In the ’60s, a Brazilian Guitar Great Helped Latin Jazz Flourish in the Bay Area and Beyond

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Brazilian guitarist Bola Sete came to the Bay Area in 1959 and helped usher in an era of Latin Jazz. A new release of his live recordings from the late 1960s puts his legacy back in the spotlight.  (Courtesy of Anne Sete at the Bola Sete Estate)

When Bola Sete arrived in the United States in 1959, he was a lounge act. An executive with the Sheraton Hotel chain heard the Brazilian guitarist perform in South America and invited Sete to play cocktail hour sets at their hotels in the United States. A savvy move, it turned out, as Sete helped foment the Latin jazz craze that would be in full swing following the success of Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto’s “The Girl from Ipanema” in 1963.

Crucially, it brought Sete to the Bay Area. This was home to the musician for the better part of his life (he passed away in 1987 from lung cancer when he was 63). And it was where Sete’s career truly flourished. His gigs at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco brought him to the attention of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who helped get the guitarist booked for his breakthrough set at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival.

Pianist Vince Guaraldi first heard Sete at the hotel as well. The two soon became frequent collaborators, recording a handful of albums together through the ’60s that launched Sete to widespread acclaim. “I remember Vince and Bola playing at the El Matador,” Sete’s widow Anne wrote in a 2010 blog post. “The club would hold 300 to 400 people. The sign on the club marquee would only say ‘VINCE AND BOLA.’ People would be lined up for blocks waiting to get in.”

As Sete’s profile grew, he was able to put together his own touring trio, featuring two fellow Brazilian expats: drummer Paulinho Magalhães and bassist Sebastião Neto. It’s this three-piece that is featured on Samba In Seattle: Live At The Penthouse (1966-1968), a three-CD set out on December 3 from Tompkins Square Records.


This marvelous set is the latest archival release culled from the hours of recordings made at Seattle jazz club The Penthouse for use in a weekly radio broadcast. Producer Zev Feldman has become, as he put it, “the de facto custodian of these tapes,” and plucked out the Sete sessions on a whim. “I was really taken by the music,” Feldman remembers. “He was a virtuoso, this guy. He was one of the guitar greats, and he just doesn’t get the spotlight enough.”

This collection is the perfect vehicle to return him to center stage. The selection of tracks from the trio’s regular appearances at the Penthouse in the late ’60s focuses on Sete’s dazzling abilities as an acoustic guitarist. The emphasis is on samba and bossa nova grooves. The trio settles into the easy swing of Marcos Valle’s “Samba de Verão” and a slow phosphorescent take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” comfortably, with Sete gently disturbing the waters with his solos.

Bola Sete and Carlos Santana, who has compared Sete's influence to that of Jimi Hendrix. (Courtesy of Anne Sete at the Bola Sete Estate)

Throughout, the guitarist explores the full range of his talents and influences. Each disc ends with a solo guitar piece on which Sete runs free. He honors a request to play “Malagueña,” a piece from Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia, with flurries of notes and free-flowing time signature. Sete’s own “Flamenco Fantasy” is nearly eight minutes of aggressive strumming and quickly plucked runs on the strings that pulls in snippets of melodies from a handful of flamenco standards. Elsewhere, he proves to be a more than capable hand at classical guitar work, handling a J.S. Bach partita with ease and a touch of wiggly excitement.

One small knock on this set is that the songs chosen keep Sete firmly in the spotlight with little room for his rhythm section to emerge from the shadows. The guitarist does briefly step out of the way during the two renditions of the Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composition “Satin Doll” for Neto to jump in with an appropriately lustrous solo. Magalhães, meanwhile, keeps to the background, making his presence known with judicious splashes of a cymbal and some lovely brush work on his snare.

Tompkins Square is truly the ideal home for Samba In Seattle. As Feldman put it, though their scope is wide, “one of the fabrics of the label has been acoustic guitar music,” particularly the finger-picked folk style known as “American primitive.” Latin guitar music was one of the building blocks of American folk, and a major influence on many of the players that Tompkins Square has championed, including John Fahey. This collection features an essay Fahey wrote about Sete for Guitar Player magazine in 1976, in which he recounts seeing the Brazilian play in San Francisco and how the set left him “transformed, purged—I was not the same.”

With any luck, Samba In Seattle will wind up having a similar effect on not only the current school of acoustic players but anyone who might fall under its spell.