Midnight was the time when I slid into a deliciously dark, smokey jazz club in Chicago and was bewitched by a blend of music I hadn't heard before. It was distinctly Bossa Nova topped with a layer of bop. They were beginning to call this style "fusion" as Latin jazz had resurged. But what I heard that night was decidedly more and rarified. The piano was exceptional, technically and emotionally. And there was another layer floating underneath—subtle, classical riffs that might answer the intriguing question of: What happens when Jobim meets Bach?
That's how I met Manfredo Fest, a worldly, classically-trained pianist and composer who sautéed jazz and Brazilian rhythmic harmonies into a feast of musical entrees.
We met and talked that night in between his sets as he maneuvered through the crowd, flirting with his fans, joking with his friends, and whispering a few modulations to his band. It was a delight to see, because, you see, Manfredo couldn't see—he was blind, though you'd barely notice it. It seldom affected the rich, full life he created and enjoyed. He was a high spirit that night and for as long as I knew him. Later, over a pre-dawn breakfast, we uncovered some mutual depths that resulted in an enduring friendship which even included creative collaborations on a few projects.
Manfredo was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1936. His father was a concert pianist and was the chairman of the music department at the University of Porto Alegre for many years. Manfredo trained in classical piano and learned to read music in Braille. But his heart and ear were tuned to jazz and the pulse of samba. His strongest influence was George Shearing, who also happened to be visually impaired. (If you haven't heard Shearing, you should! He's remarkable.) Manfredo moved away from Shearing and other Brazilian jazz pianists to forge his own layered, unique musical vision.
Though he was known and respected in Brazil for his playing and a few albums he recorded there, in the '60s he came to the U.S. as the arranger and keyboardist for Sergio Mendes who was riding the charts as Bossa Nova took hold. But it was when he broke out on his own that Manfredo finally added his distinct flavor to the menu of American as well as world music, often partnered with his singer-composer wife, Lili Galiteri Fest. He produced a range of successful albums culminating in a highly regarded series for Concord Picante in the '90s.
Manfredo died of an illness in 1999, tragically too soon. He once said: "I don't know how I made it this far, I should have fell over a long time ago. That's why every day is another day to celebrate and keep the music going." To his friends and collaborators and musicians who played with him, he was known as a warm, generous, composer of joy—a rare milieu for his rare music.
His legacy lives on in his son, Phill Fest, who honors Manfredo's music and has established his own successful career in jazz.
Here is a taste of Manfredo's musical cuisine:
All of his albums are available on the web. Just slide in and take a listen. Around midnight is best.