Featured Interview – Rodrigo Mantovani

imageWhile it may have its roots in the cotton fields of the deep South, particularly the Mississippi Delta region, blues music is now celebrated the world over. Blues festivals take place all over Europe and Scandinavia, even in in the exotic land of India. Those same regions are home to numerous artists and bands who are adept at capturing the essence of the music. One area that does not get as much attention for its blues scene is the South American continent, particularly Brazil. Over the years, a number of American blues artists have traveled south, inspiring local musicians and teaching them the right way to play the music. Right in the middle of that process was Rodrigo Mantovani, who now is one of the finest blues bass players on the planet, working with the award-winning Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling.

Born in 1983, Mantovani grew up in an Sao Paulo apartment with his mother, grandmother, and sister. His early years revolved around a different passion.

“I was a really good soccer player. At that time, I was part of group of top players, at school and soccer school. We were selected for having talent that would allow us to possibly play professionally one day. But in the building we lived in, I had some friends around who played acoustic guitars to make music. That was around the age of eleven or twelve. So music was getting interesting for me”.

“I remember this time I was at a market with my grandmother. There, hanging on the wall, was an acoustic guitar for sale. I stopped right in front of it. It was a crazy moment for me. I thought it was amazing that a little piece of wood could make all of that music. I saw all of these possibilities right in front of me. My grandmother did not buy me that guitar! I think she thought a video game would be better. Later, my aunt passed away. She had an acoustic guitar that ended up in my hands. That was the beginning of everything. Years later, my grandmother did buy me my first bass guitar”.

“Both things were happening at the same time. At school, I was having contact with players who were already training in a professional league. I saw that they were way, way better than me! Four of my friends were on this huge team, the Sao Paulo Football Club, playing field soccer while I was playing indoor soccer on a smaller field. These guys were really good, and I didn’t think that I could be as good as them. By then, I was already in love with music. We were starting to travel to soccer matches. At that point, I knew I needed to make a decision. It was an easy decision for me to choose music. The passion was there.”

At this point, lacking even a beginner’s understanding of the difference between guitar and bass guitar, Mantovani need a lot of help.

“One of my closest friends, who lived in my building, was a bass player. But every time I showed up downstairs with my acoustic guitar to play and hang out with friends, he started to show me bass lines. But he never mentioned that they were bass lines. So I thought I was just learning music. Eventually I learned a few songs. But when I started playing those songs for friends, “Hey, look at what I learned,” they would listen, tell me it was great, but those are the bass parts. I really liked the parts, and they were very difficult to learn, so I didn’t want to relearn other parts. So I just decided to play bass after that. My friend, Marcelo Bakos, is still playing bass and lives here in America. We never played the same style. In those days he was into metal. One of the first bands I was introduced to was Iron Maiden. Now Marcelos is playing country for a band out of Nashville”.

Knowing that he needed help to learn more about playing music, Mantovani asked his friends how they learned about techniques. They told him about a music school a few blocks from their building, in a small house.

“It wasn’t a big school but they had music classes there. I wanted to learn, so I said that will be my next stop. I would go to school, then my bus driver would take me to music school. He was a really nice guy who had a passion for music. He knew I really wanted to learn. At some point, he introduced me to some of his friends, who had a band. They were much older than me. I was fourteen at most, and they were in their forties or older. They needed a bass player. My friend told them about me going to music school. He offered to bring over so they could hear me”.

“That is how I got in my first band. The were a blues band, but not playing the traditional blues. They were into stuff by Eric Clapton. That was my first contact with that music. When I showed up at that first rehearsal, wearing a hat and being so young, I could see on their faces that they were doing everything they could to not laugh at me. Once we started to play, they were digging it. Their last bass player played a different style, had a six string bass. I had a four string electric bass and knew how to play the songs. They mixed it up, doing rock blues, surf blues, and some Stevie Ray Vaughan”.

imageDuring the three years he spent with the band, Mantovani was meeting a lot of musicians, and playing with different people, even joining a big Brazillian company that sponsored a lot of TV artists. He was in a band that provided support for those artists. “It was a big time for me. I was fifteen or sixteen, playing in soccer stadiums for thousands of people. One time we backed a Brazilian boy band, kind of like the Backstreet Boys, in a stadium for at least 100,000 people. A lot of crazy stuff happened in those days. I had a security guard and women would try to grab my clothes because they thought I was a star – and I was just fifteen. That got me more experience as a player. But I was not playing real blues at that time”.

