Laurindo Almeida: Forgotten Genius of Guitar Arrangement

Laurindo Almeida Classical Guitar
William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress) Photo

Contemporary Moods for Classical GuitarSome years ago, I was asked to help build the 2009 Trinity College of Music guitar syllabus. Frustrated with the jazzy pastiche pieces that are presented to candidates, I wanted to give guitarists a musically satisfying arrangement of a jazz standard to play that was comparable to the quality of music elsewhere in the syllabus. I discovered Brazilian guitarist and composer Laurindo Almeida’s 1970s book of songs and themes from films, Contemporary Moods for Classical Guitar, got his arrangement of “Blue Moon” on the Grade 7 syllabus, and then felt compelled to share these wonderful arrangements with today’s audiences, who seem to have overlooked this aspect of his work. My recent recording, Andrew Scott Plays Laurindo Almeida, is an homage to the genius of this great musician and marks the centenary of his birth.

Almeida (1917–1995) was a “crossover” musician before the term was coined. He won five Grammy Awards for classical and jazz recordings, including Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 1961 for
Discantus, which tied that year with a piece by Igor Stravinsky. Almeida had a successful career as a soloist—overshadowed in the ’50s and early ’60s only by Segovia—and made the debut recordings of Villa-Lobos’ Guitar Concerto and Gnattali’s Concerto de Copacabana. At his commercial peak in an era that was not so concerned with labels, he also worked comfortably with notable artists in the jazz and popular music worlds, including the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Kenton, and even Sammy Davis Jr., to name just three. He arranged more than 60 solo pieces by 27 composers (not including the Broadway Solo Guitar album), and along the way he must also have learned much about harmony from Schubert, Barrios, Chopin, and Villa-Lobos. His arrangements of J.S. Bach informed his sense of counterpoint, and his arrangements of Jules Massenet’s “Meditation” from Thais and Rodolphe Kreutzer’s Caprice honed his ability to present complex lyrical melodies in solo arrangements. Like his contemporaries, Almeida did not arrange complete works, but would cherry-pick the popular movements. This may account for why few of today’s concert guitarists use his transcriptions of Bach, Handel, and de Vis
ée, as modern performance practice is to perform complete suites. Almeida is credited with playing on over 800 motion picture and TV soundtracks and he composed the music for ten movies, including the underscore for Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western Unforgiven in 1992. It is perhaps Almeida’s work in Hollywood that most informed his ability as an arranger to translate orchestral devices to music for just the two hands of the guitarist.

So, how does Almeida do this in the collection Contemporary Moods for Classical Guitar? What makes these arrangements so satisfying for the classical guitarist, and how do these arrangements differ from the “chord melody” style of jazz guitarists?

The theme in “Blue Moon” is first presented above an arpeggiated accompaniment that will look and feel familiar to the classical guitarist, with a bass line that is quite independent, with its own line of direction. The melody is often played in sixths against the bass, which can only be done if the right hand is trained to cope with such complexities. The melody is clearly stated throughout, and the drama is created by the bass and inner parts, which become busier and develop around the melody. In contrast, on jazz guitarist Joe Pass’ recording of “Blue Moon” (on Song for Ellen, 1994), the notes of the melody are used like pegs to hang the improvisation on. The harmonies are often implied in the melody, and the chords are “stabs” imitating the comping of the piano. In Almeida’s arrangement, the chords are voiced with a clear line in each part.



In “Over the Rainbow,” Almeida adds an introduction and coda that extend the scale of the piece; he uses a subtly different accompaniment each time the theme is stated; and between the phrases there are sweeping arpeggios that remind me of the lush string sections from old MGM movies. The writing in “Ebb Tide” is ingenious, as each suspension in the harmony resolves to yet another suspension, to reflect the yearning of the lyrics and the sadness of the melody, which is based around a falling third. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is a popular vaudeville song, but the melody is Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu Op. 66 and one might also be reminded in this of Tárrega’s own arrangements of Chopin’s piano music, particularly his own Chopinesque miniature, “Lagrima.”

“Intermezzo,” by Robert Henning, and “Laura,” by David Raksin, are substantial pieces that I have played in the concert hall. The transitory melody of Intermezzo, written for violin and played by Jascha Heifetz on the original soundtrack of the 1939 film, is reproduced note for note with a constantly changing accompaniment to characterize each section of the music. Even when the textures are quite complex, Almeida has made it possible to phrase the melody with attention to articulation, tone control, and a feeling of breath. In “Laura,” Almeida appears to be thinking orchestrally, as he uses a vast array of textures to capture the essence of the original score. He uses tremolo to recreate the shimmering strings of the original, and reinterprets some sections with parallel chords reminiscent of the outer sections of Villa- Lobos’ Prelude No. 1 and Etude No. 8. Other noteworthy arrangements from this collection are “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Stairway to the Stars,” “Somewhere My Love,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Mam’selle” for the way in which Almeida can present the melody in a way that gives the player control over phrasing. His genius lies in his knowledge of harmony and fingerboard geography, and his ability to create beautiful accompaniments that sound rich and full, but are also easy to play.

Recording these arrangements has been a labor of love, and I hope guitarists will rediscover these pieces for themselves and enjoy the opportunity to play standards in a way that makes sense to the classical guitarist. As the 20th century progressed, we saw a tendency for specialization that increasingly tried to compartmentalize and attach labels to the arts. Laurindo Almeida defied this trend, and I wonder if his legacy suffered for that. Can we see beyond the boundaries of classical, jazz, and film music to just find great music? In the words of Duke Ellington, “There are simply two kinds of music: good music and the other kind.”

Here’s Almeida in 1964 playing an arrangement of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” for which he is joined by the Modern Jazz Quartet. Don’t miss the hilariously condescending intro by the British announcer, who is obviously still distraught over the arrival of Beatlemania the previous year.

Andrew Scott has studied with many top musicians in the guitar world, including Carlos Bonell and Ricardo Iznaola. He made a solo tour of the former USSR in 1998, and released his eponymous debut CD in 2003. He combined his love of music and travel by cruising the world with Seabourn Cruiseline as Assistant Cruise Director/guitarist, and back on dry land, he has combined teaching for the Da Capo Foundation with work as a soloist and member of the Corcovado Jazz Trio. Andrew Scott Plays Laurindo Almeida is an EP available to download now from many online music stores.