By assimilating, and evolving the music of Brazil's bossa nova originators, Canadian duo Bet.e & Stef has soared from performing in clubs and bistros in Montréal to performing in Japan within a three-year span.
The very character of Bet.e & Stef's new album "Day By Day" is its intimacy and timelessness. Despite being complex and witty overall, its music feels natural and universal. Primarily produced by Bet.e & Stef with producer/arranger Michel Pépin, who has worked with Rufus Wainwright, and Emmy Lou Harris, it features gentle and reserved guitar by Stef who has a smooth precise voice; Bet.e's wonderful velvety vocals; and sparse, tasteful accompaniment.
"We try not to clutter up the songs," explains Bet.e. "We are with the 'less is more' approach. Pauses speak just as much as the notes and make listeners appreciate what's coming."
Adds Stef, "We're trying to stay timeless with our music."
Bet.e & Stef's singular take on Brazilian rhythms resulted in their striking 10-song debut CD, "Jazz/Bossa Nova" in 1998. Produced by Stef and Marc Dessaulles, it featured such bossa nova favourites as "So Danço Samba," and "One Note Samba."
"Jazz/Bossa Nova" was a compilation of two earlier released cassettes.
In 1995, Bet.e & Stef released the five-song cassette, titled "Bet.e & Stef," recorded for $500. In 1997, the duo recorded another cassette, also called "Bet.e & Stef," costing $2,000. Montréal music retailers then persuaded the duo to release a CD, resulting in "Jazz/Bossa Nova".
Self-distributed and without even an issuing-label name, the CD has been an unparalleled success. Sales of jazz albums in Canada–for either international or domestic acts–rarely top 10,000 units. "Jazz/Bossa Nova," however, has soared to "gold" status (50,000 units), with sales primarily in Québec.
"That's never been done by an indie jazz band in Canada," says Bet.e "People just keep asking for it. They respond to the sincerity of it. There's a freshness and naiveté there. The songs are beautiful, and it sounds like two young cats just singing their hearts out."
Adds Stef, "We put so much work and love into it, and the music itself is interesting to people."
Toshiba-EMI in Japan came to release a slightly different version of "Jazz/Bossa Nova" titled "Wish You Well" in June, 2001. This was after Noriaki Tanaka, its A&R representative in the strategic marketing division, visited the duo's manager Tom Berry in Toronto. Tanaka was so impressed on hearing the album that he returned to Canada five months later with Hitoshi Namekata, VP of A&R of Toshiba-EMI to see Bet.e & Stef perform in Montréal, and to sign them.
Since its release by Toshiba-EMI, "Wish You Well" has sold a creditable 15,000 units in Japan. On the eve of its release, Bet.e & Stef visited Japan for a whirlwind week of promotion. "Toshiba-EMI has such an amazing marketing team," says Stef. "We were kept busy."
Bet.e & Stef returned to Japan in January, 2002 for a 10-day stay performing for two nights each at Blue Note clubs in Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo. "We had a blast playing every night," says Bet.e. The Japanese audience really got us, even understanding our humour."
Following the release of "Wish You Well" Bet.e & Stef immediately began to plan its follow-up. The two hit their stride when they began working with Pépin and engineer Rob Heaney at Pépin's Studio Frisson in Montréal, "We learned so much working with Michel," says Stef. "It was a great to have another vision (for the music). Michel made sure I really knew what I wanted to do."
Adds Bet.e, "Michel was instrumental in helping us define the sound of the album. He also provided a lot of the harmonies."
Says Pépin, "Both of them really wanted to do a great record. They were searching for something special, and I tried to help them get it."
The album features a body of superb originals including the title track "Day By Day," as well as "All is Well," "I'm There," "Wish You Well," "Lying Game," "Listen To The Night," and "It's Over."
About the song "Day By Day," Bet.e says, "The chorus' lyrics, 'Strength is not a stranger, I take it day by day,' represent our philosophy quite well."
Adds Stef about "All is Well," "I wrote that song with all my love to my newborn son. It marked the debut of my new life as a father."
There are outstanding covers of Brazilian repertoire including: "Zana," and Regra Tres," both written by pioneering Brazilian singer/guitarist Antonio Petti Filho, known as Toquinho; "Vagabond," originally sung by French vocalist Henri Salvador; and " Só Tinha de Ser Com Você," penned by Antonio Carlos Jobim, one of Brazil's most creative musicians.
"We rearranged 'Zana' considerably" says Stef. "It was already a party song. We took it one step further by adding modulation, and Bet.e sings it with a R&B feeling."
One of the album's stand-outs is Bet.e and Stef's rendition of Léo Ferré and Aragon's "Il N'Aurait Fallu." "It was big challenge to do 'Il N'Aurait Fallu,'" says Stef. " Léo Ferré is like a spiritual father to me. He's an artist, and a great poet."
From age 16, Stef played guitar in jazz and rock bands in Montréal. At 21, he traveled to Paris for four years to study vocal jazz, piano, and arranging. During his time there, he became attracted to the city's Latin music scene, and fell in love with the works of Brazil bossa nova's elder statesmen, Bahian singer/guitarist João Gilberto, pianist/arranger Antonio Carlos Jobim, Toquinho, and poet/lyricist/ diplomat Vinicius de Moraes.
Stef was particularly intrigued by Gilberto's highly syncopated style of plucking acoustic guitar chords–nicknamed "violao gago" (stammering guitar) by his followers.
"For two years in Paris, I had fun and discovered myself," Stef recalls. "Then I decided to go to jazz school. I sang jazz standards with pianists in small clubs, and began playing with friends under the bridges near the Seine. Jazz was in fashion, so it was easy to get gigs in clubs. Then a friend of mine played me a João Gilberto recording, and I fell in love with his music."
Returning to Montréal -"I needed to go back to my roots and see my friends"-Stef then performed for two years with a band on the local club circuit.
Growing up in Trois-Rivières, Québec, in a musical family, Bet.e went to college in Montréal to study psychology, and then communications. She dabbled in theater, had a radio show on CIBL in Montréal, and studied modern dance for several years. When she decided to become a singer, Stef helped her by recording tapes of vocal exercises for her to do. He also introduced her to bossa nova.
"I fell in love with bossa nova," recalls Bet.e whose musical roots include '60s-style R&B. "I just immersed myself in the language, rhythm, and styles. I was bowled over by how beautiful this music was."
Bet.e & Stef's first engagement together happened when Bet.e's sister asked them to perform at her wedding. But it would be a year before the pair started performing regularly together, opting instead to build up their repertoire, work out arrangements for the songs and practice the Portuguese sounds, as well as their singing together as a duo. Several gigs in restaurants and private parties helped cement their partnership. In short time, the duo became a fixture in Montréal's lively lounge scene.
"I'd never met anyone with her drive," says Stef. "She would get us all these bookings."
Bet.e adds, "Our relationship works because we both love bossa nova, jazz, and music in general. Also, our voices blend well together and the bond we've developed grows stronger every day."
Bet.e & Stef's future is obvious: tenacious, confident and talented; the duo is going to continually keep winning over audiences with its music, personality, and sincerity.
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