“Blues was still so new to Brazil back then. Everybody who was playing blues started with rock-n-roll. There weren’t any real blues artists living in my country. Europe had blues musicians like Memphis Slim and Champion Jack Dupree living and playing there. They had the American Folk Blues tours in the 1960s with artists like Lighnin’ Hopkins, Otis Rush, and others. So people there knew what real blues sounded like. They didn’t have to go anywhere to learn about the music. That is why there is such a strong blues scene in Europe now. We didn’t have that. Brazil’s first blues festival didn’t happen until 1989! Before that, we had never seen any blues artists play live. You had to be real wealthy and traveling to the United States or Europe to be able to buy blues albums and tapes to bring home. That was the only way you would be able to hear blues recordings. Brazil was poor in that respect. But we did have a lot of rock-n-roll bands. We grew up with that, long before we knew other styles like blues”.

Playing in a band that did a bit of blues with a heavy dose of rock, the intrepid bass player was always on the lookout for a kindred spirit. Finally, he heard about a bar where a guy played blues every Tuesday.

“My friend, who was older, saw an advertisement for a Blues night. She knew I liked the music, so she offered to take me since I was about sixteen. There was a guy playing harp and acoustic guitar plus a drummer. It was way more blues than what I was playing. I got real excited, so I started to drink, and got drunk! At the end of the night, he sat down so we could talk. He put one of his album’s on the table, trying to sell it to me. Being drunk, I bumped a beer glass with arm, knocking it over, getting beer all over his album. That was pretty embarrassing. My friend said don’t worry, we will buy the record”.

“But the guy was pissed off. So he told me, since you play blues, why don’t you show up next Tuesday and play with us. That surprised me. I knew he invited me because he was angry, and probably wanted to put me in an embarrassing situation. But I saw it as an opportunity. I told him I would be there. And I was there on Tuesday with my bass and amp. He was very surprised that I showed up. Once we started playing, he liked what I was doing. So now I was playing every Tuesday at this bar. Being a child, I didn’t need a lot of money. Just a few beers and I was good”.

The band leader was Sergio Duarte, who also had a full band, including keyboards and horns, that had recorded an album and did tours in Brazil. Luck once again was working out in favor of our intrepid bass player.

“His bass player was leaving, so Sergio invited me to join his official band. That was a big deal, and a big step for me. I didn’t know that many blues tunes. That was when things started to come together. The tunes we played in the band, when I asked them who recorded the song, whatever name they gave me was not who wrote the song or did the famous version. I was shocked that they didn’t know the original versions or the right way to play the songs. I started to go further as my interest grew. It seemed like nobody in Brazil had taken the time to do research, discover new names and recording sessions. I wanted to do it right, to do the research. And once you start to do that, you never stop”.

“Sergio has a son, who he always pushed to go into music, to play guitar and harp. He paid for lessons and encouraged him. I was the one that started to show his son the really deep blues music, especially the guitar players. We were playing together, and I was educating his son. It was fun for me, since I learned from the father. I do believe that’s how it works. You do something nice and it comes back to you. Leo is a talented guy. He played guitar on Bia’s record, which I produced”. (Let Me In by Bia Marchese, Rodrigo’s wife on the Chico Blues label)

Later on, Duarte’s band had a new guitar player, Celso Salim, who also had his own band in Sao Paula. He was getting ready to cut a new album, and wanted Mantovani to play bass on the project. That offer lead to another big change.

image“The guitar player, Celso Salim, had one song that was perfect for an upright bass- but I didn’t have one. The desire to have an upright was already there, because records I was listening to were done with an upright bass. It wasn’t a real blues song, more of a jazzy ballad. So I bought an upright, then put blisters on my fingers and bled some trying to learn to play as fast as I could so we could record that song. That was the start of me playing upright bass. And I met Bia then, because she was Celso’s girlfriend at the time. I did a duo album with Celso called Diggin’ The Blues, with us doing new versions of old blues tunes in a new kind of way, stuff from artists like Sleepy John Estes, and Blind Willie McTell”.

