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Bola Sete’s ‘Samba in Seattle’ Unearths a Rare Recording by the Astonishing Brazilian Guitarist: Album Review

Bola Sete
Courtesy Tompkins Square Records

Bola Sete was an astonishing Brazilian guitarist whose music tread the line between jazz (he played with Dizzy Gillespie and Vince Guaraldi) and bossa nova. While his name isn’t as familiar as contemporaries like Joao Gilberto or the generation of Caetano Veloso and Jorge Ben, his instrumental music fits right alongside theirs — it’s surprising he’s not more well-known, although the fact that he passed away in 1987, before his contemporaries had risen to the prominence they now enjoy in the U.S., may have something to do with it.

To give some sense of the esteem in which he is and was held by fellow musicians, this new archival release includes interviews and commentary from Carlos Santana; Sete’s longtime friend, composer-pianst Lalo Schifrin; jazz pianist George Winston; and the brilliant late guitarist John Fahey — and his songs have been sampled countless times by artists A Tribe Called Quest, Dan the Automator, J Dilla and many others.

This sprawling live collection — recorded in Seattle in 1966 and ’68 — captures Sete’s brilliance beautifully, ranging from sambas to the classically tinged “Partita in E Major,” which is practically a Christmas song. The songs are roughly split between him playing solo or accompanied by a bassist and drummer, but his masterful, lightning-fast finger-picking and mellifluous melodies are always front and center.

But what’s perhaps most striking is the way this album can work as lean-back or lean-forward music: It’s perfect for a chill dinner party or even a boutique, but guitarists may find their jaws hitting the floor when they focus on his playing: It’s often hard to visualize how on Earth he played some of these songs, which can seem to have as many as three separate melody lines coming from his guitar alone.

Sete released many great recordings over the course of his four-decade career, but it’s hard to find one that distills his artistry better than this one.