Visiting artist looks to blend American, Brazilian jazz

The title of Almir Côrtes' latest album, "Limiar," translates literally to "threshold," though the Brazilian instrumentalist prefers the term "borderline."

"It's something that's in the middle of traditional and modern," he said. "You're always aiming for that. You'll never get there because it's hard to be balanced all of the time."

A photo of artist-in-residence Almir Côrtes.

Artist-in-residence Almir Côrtes.

The concept lines up nicely with his research at SF State, where he is spending the fall semester as an artist-in-residence. Côrtes is using the time to study concepts of American jazz improvisation to see how they can be taught in Brazilian styles of music.

Cortes has also been visiting classes at SF State, working with students and professors, as well as performing with other Bay Area musicians.

"My idea is to observe and learn what has been developed in the jazz field in the United States and add that to Brazilian music," he said. “I want to develop a course to teach improvisation in Brazilian popular music, so I am trying to learn as much as I can how that is done in jazz."

Côrtes' residency is funded by a post-doctoral fellowship awarded by FAPESP São Paulo Research Foundation, an independent public research foundation fostering scientific and technological development for the state of São Paulo, Brazil. He is a noted performer on mandolin; classical and electric guitar; cavaquinho, which resembles a ukulele; and viola caipira, a smaller guitar with five doubled strings. His music comes from genres considered traditional or regional such as choro, frevo or baião, but has a contemporary approach that includes experimentation and improvisation.

Raised in Santo Antonio de Jesus, a small town in the northeast of Brazil, Côrtes began playing music with his uncles, eventually joining local bands. He moved to Salvador to complete his undergraduate studies in classical guitar at UFBA, the Federal University of Bahia, since, at the time, jazz music had yet to take root in academia there. He then obtained a master's degree and Ph.D. in popular music -- the Brazilian equivalent of jazz -- performance at UNICAMP, the state university of Campinas, São Paulo.

Côrtes has been working with Professor of Music and Dance Hafez Modirzadeh, whose music combines jazz and Persian styles. Together they are writing an article summarizing Côrtes' research comparing ways of teaching and learning both American jazz and Brazilian popular music.

"Almir's arrival at SF State has brought together students and faculty from throughout our department, crossing various styles and teaching approaches," Modirzadeh said. "In addition to his impeccable scholarship and his abilities as a composer and instrumentalist, his disarming nature and overall modesty also assure us that he will be a long-term friend to our campus."

For his part, Côrtes said he appreciates the presence of Latin American music in SF State's music and dance department as well as its efforts to narrow the distance between classical and jazz training. In addition, he added, the way Modirzadeh engages students with such nonwestern music as Persian music is important at a time when musical traditions around the world are adapting jazz. Teachers also need to prepare students for a field that increasingly lacks definition, he said.

"Music is involved in society," Côrtes said. "It has a social context. It's related to culture, to politics, to entertainment, to business. The world when jazz was growing and developing in the 1940s was a different world. How do we approach that music nowadays, and how can we learn from it and move forward? That's the question."

Côrtes will perform music from his new album and more at a concert at SF State on Nov. 15. For more information, visit To hear some of Côrtes' music, visitôrtes

-- Jonathan Morales