While still playing in Duarte’s band, playing blues with plenty of rock-n-roll, Mantovani started hearing about a new band that was doing traditional blues in a purer form. One night, one of the guys he was working with outside of Duarte’s group could not make a gig, so he called another guitar player to fill in.

”That was the first time I met Igor Prado. Of course, I already knew about the Prado Blues Band. Igor and I had a lot in common musically, more similarities with him, who I had never played with before, than with a guitarist I was working with all the time. That shook me up. Later on, I realized that Igor was listening to the same stuff I was learning from at that time. He was in the process of starting a new project under his own name. We played together a few more times, then he called me to record his first album”.

The Igor Prado Band, with Igor’s brother Yuri on drums, quickly became the blues band in Brazil. They started backing blues artists from the USA on tours that were arranged by Flavio Guimaraes, a harp player.

“That was another highlight that changed everything. Now we had direct contact with American artists who played blues, had stories to tell, and could direct us to records we should hear. That was how we could go deeper into the roots of the music. The first one we backed was a harp player, Gary Smith, from the West Coast. I don’t remember if I used the upright on that tour, as I was still learning. We did a tour with R.J. Mischo, another harp player. We backed all of the harp players – Rick Estrin, Mark Hummel, Steve Guyger, and Kim Wilson. All of this stuff started to happen naturally. I think Hummel had been to Brazil before and had a bad experience with the backing band, too many rock influences. Once those guys played with us, they would go back home and say nice things about us. The older guys that had started the Brazilian blues scene weren’t too happy that we were taking over”.

Those artists would also make guest appearances on recordings by the Igor Prado Band. Another musician who had a big impact on the band was Lynwood Slim (Richard Duran).

“Our tour with Slim was a big move. Igor asked him about recording with us. Slim thought it was for a few tracks. But Igor said no, we want to do a whole album. So Slim came to Brazil to do the tour and record. The big difference was that Slim started to offer to bring us to America to back him, which was different from the other guys. He appreciated us for bringing him to Brazil. That is how we ended up playing with him in 2010 at the Doheny Blues Festival. That really put us on the map, and helped us get connected with the Delta Groove label, who released the Brazilian Kicks record. Lynwood Slim was the one responsible for us being here, introducing us to musicians like Kid Ramos, Junior Watson, and Johnny Dyer, people we had been listening to back home. He was the bridge. We stayed at Slim’s house, and he started to share so much information with us. He played us music in a lot of different styles and artists, stuff people in Brazil didn’t have at that point”.

Mantovani remembers another experience that had a big impact.

“We were going to be backing Rick Estrin on a tour. He called me to discuss doing a song, just the two of us with me on the upright while he sang and played harp. That was going to be a challenge as I had never done that before. I would always ask musicians we backed for information, but Rick came with a CD that he had burned for me, and told me to listen to that. It had tracks with Ransom Knowling, Big Crawford, and Willie Dixon playing slaps on the upright bass. I was touched that Rick took the time to record that disc for me, and every time I see Rick or have a chance to talk to him, I still say thanks. He encouraged me to learn more on the upright. I started watching more videos and tutorials because, at that time, there were no upright players who played blues in Brazil. Now there are a few guys who play blues on the upright, but they are not upright blues players! I never had anyone in front of me slapping the bass, showing me the correct form, or playing the right line. So if I wanted to do it right, I had to research, or buy a DVD or a tape”.

“The upright automatically brings a special flavor to the blues. First, you aren’t supposed to play it that loud, which means the band needs to play at a lower volume. In order to do that, the band must know how to play at lower volume. You have to know when to use an upright, as it doesn’t work with all of the various styles of blues. That is one reason I really like it. Two things can happen. One is that you will be really frustrated because everybody is playing very loudly and not listening. Or, you will be really surprised discovering that the band knows how to play with an upright. It gives you this feel that is amazing, that is not possible with the electric bass”.

