America first took notice of Nascimento in 1974 with the release of Native Dancer. Though billed as a solo album by American jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, it was in truth a joint collaboration between Shorter and Nascimento, whose famed falsetto nimbly soared into the stratosphere as the music guilelessly leaped between genres. To this day, Native Dancer is still shorthand for a beguiling and fresh-sounding blend of jazz, Brazilian pop, and even rock.
Nascimento waited 10 years after Native Dancer's release to come to the US. When he did, though, he made his debut in as grand a fashion as any artist could ever hope for: a midnight concert at Carnegie Hall in the hot summer of 1984.
"Outside, there were two posters up advertising upcoming shows," Nascimento remembers. "There was one of me, and one of Frank Sinatra! I was floored that I had earned a place next to him: I must have taken a thousand pictures of those posters side by side," he sheepishly admits.
Even more memorable, he says, was the electricity in the audience as he came on stage. "It was the middle of the night, during a very hot June," Nascimento continues, "and the audience was just so excited. I'll always remember that atmosphere." The midnight Carnegie show was momentous for American fans: legendary, in fact.
Still, Nascimento points out that the American public's knowledge of Brazilian music, and of Nascimento's incredible impact since his self-titled debut album appeared in 1967, has increased exponentially in the ensuing quarter century. "In America," the singer- songwriter muses, "there's been a better perception of my music since 1984. Before that, everyone I met, including the press, would simply ask me, 'What's your music all about? Where does it come from?' After my work with Wayne, I think it became very clear what it was all about."
Even today, innovation, exploration, and a spirit of collaboration are the touchstones of his work. On last year's Novas Bossas (Blue Note), Nascimento teamed with Tom Jobim's son and grandson, along with drummer Paulo Braga, to revisit Tom's iconic bossa nova legacy as well as some of his own material. In 2007, he joined French brothers Lionel and Stéphane Belmondo for Belmondo & Milton Nascimento (B-Flat Recordings), a project that recast Nascimento's own early catalog in plusher orchestral settings.
A gracious collaborator and mentor, Nascimento enjoys working alongside younger talent. "I am so impressed with young American vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding," he says. "When she was in Brazil, she came to see me. We have a lot in common: she also has a very broad way of listening and playing."
At an age when many other musicians would already be resting easily on an extraordinary body of work, Nascimento continues to enrich his own experience: and that of his listeners as well.
Milton Nascimento returns to Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, November 18 at 8 PM. Click here for tickets.