Music

Scott Feiner, the pandeiro man

Jason Gardner

One instrument can make all the difference.

Scott Feiner traveled a circuitous path — shaped by some dramatic lifestyle changes — toward his current status as an accomplished player of the pandeiro, a percussion instrument common to traditional Brazilian music. But he had to stumble almost accidentally upon the innovation that now defines his work, a unique marriage spelled out in the billing for his Friday show at Regattabar: Scott Feiner & Pandeiro Jazz.

“In Brazil everyone knows what a pandeiro is, but nobody associates it with jazz. You get out of Brazil and most people don't know what a pandeiro is, but they know — or they should know — what jazz is,” Feiner says on the phone from his home in New York City.

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In Feiner’s brand of contemporary jazz, the only percussion instrument used is the pandeiro, a hand drum that’s comparable to the tambourine. The resulting music isn’t anything you’d casually describe as Brazilian jazz, or even a crossover blend, though Brazilian elements do pop up, like the baião rhythm on “O Forno” or the ijexá one on “Fonte,” Feiner points out. As far as he knows, the pandeiro has never before been the sole drum used by a jazz band.

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He’s not the most obvious candidate to break ground with this instrument. A fourth-generation New Yorker whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe, he first entered the city’s jazz scene as a guitarist, in the 1990s. He was making his way in that world for a few years, he says, but grew tired of the lifestyle and set his musical career aside.

During a four-year break from gigging, Feiner discovered and fell in love with traditional Brazilian music, particularly bossa nova. He made his first trip to Brazil as a tourist in 1999. “I'd become just completely obsessed with [the music],” he says. “I had no intention of doing it professionally.”

But, on that visit, he happened to come across a boy playing a pandeiro on a street corner. Feiner was transfixed. He decided he had to become a drummer.

Two years later, he moved to Rio de Janeiro and became fully immersed, playing Brazilian music with local bands. It took two more years, he says, to establish his credibility.

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Feiner thinks he may have been the only North American playing the pandeiro professionally in Rio. “There are people all over the world right now playing it,” he says, “but nobody else went to Brazil and was crazy enough to set up camp there and try to do it there. I'm the only one I know of that stayed in that market, in that culture, who was booked in Brazilian festivals alongside great Brazilian artists, who was called in to sub for Brazilian pandeiro players.”

During a 2004 visit back home, Feiner was given the chance to play a small club in Greenwich Village. He called on some old friends, guitarist Freddie Bryant and saxophonist Joel Frahm, and joined them on pandeiro for a set heavy on jazz numbers. It seemed to work.

He brought a recording of the set back to Brazil, and played it for some respected musicians. “They said: You stumbled upon something that’s yours,” he says.

Feiner summons an impressive range of sounds from the instrument. Depending on how he hits it with his thumb, he plays parts that can be likened to either the kick drum or the snare drum in a full kit. An open-handed slap yields a sound like that of a bass drum; metal jingles work like a hi-hat. The result sounds surprisingly cosmopolitan and ever tuneful. There’s no equivalent to cymbals, though — a factor that poses serious challenges in a jazz context.

“That's where the real challenge comes for me in playing jazz: the ways to create colors and dynamics and influence the beginning or ending of a solo,” he says. “It’s a challenge to get a wider depth of tone out of an instrument that’s totally staccato.”

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Feiner released his fourth pandeiro jazz album in March; all nine of its songs are originals.

For the Regattabar show, he’ll be joined by Mike Moreno on guitar and pianist Vitor Gonçalves. Moreno, who has led his own bands and played with Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Joshua Redman, notes that the lack of a bass player in Feiner’s groups makes room for a busy percussion presence, but in a different style than that of the typical jazz drummer. “At our first rehearsal, it was kind of hard for me to hear the beat. My internal drummer had to be a little bit stronger. It’s wide open — there’s a lot of space,” Moreno says.

Feiner’s latest life twist came in April, when a desire to avoid World Cup preparations and congestion in Brazil turned into a move back to New York. Now he’ll have greater access to jazz pros interested in joining his musical experiment. But each night on the bandstand is still a new effort to convert the skeptical.

“After almost every show people come up to me and say: How do you get all that sound out of that little drum?” he says. “There's a little bit of show and tell going on, and a little bit of doubt.”

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com.