Carlos Barbosa-Lima: Creating Magic with the Songs of Mason Williams

Carlos Barbosa-Lima Larry del Casale Mason Wiliams Classical Guitar
From the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON

Next year marks the 60th anniversary of Carlos Barbosa-Lima’s solo concert debut at the age of 12 in São Paolo, Brazil, where he was born and raised. To say that his career has been illustrious is an understatement. By the following year he’d recorded an impressive debut album (recently rereleased) and soon after was touring successfully around South America—a true wunderkind. A decade later, he conquered the US for the first time, and that became a springboard for work internationally.

More than just an extraordinary player, however, Barbosa-Lima also developed a reputation as a superb arranger, and as his fame spread, composers started writing pieces for him. He moved to New York City in the early 1980s and taught at the Manhattan School of Music for a number of years before moving to Puerto Rico, where he currently lives, in 1996. All along, he has concertized around the world and recorded a stream of more than 50 albums. His massive discography shows his unparalleled versatility as a player and arranger—mellifluously navigating music by classical giants such as Scarlatti, Bach, Debussy, and Albéniz; Brazilians Antonio Carlos Jobim (a close friend who also lived in Manhattan) and Luiz Bonfá; American greats Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Dave Brubeck, Bobby Scott, and Leonard Bernstein; and diverse modern masters including Leo Brouwer, Django Reinhardt, Alberto Ginastera, and Lennon & McCartney. Many of his arrangements have been published and he has several DVDs to his credit. His appetite for music is seemingly insatiable.

As always, Barbosa-Lima has been busy since Classical Guitar last checked in with him—the cover story of the June 2013 issue mostly dealt with his wonderful Zoho Music label release Beatlerianas, featuring Brouwer arrangements of seven Beatles songs for guitar and string quartet, along with eight other Brouwer works for solo guitar, two guitars, string quartet, and guitar-and-string quartet. There have been concerts, of course, both solo and with longtime duo partner Larry Del Casale (pictured with Barbosa-Lima above), and also a brand-new Zoho disc he is quite excited about: Carlos Barbosa-Lima Plays Mason Williams, featuring arrangements of more than a dozen pieces by the American composer, whose best-known work is the Grammy-winning 1968 smash hit “Classical Gas.”

The Mason Williams album was produced by Del Casale, who plays guitar with Barbosa-Lima on half the 14 tracks, and also hired the three other players who help out on a few pieces—Brazilian/New York–based percussionist Duduka de Fonseca, violinist Daisy Joplin, and clarinetist Rick Kriska. Besides “Classical Gas”—which sounds remarkably fresh in this two guitars-plus-percussion arrangement—many different styles are served up, some of which are telegraphed in their titles: “Baroque-A-Nova,” “Flamenco Lingo,” “Country Idyll,” “Fettucini Western,” “Guitar Carol.” The closing “Shenandoah” is not from Williams’ pen, but has been in Williams’ repertoire since the late 1950s, when he was a struggling folk singer. The others span many years and genres, from the beautifully mysterious “Sunflower” (propelled by clarinet) to the lyrical and stately guitar duet “In Honor of…,” written for the wedding of Williams’ daughter Kathy. Melody always reigns supreme in Williams’ songs, and both Barbosa-Lima and Del Casale say that was part of the appeal of doing this project.

“Mason is great melodist,” Barbosa-Lima says by phone from Chile, where he was performing. “I’d put him on the level of the great American writers of the past, like Jerome Kern, but he’s from the late part of the 20th century, of course.”

“If you give Carlos a good melody, he can harmonize and arrange it like nobody else,” adds Del Casale from New York. “That’s why he dug this stuff so much. He did an amazing job with these pieces, giving them a whole new meaning and really making them his own, as he always does. You can hear Mason’s American-ness in a lot of these pieces, but you can also feel Carlos’ Latin influence in there, too.”

The genesis of the project dates back several years. “Until a few years ago, I was not that familiar with a lot of Mason’s work,” Barbosa-Lima says. “Of course, I heard ‘Classical Gas’ when it came out in the ’60s, and I probably saw [Williams] on the Smothers Brothers’ comedy shows at some point [Williams was head writer for the late ’60s hit TV series The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where “Classical Gas” premiered]. But it was actually Bobby Scott—who I had a great relationship with—that first really mentioned Mason Williams to me. Later, I met this music critic in Florida, Jim Carlton, and he’s the one who exposed me to the wide variety of Mason’s music.”

