Raised in Minas Gerais, the singer, composer, and co-founder of the Clube da Esquina in Belo Horizonte helped invent sophisticated Brazilian Popular Music (MPB), while being nurtured by the best international musicians, with Wayne Shorter at the top of the list.
The Santa Tereza neighborhood of Belo Horizonte (the capital of Minas Gerais, southeast Brazil), is a cluster of narrow streets and old houses around the Duque de Daxias square. In the 1960s, the hill was an epicenter of bohemian activity with its many bistros, restaurants, and street musicians. Some of them used to gather at the corner of the Paraísopolis and Divínopolis streets, which were adorned with palm trees and bougainvilleas. They named their group after a club there: Clube da Esquina. All of them were in their twenties: Lô and Márcio Borges, Fernando Brant, Marilton, Beto Guedes, Flávio Venturini, Wagner Tiso, Toninho Horta, Tavinho Moura, and Milton Nascimento. From this street corner, they would go on to conquer first Brazil, and then the world.
The sweetness of tone expressed in Milton Nascimento’s voice contrasts with the pain he was exposed to from a young age. Like Jobim, Jorge Ben and Tim Maia, he was born in the Tijuca district of Rio de Janeiro. His mother was a poor domestic worker who was abandoned by her first love while pregnant. She contracted tuberculosis and died at a very young age. Milton was only two years old. He was taken in by his grandparents and finally adopted into a loving, middle-class, educated family. The father was a math teacher and a radio man and the mother sang and played the piano she had learned from Heitor Villa-Lobos. Though Milton was born in Rio, he grew up in Três Pontas (Minas Gerais) and is more of a Mineiro than a Carioca – more attached to the land, full of rustic folklore and workers songs, than seaside trivialities. “My first companion was the echo of the Minas Mountains,” he says. When I was a kid, I used to have a lot of fun with it. That was when I discovered my musicality. And that echo is an element that is still present today in my singing.” In Três Pontas, Milton forged a close relationship — one that has remained throughout his career — with the pianist Wagner Tiso, who lived on the same street. The duo glued their ears to the radio, hearing sambas, the beginnings of bossa nova, Latin American boleros, early rock’n roll, and French and Italian popular songs. The guitarist and singer shaped his vocals by listening to the divas of the 1950s, from Doris Day to Yma Sumac, then to Ray Charles at the point where his voice was beginning to mature.
After setting up several dance groups, Milton — who wanted to study economics — moved to Belo Horizonte along with Wagner in 1963. But once he arrived in the big city, the singer became frightened by the quality of the local musicians. He said to his friend, “We’re going back to Três Pontas, we have to relearn everything, we’ve got it all wrong!”On the contrary, he had everything right. His village had been steeped in radio waves and he had developed a vocal personality and a melodic sensibility that made all the difference. In the Clube da Esquina group, whose members theorized a modernist Brazilian pop style under the preponderant influence of the Beatles, he stood out from the crowd. Like Tom Jobim and João Gilberto before him, the composer blended the exogenous avant-garde into Brazilian heritage, particularly the sophistication of jazz. He was a fan of Miles Davis and formed a trio that toured while recording in the mid-1960s. Milton adopted modal music, chromaticism, the four chord structures of McCoy Tyner, polyrhythm … and wrote a series of songs for Elis Regina, who was the first to perform his pieces and his long-standing muse: “Canção do sal” in 1966, then “Maria Maria,” “Morro velho,” “Nada será como antes,” and more. He has said that he only ever composed for her. Indeed, before her death in 1982, she was preparing a new album on which two new songs by Milton Nascimento were still to be recorded.
The singer recorded his first album, Travessia, with the innovative Carioca group Tamba Trio in 1967. It went on to make a lasting impression. Edu Lobo drew particular influence from it, and it grew in parallel with the Tropicalism of the Bahians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. In this sense, Milton helped define Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) by summoning not only urban aesthetics (like samba and bossa nova), but by also incorporating North-Eastern countryside and Amazonian influences, whilst constantly engaging in dialogue with contemporary poets like Fernando Brant, his faithful lyricist. In 1968, Eumir Deodato’s arrangements on the album Courage, recorded in the United States, pushed his generation’s ambitions a little further (all these artists were born in the early 1940s). Even within the Clube da Esquina, there was intense competition, as evidenced by the two albums (in 1972 and 1978) that bear the group’s name. All this was happening in the midst of a military dictatorship. Milton was never forced into exile, but he regularly faced censorship and Fernando Brant’s texts were often political, even if the messages were conveyed through metaphors to divert attention.
The brilliant progression of the first albums, up to Milagre dos Peixes in 1973, inevitably drew the attention of Wayne Shorter’s sharp ear. The saxophonist collaborated with Milton on a cult album, Native Dancer (1974), which combined jazz rock and MPB, piano parts by Wagner Tiso and Herbie Hancock, along with challenging and beautiful poetry. Notably on compositions such as “Ponta de Areia,” which would later inspire many versions including reprisals by Earth, Wind & Fire and Esperanza Spalding. His associations with jazz include collaborations with Sarah Vaughan, Pat Metheny, The Manhattan Transfer and, in France, with the Belmondo brothers. There was also interest from the world of pop music, from Paul Simon, Sting and Peter Gabriel amongst others. With the 1980s marking the end of the dictatorship (his song “Coração de Estudante” became a democratic anthem in 1984), Milton Nascimento embraced ecological causes, particularly on the album Txai (1990), which sought to defend the Amazon.
Although he was adored by the Brazilian public and honored by the best international musicians, Milton always maintained a semi-private lifestyle, perhaps because he had to deal with health problems and crippling shyness. His artistic journey has never wavered; rooted in Minas Gerais, inspired by the presence of muses and poets and illuminated by a miraculous voice. It all remains intact on his 2018 EP, A Festa (Universal Music). Now, we simply call him Milton, because he’s one of a kind.