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Tom Zé
© Stephanie Berger
Tom Zé Live: An Elfin Triumph

The Tropicalia legend shines in his first N.Y. show in 12 years

By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music

There were many memorable things about Tom Zé's Lincoln Center Festival appearance at Manhattan's Alice Tully Hall on July 19. But for me the most memorable was his apron. The 74-year-old Brazilian has a sense of theater. So where the four men and two women in his troupe dressed stage-casual, he wore a costume: a Velcro-equipped white jacket emblazoned with colorful quasi-symbolic designs, shiny ovoid black sneakers, white shirt and black pants, and an apron that came to around his knees - broad white waves on a black ground. The elfin Zé used this apron as a prop, mostly to show off the flexibility of his 74-year-old hips, which instead of thrusting like a macho man, he rotated like a coy senorita, apron skirtlike in his hands.

Zé's performance incorporated a lot of heavily accented English talk, much of it just beyond the border of comprehensibility. Not enough music, some would say, and I know what they mean. But I also know that Zé has never been much for the suave grooves of the homeland he loves. Just as his songs are spikier than the Brazilian norm, his shows are all fits and starts, lectures and jokes, thoughts he never had before. This being Lincoln Center, the printed program provided a set list, but it was clearly marked "order and selections subject to change." So while I'm pleased to report that the staccato, turf-claiming "Um Oh! E Um Ah!" and the tragicomic, English-language "Brigitte Bardot" and the lyrical, mischievous "Sincope Jaobim" were standouts, damned if I can remember when they came up except that, program to the contrary, "Brigitte Bardot" wasn't the closer. And I'm also pleased to report that there were more surprising standouts. The last time Zé played NYC, at Irving Plaza in 1999, he and the jazzy "post-rock" combo Tortoise got together and played the damn songs. It was fine. This was much better.

A short way into a 100-minute show, Zé's stop-and-go patter turned to the glories of New York City, about which he waxed effusive throughout - Paris is kinda small by comparison, he told us - and then to finding a limo in the yellow pages, and then to the yellow pages themselves. You know the saw about someone who can sing the telephone book? Zé sang the telephone book, first the hospital pages but then his favorite part, which goes, in his interpretation, "In case of emergency dial 9-1-1." The "9-1-1" morphed into a nifty refrain. Then it was on to a new song whose refrain went "Stand clear of the closing doors/dead souls/etc."

There was much more, like the guitar mock-up he dismantled into percussion instruments, or the way he breathed, snored, and spouted the refrain of "Sincope Jaobim," where the gorgeous lead went to Rosangela Lemos Silva - for years he's counted on an inexhaustible store of lesser female samba adepts to compensate for his dehydrating chops, which were never too juicy to begin with. Instead, Zé stores liquid content as synovial fluid. He introduced his first song with eight energetic vertical leaps, interjected others later, and scrambled on and off the lip of the stage at will. Did I mention that he's 74?

Nowhere was the music more effective than in Zé 's minimalist version of the convenient cliche in which audiences chime in with signature lyrics while the favorites they've paid to see rest their vocal cords. Twice he got the audience to sing just one word. The first was "saudade," the Portuguese term for the deep, melancholy nostalgia of the language's saddest songs. The second was "Ogodó," a Portuguese name for the orisha Shango. Neither is a Lincoln Center word. But chanted over and over, both soon proved hymns to avant-primitive irreverence.

Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at, and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.

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