When asked to account for his obsession with choro, mandolin master Mike Marshall has a simple explanation — blame it on Rio. Admittedly, he was already tantalized by the instrumental Brazilian genre often compared to American bluegrass, having heard classic recordings by Jacob do Bandolim while touring with the original David Grisman Quintet in the late 1970s. But it wasn’t until his first trip to Brazil in 1995 that he experienced choro directly. Suddenly, he connected the intricate, oddly beguiling tunes he’d heard while riding in Grisman’s van with the Rio de Janeiro string bands that combine the Brazilian gift for melodic invention with endlessly resourceful Afro-Brazilian syncopation. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, that’s the sound,'” Marshall says during a recent interview at his house in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood. “We knew about samba and bossa nova, and then to go to Brazil and discover this whole genre was just mind-blowing.” He performs with his band Choro Famoso at the Freight & Salvage on Sunday.
Married to noted klezmer fiddler Kaila Flexer, Marshall has been an important voice in acoustic music for more than a quarter-century. Since gaining fame with the Grisman Quintet, he has forged a brilliant path as a guitarist, mandolinist, and fiddler, collaborating with luminaries such as Stephane Grappelli, Mark O’Connor, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, and Edgar Meyer. Over the years, he has been particularly active with fiddler Darol Anger, his partner in a series of genre-bending projects including the thrilling neo-bluegrass bands NewGrange and Psychograss. In meeting the young lions of choro, Marshall found a Brazilian reflection of the American newgrass scene, with musicians steeped in traditional forms throwing far-flung elements into the mix. “You had some younger people who were experimenting and bringing other influences into the music,” he says. “There was a vibrancy to it which reminded me of some of the younger generation of acoustic ‘bluegrass’ musicians.”
Marshall has been nursing his choro passion for almost a decade now. Upon returning to the Bay Area after his ear-opening trip to Brazil, he started hosting jam sessions and gradually put together a band, Choro Famoso, that performed around the region in the late 1990s and eventually began work on an album. Years in the making, Choro Famoso’s self-named CD finally came out last May on Adventure Music.
The quintet features Brazilian-born, Oakland-based guitarist Carlos Oliveira (“If you’re gonna play Brazilian music, you’ve gotta have somebody supplying the essence of that feel, and Carlos is a groove master,” Marshall says); percussionists Michael Spiro and Brian Rice, who specializes in the tambourine-like pandeiro, an essential component of any choro band; and Andy Connell on clarinet and soprano sax. Oliveira notes that, like jazz, choro was created through a fusion of European musical forms, such as polkas, waltzes, and schottisches, with African rhythms and instruments. He adds, however, that choro began taking shape in the 1870s, several decades before jazz. “It’s also similar to bluegrass, but bluegrass is more static rhythmically,” says Oliveira, who grew up playing choro. “Choro is still going strong and evolving, and a new generation is carrying it forward.”
Mike Marshall and Choro Famoso play the Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison St., Berkeley, on Sunday at 8 p.m. 510-548-1761 or TheFreight.org