Original uplifting jazz for humans, played by adroit musicians. Lee is a master pianist and affecting baritone. Elizabeth Tomboulian has an astonishing soprano voice. Solo and in different bands, Circo and the Weekly Reeders and also Whatevs, Lee's vison as composer and player is clear.
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, fr
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)
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