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Copacabana Cool

May 12, 2011 By:
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Photo by Branca Mattos

Blame it on the bossa nova, sure, but doesn't klezmer share some responsibility?

And how about liturgy? Where does that come in?

It all comes together in explaining the wistful soundtrack of Avi Wisnia's life, where the son of a regional rabbi bounded over the bimah to explore the outside pull of a musical postmodern world.

And the son returns, taking a beat -- not a beating -- from his explorations, culling the exotic, erotic and exquisite from his experiences.

His worldly wise musical map is all to be heard May 18 at World Cafe Live (www.worldcafelive.com), where Bucks County's Wisnia as whiz kid of a singer/songwriter will cajole the flavorfully foreign sounds out of the partnership he has formed with singer Denise Reis of Rio de Janeiro for an audience of fans and family.

He has raised the bar on performance since performing at a -- bar? "I started performing right out of college," says the New York University graduate of his newfound freedom back in 2004.

One can only imagine where his finals were taken, given that his senior recital was at a tavern. But last round did get Wisnia his first professional call. "The owner asked me to return for another performance, which I did," recalls the now 27-year-old one-time independent studies major in Brazilian music and history.

He has a history with that bar now: "Caffe Vivaldi is my home base."

Home plate -- and meals -- are in Philly, to which he has just returned after a lengthy stint in Brazil, where Wisnia got his samba motor moving. "If you ever saw me doing the samba, you wouldn't say that," he says.

Don't go there, he intones with a laugh. But go to Brazil Wisnia did just months ago and met up with Reis for a sextet of concerts; ironically, he had met her when the two were doing an open mic night at a New York site. "And she said, if you're ever in Brazil ... "

Zeal for Brazil had him already planning to go there; coping with Copacabana was never a problem: Their concerts were a salsa smash.

The "girl" from Ipanema, the "boy" from Philly -- both Copacabana cool -- set the stage swaying with each molten fired up note.

Hot to trot? "It appeals to me," says Wisnia of the anything-but-somber samba and its attendant sidesteps.

"As a musician, I identify with it, the mood it creates, the subtle yet complicated feeling -- it seems simple and accessible," he says of the music with influences from such notables as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto, as well as João Gilberto.

"It speaks to me."

Circle of Friends
But could he speak the language of Portuguese to gain full control of the key phrases and idioms of the music? "Let's just say, I'm mildly conversant, enough so that it sounds like I'm a 5-year-old drunk when I'm speaking it."

But then, as a 5-year-old, he was intoxicated with the lure of Hebrew liturgy and, later, the Jewish summer camp communal concerts that sang out to him as a Jew.

"I saw how much fun communal music could be," he recalls of those hallowed halcyon times.

That spirit infused his later love of Brazilian music. "When I find myself in circles of Brazilian musicians, it's very similar to the feelings I got from my camp and youth groups," he claims.

Building a temple from memories begins sometimes with the temple itself. Indeed, Wisnia recorded initial tracks for his 2007 break-out CD, "Avi Wisnia Presents," in the presence of his father's congregation, at Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, N.J.

From the bimah to the Bitter End in New York, as well as the Tin Angel in Philadelphia and, of course, World Cafe Live, he has toured and taken on a following with his regular band, which mixes sets of jazz, pop and Brazilian.

But the rage is Rio: Wisnia has found good times with what he calls the "melancholy happiness" that is Brazilian, a treasured trait also applicable to klezmer, he claims.

"There is a sad happiness in both," he adds.

As there is in real life; his has been laden with happiness and tears at home. When brother Dov was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2007, Avi attacked it as best he knew how: He coordinated the "No Brainer" benefit concert that year on behalf of the National Brain Tumor Society.

No brainer, he says of the decision to stage it in the City of Brotherly Love for his brother. Dov, it should be noted, has recovered and "is doing well."

The wellspring of good vibes generated by the concert carries on; the next benefit is June 5 at McFadden's Restaurant at Citizens Bank Park, the same weekend Wisnia will be performing at the Apple Farm Arts & Music Center in Elmer, N.J.

Wisnia and Reis, in the meantime, have been involved in a global game of musical chairs; in Brazil, Reis' band backed the two performers; here, Wisnia's longtime colleagues do the honors.

This intercontinental concertizing is all "Something New" for Wisnia, also the title of his new CD, a tuneful treat of motifs.

So, pigeonhole Wisnia as a Brazilian music brat?

More "Rabbit Hole," his composition that has won awards and whose video was the official selection for the 2010 Philadelphia Film Festival.

With all this, was there any time the bimah and not the Brazilian called out to him? Did Avi's parents understand that he was destined for a life more carioca (Rio native) than cantorial? Were they disappointed?

"My father and mother," says the singer/composer of Rabbi Eric and Judy Wisnia, "are the first to sell you a CD at my concerts."

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