Williams is a multi-instrumentalist, perhaps best known for his folk and bluegrass music performed on banjo and acoustic guitars, but Barbosa-Lima says, “Mason is also a very good player in the classical style, and he told me that the classical fingerstyle is his favorite.” Between 2010 and 2012, Barbosa-Lima wrote his first few arrangements of Williams’ tunes, working on them between tours, “which is usually when I get the inspiration to do something new. My arrangements are usually fairly quick to the concept, but the refining can take a long time. I think by early 2012 I had a half-dozen pieces together, which we sent to Mason. He loved them. When we had six pieces, Mason decided he would produce an EP in Oregon [where Williams lives]. The only pieces I repeated on this [new] recording were ‘Country Idyll,’ ‘Shady Dell,’ and ‘Classical Gas.’”


Shortly after that EP (North By South) was completed, Barbosa-Lima, partly at the urging of his friend Mike Turbeville, suggested to Del Casale that they do a full album of Williams’ pieces. According to Del Casale, Williams sent Barbosa-Lima “a giant spiral book about an inch-and-a-half thick, with all of his solo guitar pieces in it, standard notation and tab,” and that put more potential songs into play. Del Casale chose the pieces Barbosa-Lima arranged for the duet, with much of the work on those and the ones featuring violin and clarinet (originally it was flute), being done while Barbosa- Lima was visiting Brazil.

Barbosa-Lima says he and Del Casale met almost exactly 20 years ago in Puerto Rico. “I had moved there, and Ernesto Cordero [a New York–born, Puerto Rico-raised composer and classical guitarist] introduced us.” In 1997, Del Casale had recorded a CD called Zenobia: Music of Ernesto Cordero, featuring solo guitar pieces and what Del Casale calls “art songs” with mezzo-soprano Puli Toro. Over time, Barbosa-Lima and Del Casale became good friends, so perhaps it was only natural that they would eventually play together, beginning in 2003. “After we played at Weill Carnegie Hall,” Del Casale recalls, “I said to myself, ‘To hell with playing with other people—I’m going to put all my energy into playing with Carlos. Because that was it for me—that was the top. We’ve been playing together ever since.”

Del Casale, who was in rock bands before he started playing classical guitar at the age of 15, says he’s always preferred playing with other musicians: “Even with my own music, it’s mostly been me with other players. It’s what I like the most. Now Carlos is my ensemble,” he laughs.

For his part, Barbosa-Lima says that Del Casale complements his playing beautifully. “Larry has a slightly darker tone. In a duo, if you try to play the same way, it doesn’t work, because you need contrast. He’s a very good musician. He also helps me choose material and he’s my representative in the studio. His mind is divided in so many directions; I can’t do that.”

“We both play guitars by the same maker [Richard Prenkert],” Del Casale adds. “Carlos has got a double-top and I’ve got a single-top, and my guitar is a little darker in tone—but my tone itself is warm, where he’s a little brighter. It’s a great blend. When we play together he almost always gives me the melodies, the Guitar 1 part, because he loves the way I ‘sing’ the melodies.”

Both Del Casale and Barbosa-Lima are in marvelous “voice” on the Mason Williams album and are already scouting for the next project. “I always have two or three things brewing—I’ll see what makes the most sense,” Barbosa-Lima says. One possibility is a live album that captures the duo in all its synchronized glory.

In the meantime, they are eager to get the word out about Mason Williams, and Zoho Music continues to reissue some of Barbosa-Lima’s long-out-of-print earlier recordings, such as the newly issued The Chanticler Sessions Volume 1, 1958–1959, when the guitarist was 13 and 14 years old. Asked how his young self sounds to him today, Barbosa-Lima pauses, then says, “It’s like splitting myself in two—me now and me then. It was very interesting to hear the pieces. I can hear very distinctive ideas. I was very fortunate when I was young because I had good mentors—people who used to give me honest opinions and didn’t treat me like a child, but instead like a potential artist.”

Clearly, their belief in him paid off more than anyone could have imagined.

Here’s a video of Barbosa-Lima playing his own arrangement of a Ruben Fuentes tune called “La Bikina”:

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.

Classical Guitar Magazine Fall 2016 383