Gustavo Assis-Brasil in his element.Gustavo Assis-Brasil in his element.

In 1964, when "The Girl from Ipanema" climbed the pop charts propelled by its breathy Brazilian beat and flaring Stan Getz sax, few in Arlington may have paused to notice. The death of President Kennedy, who received a record percentage of votes here, was still fresh.

Nearly 50 years later, the town's population has changed markedly, its Irish majority sharing space with many more cultures.

That shift is clear in the program for a fund-raiser to benefit the third annual Arlington International Film Festival, "An October Evening of Passion."


The man behind the music

To get a personal sense of one of those behind that passion, YourArlington sat down for an hour with Gustavo Assis-Brasil.

The slight, smiling 40-year-old without the long hair shown on his website photo came to the parking lot at the leafy campus of the Cambridge School of Weston, where he is in his 11th year of teaching. We walked past guitars hanging on the wall near his narrow office, where more guitars hung as well as murals created by his mother, Anamaria.

The native of Brazil and an Arlington resident is considered a pioneer in devising hybrid picking for guitar and a well-known jazz performer. We talked informally about what listeners can expect Oct. 5 and how Assis-Brasil has developed as a performer and guitar-picking guru.

For the fund-raiser, Gustavo expects to play with bassist Jose Pienasola, a colleague at Cambridge School.
"We will play many instrumental styles -- bossa nova, samba, Brazilian jazz -- but the tunes will be traditional or popular," he said. That includes one of his favorites, "Ipanema," the version by Astrud Gilberto

"We take traditional melodies and then improvise in jazz."

One way it happens: "Ipanema" author Antonio Carlos Jobim took chords from earlier jazz sources, such as Ellington -- a tradition that borrowed from the musical Impressionists (think: Debussy).

Hear and see Brasil and Pienasola on YouTube >>

How his sounds began to evolve

With those sounds in your head, go back to when Gustavo was a preteen in Santa Maria, in southern Brazil.

Encouraged by his father, he began learning guitar at age 11, but his fingers were not strong enough for the direction his music would take -- a hybrid picking style that has led to three books on the subject.

He recalls working in a supermarket counting products customers took from shelves. He hated the mind-numbing task, which is taken care of digitally now, and his mind would drift to music.

At 13, got his first good Brazilian guitar, a Giannini. The next year, he began practicing obsessively, sometimes six hours a day after school.

For inspiration, he would patiently wait for a favorite song to come on the radio (no iTunes then). It was 1987, the year Los Lobos had a hit with "La Bamba," Chicano rock first made popular by Ritchie Valens in 1959. 

To get further instruction in where he wanted the guitar to take him, he recalls scrabbling together $50 to get a video from the United States (no YouTube then). He went on to buy more than 100 titles, including instructional guitar videos and live concerts.

He compared the pursuit of his musical desires then with attitudes among his students today, when digital music delivery eases matters.

"It's harder to be passionate when it's so easy," he said.

Earlier influences

Those driven practice sessions included obsessions with particular musicians. That included the music of Carlos Santana as well as songs from his native state, Rio Grande do Sul. He called it "gaucho music," the cowboys of Uruguay and Argentina.

Earlier on, he played acoustic, but after he heard the electric genius of Les Paul, he plugged in. This electrical direction "brought me to the U.S."

Among the bands that fired his imagination was, believe it or not, Kiss

He did not try to dress in their black-and-white style but "did try some toothpaste" on his face. Talk about pasty white. "It hurt a lot."

As for a specifics song, he cited Santana's "Samba pa Ti" (Samba for You). The interviewer knows early Santana, but not that tune, so Brasil took down a cheap guitar, one students use, and picked it out. See and hear it here >> 

Other key inspiration: The Beatles.

In 1995, he graduated as a music major from Universidade Federal de Santa Maria. "It was like a conservatory," he said.

Drawn to the U.S.

After that, he taught music privately and saved his money. In 1997, he studied English at Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y.

A lack of confidence kept him from thinking about Berklee, but he overcame it and got his master's in jazz on a full scholarship. Hard work paid off at Berklee, where he teaches some summer sessions. He calls himself "lucky."

His inspirations for jazz? "Hundreds," he said and looked away dreamily.

What really pushed him on the path he has pursued was Pat Metheny. He called Metheny's music "a bridge" between rock and improv jazz.

"I saw him in L.A.," he said, "and I cried."

Gustavo tries to cross that bridge with The Beatles' "Michelle" and "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix.

He took the better guitar, Godin 5th Avenue Jazz, from his office wall and as YouTube played it in the background, he did so in person.

Music and math

The kid who at first shunned math found a musical home in it as an adult. The estimated 1,400 practice sessions in his book Hybrid-Picking Exercises reflect a math mind.

Gustavo demonstrates: He takes a red pick between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and plucks while his other three fingers flutter their own beats.

It takes dexterity, he said, and is a very specific technique for the intermediate and advanced guitarist.

No matter; there appear to enough such musicians out there. His books have sold 3,000 copies in 30 countries.

He performs with a group called Mozik, purveyors of Brazilian jazz. It was on tour this summer: Cleveland, Washington D.C., New York and Boston.

Read a review of its 2011 offering here >> 

Hear and see them on YouTube >> 

He handed me a CD, of a 2007 concert whose music includes Pienasola. It was directed by Gustavo's father before he died of cancer.

Gustavo's wife is Cristiane Soares, who is a lecturer in Portuguese at Tufts University.

This story was published Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013.