of the selections, all of which have a touch of commercial appeal to go along with the authentic Latin foundation. While several guest artists appear on the disc, Circo is primarily a sextet. It features the woodwind playing of Pete Brewer, but the group dances primarily to the impetus of piano, bass, and percussion.
Lee Tomboulian leads the way on piano, synthesizer, or accordion. He inserts a gentle, lilting touch to the music, adeptly mixing a Jazz aesthetic with the upbeat sounds of South America. Brewer keeps the music flying high on saxophones and flute, and Warthen is the purveyor of the heavy electric bass undercurrent. It is the percussionists, however, who establish the flavor of this music. Durick and Bozas are the backbone of the band and provide the identifying sound. The music is basically a light-hearted jaunt. It has a pleasant, appealing manner and several strong improvisational highpoints. Circo will keep any party going with its dedication to rhythm. (Frank Rubolino)
CD Review All About Jazz
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Circo: North/South Convergence While the band Circo is based in the U.S. (around University of No...Circo: North/South Convergence
While the band Circo is based in the U.S. (around University of North Texas in Denton, to be specific), they have embarked upon the mission of performing and promoting the music of Uruguay, and to an extent, Brazil. The inspiration for this music began with founder Lee Tomboulian's purchase of Airto's 70s album Fingers(a college favorite of mine too, I might add). The rhythm section of that band was made up of Uruguayans Hugo Fattoruso (keyboards), Jorge Fattoruso (drums) and Ringo Thielmann (bass), who went on to form their own trio called Opa, which recorded two albums that were also influential. The circle is completed here on Circo's debutNorth/South Convergencewith Hugo Fattoruso's input as the producer of this CD.
The CD is characterized by consistently interesting percussion, adventurous harmonies, and unpredictable, quirky melodies. The band moves effortlessly across time signatures, shifting from 4 to either 6 or 3. The melodies often feature varying pairs of instruments, which further add to the sonic interest. Metropolis is an especially intriguing composition, covering a lot of musical territory. Lee Tomboulian on piano and Pete Brewer on sax and flute contribute well-constructed solos in every rhythmic terrain. Both Tomboulian and bassist Brian Warthen understand that their instruments fulfill as rhythmic as well as harmonic role. Uruguay's indigenous condombe rhythm, starting with three hand or stick drums and building layer upon layer, is heard at several points on the CD and forms the foundation for "Old 100th"("Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow"). This effectively segues into the CD's closer, an unaccompanied vocal duet of Milton Nascimento's beautiful "O Vendedor de Sonhos."
This CD truly charts its own course throughout the program. It's unique and creative, and certainly recommended.
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Circo. Lee Tomboulian and his wife, Betty came to Denton via Arkansas in 1993 so Lee could pick up...
Circo. Lee Tomboulian and his wife, Betty came to Denton via Arkansas in 1993 so Lee could pick up his master’s degree in jazz at UNT. Arkansas’ loss was Denton’s gain, and today they husband and wife compose one-third of the eclectic group Circo. Betty, who has performed professionally since the early ‘70s, provides vocals that range from earthy to ethereal and hit every note in between, while percussionist Ricardo Bozas brings the rhythms of his native Uruguay to the sound.
Jazz drummer Dennis Durick and bassist Brian Warthen help keep time with a post-bop ethic, while woodwind whiz Pete Brewer rounds out the sound with the sax and flute. Together, this combo takes their broad spectrum of skills and influences to create a full-bodied rhythmic adventure that is comfortable within many genres without ever conveniently being pigeon-holed into any of them.
Samberg, Circo TV Theme, Viva Hugo, Grace, Viajando, The Highway, Afro Joe, Uncle Frank, Belovely, Metropolis, Viajando (bandmembers' compositions).
For festivals, one 90-minute set. Clubs: two 1-hour sets.
Covers: Milton Nascimento, Hermeto Pascoal, Toninho Horta, Eddie Palmieri, Elis Regina, standards
There are no upcoming dates at this time.