Violinist Federico Britos Returns To The Hot Club Though the 76-year-old Uruguayan violinist has played with many of the top jazz artists in the U.S. and Latin America, he's not as well-known as he should be.
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Violinist Federico Britos Returns To The Hot Club

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Violinist Federico Britos Returns To The Hot Club

Violinist Federico Britos Returns To The Hot Club

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Federico Britos is one of the premier violinists of Latin jazz with a career spanning more than 60 years, but even among jazz aficionados, he's not well-known. For much of his career, he made his living playing with orchestras in Cuba, Venezuela and Miami. He lives in Miami now, where NPR's Greg Allen spoke with him about his latest project.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Friday night, downtown Miami - in an outdoor plaza, restaurant tables are full, and there's a complementary rum tasting going on. And onstage, leading a sextet and playing his white electric violin, 76-year-old Federico Britos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Britos first began playing violin when he was 5 years old in Uruguay studying classical technique. He'd been playing for several years when he recalls hearing North American jazz artists on the radio. Before long, he was jamming with them at the Hot Club de Montevideo. He says the violin can bring a special sound and texture to jazz.

FEDERICO BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

RENYEL RIVERO: (Translating) It's a seasoning. It adds a different flavor to jazz.

ALLEN: Britos is translated here by his friend and bass player, Renyel Rivero.

RIVERO: (Translating) Through the embassy, all the different groups that came to visit Uruguay, they would come and hang out and meet and be part of the jam sessions and got to know everybody.

BRITOS: Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington.

ALLEN: It was at the Hot Club de Montevideo that Britos also met and played with Oscar Aleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Aleman was a consummate guitarist and showman from Argentina. Britos compares Aleman to the great Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Britos already knew his music from records.

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: As he talks, he tucks his violin under his chin to demonstrate.

RIVERO: (Translating) I heard this tune "Rose Room."

BRITOS: (Playing violin).

ALLEN: Britos has always balanced his love of swing jazz with his orchestral playing. In 1960, he moved to Havana where he played with the orchestras of the Cuban National Opera and ballet companies. He also plunged into Cuban popular music and jazz. When he came to Miami in the '90s, he reunited with some of his Cuban musical friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: That's when producer Nat Chediak first heard him.

NAT CHEDIAK: To hear Federico is to fall under his spell.

ALLEN: Chediak wrote the dictionary of Latin jazz and produced an album Britos recorded with Cuban piano great Bebo Valdes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Chediak says Britos can play anything.

CHEDIAK: You're doing Federico a great injustice to call him an Afro-Cuban violinist, a pop music violinist, a jazz violinist. Federico Britos is a violinist all in caps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: For his latest recording, "Hot Club Of The Americas," Britos goes back to one of his earliest influences - Django Reinhardt and the quintet of the Hot Club of France, and especially the group's violinist, Stephane Grappelli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Although their paths sometimes crossed in Europe and America, Britos never met Grappelli. He was inspired to write an orchestral suite for the French violinist that includes Britos's arrangement of Charlie Chaplin's "Shine."

BRITOS: (Playing violin).

ALLEN: Grappelli heard a recording, Britos says, and was intrigued at how he changed the harmonies and updated the chord changes.

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERO: (Translating) But I re-harmonized that tune, so that the guitar player - so that the guitar player could improvise it the way Django would have if he would've been living in that moment.

BRITOS: (Playing violin). Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

ALLEN: For the new record, Britos started with a list of more than 80 classic Hot Club tunes. He and Renyel Rivero describe an early meeting with their producer.

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERO: So he said - he asked Federico, how would you play "Dark Eyes?"

BRITOS: (Playing violin).

RIVERO: So Federico would play...

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish, playing violin).

ALLEN: "Dark Eyes," a traditional Russian melody, is played as a type of rumba, "I'm Confessing That I Love You" as a bolero.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M CONFESSING THAT I LOVE YOU")

ALLEN: At 76, Britos is full of energy and stories. He recalls a time in 1956 when he met the celebrated classical violinist Jascha Heifetz and played for him. Britos says he told Heifetz he'd love to be able to play just a fourth of what the maestro did. Heifetz said forget it.

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERO: (Translating) And then he smiled and said but me, no matter how much I study, I'll never be able to play jazz the way you play.

BRITOS: (Speaking Spanish).

RIVERO: And then he gave him his hand and said thank you.

ALLEN: After more than six decades of performing on three continents, Federico Britos's stories are almost as entertaining as his music. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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