For more than a year, Mantovani has been using his talents as a member of the Nick Moss Band featuring Dennis Gruenling, taking part in the recording sessions at Kid Andersen’s famed Greaseland Studio last year for the band’s Lucky Guy! album, which just received the 2020 Blues Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category. They were also honored with the award for Band Of The Year. Once again, there is a story on how Mantovani made it from Brazil to Chicago.

image“The Igor Prado Band was playing a blues fest in Spain about ten years ago. Nick and his band were also on the bill. That was the first contact we had. I knew about his work. But after that, we didn’t talk much. I was very good friends by that time with Lynwood Slim. We talked all of the time. When Slim got very sick, he spent time in the hospital. As soon as he got home, I offered to take him to the Chicago Blues fest, thinking a trip would be good for him and people would see that he is back in the game. I was still married to my ex-wife, who worked for an airline company, so tickets weren’t a problem. I knew that Slim had lived in Chicago for a few years, so I told him he could see his old friends. He said great, let’s go! Slim was very good friends with Nick, who offered to let us stay at his house, and put together some shows for us. So while we staying with Nick, we played some songs together. We talked a little, got a bit closer. But after that trip, again, we didn’t talk much”.

At the end of 2017, Mantovani was finished with Igor Prado’s band. He kept busy backing Bia on her shows, and recorded another duo album, this time with Big Creek Slim (Marc Rune), a Danish blues artist. Released on the Chico Blues Records label, the First Born recording garnered plenty of critical praise, and showcased Mantovani’s considerable skills on the upright. The duo did a month-long tour of Brazil to support that release. There were plenty of videos from the shows that popped up on Facebook. Moss happened to see one of them, and decided to reach out.

“At that point, Nick was going to make a change with his bass player. He sent me a message out of nowhere. He asked me about joining his band. I was shocked. So I wrote back saying, hey man, when?Then he was the one that was shocked, because he dropped the question as a bit of a joke. But he also saw the videos, told me that I was doing a great job, and that he had always liked my playing. He told me later that he never expected me to say yes, let’s do it. So we started working on all of the paperwork that was necessary to make the move possible. I was worried about how long it was taking. Nick had a recording session planned for his next album on Alligator Records, and I wasn’t sure that I would get everything done in time to be able to get there. So I decided to come here as a visitor. Nick had a month-long tour scheduled for the band. That included a stop in San Jose in January of last year to work with Kid recording the new album. Than I went back to Brazil to complete the paperwork so that I could move here legally. All of that was done in April, 2019 and here I am!”

Another aspect of Mantovani’s artistry is his skill as a producer. He was at the helm for the disc with Big Creek Slim and a killer album by sax player Denilson Big D Martins, both on the Chico Blues label. He also produced his wife Bia’s disc, many of the Igor Prado Band titles, and releases by several other artists. For him, there aren’t any big secrets to creating a quality recording.

“I have always been curious about the roots of the music. Being a producer, I want to make sure that if you want to play a song in a certain style, you need to know how to play that style. I am a purist in my head. It helps me keep clear what I want or don’t want. I am not talking about playing correctly. Who am I to decide what is correct? For Bia’s album, her voice has a good tone that naturally fits some older styles. So we tried to use songs that fit her voice, so she didn’t sound forced or fake. You work with the tools that you have. If we tried to make her sound like Big Mama Thornton, that’s not going to happen. The same thing with the Big Creek album. I tried to pick songs that I could hear him singing. It’s not that easy sometimes”.

There is another record finished with Big Creek Slim which had originally been targeted for release later in the year. But once the world got turned upside down, Mantovani has been considering his options. It will be tough to sell physical copies without being able to offer the disc to fans at live shows, so the initial release may happen in some manner of download. Both artists had hoped to do tours together in Denmark and Brazil for family and friends, but those plans are on hold.

With all that has happened, Mantovani has no regrets.

“I have never had the normal vision of the future that most people have. While living in Brazil, I was playing a lot of gigs and making good money. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t playing much blues plus there weren’t many people I could talk with in-depth. I was missing living with intensity for this passion that I have. So that was a big reason why I came here. Being a member of Nick’s band usually means that you will travel a lot, and you will be playing all the time, especially festivals. I am very happy that I made the move. But it is a difficult life, driving for hours and hours to different places, talking to different people. Sometimes the money doesn’t seem worth it. That is why you have to have that passion to make music, much more than making money. I want to feed my soul, not my pocket”.

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