From Bossa Nova to Hard Bop

January 5, 2014 Updated: January 5, 2014

Recently, we were looking for a place to have my birthday lunch. We came up with the idea of SOB’s  (Sounds of Brazil) (at 204 Varick St. at West Houston St.; 212-243-4940) for the Sunday Bossa Nova Brunch. On arrival, we found the colorful room had a party atmosphere, with balloons hanging down from the ceiling. In fact, we discovered our idea wasn’t so original. The lady in the next table with a bouquet of flowers was also celebrating her birthday with her family and friends.

Shakespeare wrote that “music is the food of love” and a key reason for picking SOB’s was the soothing sound of Brazilian music. The leader at the Sunday brunches is Nanny Assis (a mellow vocalist who also plays percussion and guitar) with Edgar DeAlmeida on lead guitar.  Assis’s vocal talent has been recognized in his native country. In 2011, he was the recipient of the prestigious Brazilian International Press Award as “Best Singer of the Year.”  DeAlmeida’s Facebook page contains his credo, “Music is not what I do, it’s who I am.” The pair performed popular sambas and bossa novas with a number of pieces by Brazil’s greatest songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, including “Garota de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema), “Corcovado” (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) and “Desafinado.” Assis sang all of them in Portuguese.   

The three-course Sunday Bossa Nova Brunch, $30.99 per person plus tax and gratuity, is a bargain. In addition to the live music, it includes an open sangria bar (with a choice of red or white). Just tell the waitress your preference and she will refill your glass all afternoon.

The cuisine is as inviting as the music. Starters included butternut squash soup with Toasted Pumpkin Pepitos and Crème Fraiche or a pair of empanadas (one with meat and the other with cheese). Among the choices for main course are steak and eggs.  I opted for the Brazilian national dish: feijoada, a rich black bean stew with chicken and pork, served with pieces of orange, farofa (toasted manioc powder, to be added as a thickener) and kale. This is as satisfying in chilly weather as French cassoulet. My companion had fish tacos (pan-fried talapia served with chopped greens, fresh tomatillo salsa, avocado relish & sour cream). As a conscientious reviewer, I felt I had to try one and it was very tasty. Delicious dessert choices include flan and empanadas with chocolate and bananas. We noticed a number of families with young children at the brunch and they seemed to be having a good time. 

SOB’s has music most nights (with a music charge) and serves dinner. One noteworthy upcoming show is Saturday, Jan. 11th: the first annual Bellows Ball featuring the accordion powered dance music of Matuto, Banda Magda, and Jeffrey Broussard. I have seen Matuto and have their debut CD; they present a unique and very entertaining mix of Afro-Brazilian sounds and Appalachian bluegrass.

On Sunday, Jan. 19th SOB’s will have a show for Martin Luther King Jr. Day that also celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela. The star of the show is Talib Kweli.

One of my favorite jazz clubs is Jazz Standard (116 E. 27th St.; 212-576-2232), which serves high quality barbecue and presents world class jazz stars. One night, I saw an ad that Benny Golson was going to perform, so I headed over. Golson is a key figure in hard bop. He has composed a number of jazz standards, including “Killer Joe,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Along Came Betty,” “Stablemates,” “Whisper Not,” “Blues March,” and “Five Spot After Dark.” He is also a renowned arranger and saxophonist. He was appearing with a quartet: Mike LeDonne on piano, on Buster Williams on bass and Carl Allen on drums.

Golson’s show was titled “Stories from the Past” and, sure enough, he came out talking. He informed the audience that his wife says he speaks too much during his shows. I don’t think anyone in the audience minded because he is articulate and has had a fascinating life. For example, he told of being a fledgling musician in his native Philadelphia, along with another teenage saxophonist, who would grow up to become a legendary figure: John Coltrane. It was when he brought in his Philly friends to play in the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey that they put out the classic album “Moanin.’”

Golson spoke about each piece and then demonstrated why his tenor saxophone playing was a mainstay of many groups. He began with the midtempo “Horizon Ahead” and showed off his ability to swing with “Uptown Afterburn.” “Repeticion” is a melodic samba Golson penned, albeit with a Spanish title rather than Portuguese.  Each band member was given a chance to solo and the leader honored each one of them. Benny Golson is a national treasure and his tenor sax playing is an underrated pleasure. If you missed him, you can catch Golson with the same quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola from Jan. 24-26.

Upcoming shows at Jazz Standard include “Compulsion: The Music of Andrew Hill” on Jan. 14 with an all-star group with Greg Osby, Jeremy Pelt, Marty Ehrlich, Ray Drummond, Donnie McCaslin and Matt Wilson; Pianist-composer Darrell Grant leading a group on Jan. 15 with Steve Wilson, Joe Locke, Clark Sommers and Brian Blade plus special guests; the ebullient pianist Cyrus Chestnut with his trio on Jan. 16-19; the Mingus Big Band on Jan. 20, guitarist Freddy Bryant with Scott Colley and Chris Potter on Jan. 21 and Tim Ries & The East Gipsy Band on Jan. 22. If I could, I would spend every night there.