Phish to Fiasco to France, Deodato continues to spread his imprint

by Ryan Snyder

Eumir Deodato will bring a funk extravaganza to North Carolina this weekend. (courtesy photo)

A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have framed it any better. A world-famous, but aged chansonnier, in the midst of a seemingly endless farewell tour, conscripts a prominent, but cash-strapped producer to help him create the album that will cap off a long and illustrious career. The producer accepts the job, only to realize the assignment comes with challenges he could have never envisioned.

That’s the story right now with pioneering Brazilian musician and arranger Eumir Deodato as he shepherds the final work of the famed French-Armenian pop singer Charles Aznavour to completion. Aznavour, often considered to be France’s answer to Frank Sinatra, boasts a body of work that would make even Ol’ Blue Eyes himself take a seat, but at 87 years of age, the final record may be his most challenging. Deodato, having heard some of the demos for the intended 15-track song cycle, foresaw what might amount to a tragicomic undertaking. Three days were spent recording a single song, because Aznavour’s heavy brogue had become practically unintelligible, with a litany of other issue slowing production.

“The guy’s 87 and he’s doing his last record. He’s going to retire,” Deodato says, “The situation is very difficult, because he’s such a great guy. I heard some of the demos but not all of them, though the one’s I heard were tragic. He loses the track so easily. He supposed to start singing after the downbeat, but it’s the third beat in the measure before he comes in.”

Yet Deodato took the challenge, despite admitting it was something he never thought he would do, as well as simply not even being a fan of the chanson genre. But that’s the reality of the music business these days, he says. The recording industry has deteriorated profoundly since his days of prolifically imprinting his signature keyboard sound and passion for driving funk beats into bossa nova, disco, rock and crossover pop in the ’70s. And yet, in spite of all of his wide-ranging distinctions over the years, the talented multi-instrumentalist Deodato’s name will most likely forever evoke thoughts of a single composition: his incredibly funky rendition of Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a piece in its original form that was made famous as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The song began to experience a renaissance of sorts nearly 30 years later when Deodato’s funked-out number was introduced to the Phish faithful in 1993. Not surprisingly, it’s still a staple of both artists’ sets, which Deodato called a showstopper that his fans continue to go wild over. The crossover between Deodato and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio doesn’t stop there. Along with each having a sincere appreciation and interpretation for Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” — his cover’s aggressive solo at the forthcoming High Point date will be performed by NC-based guitarist David Haywood — Deodato was invited to actually join Anastasio onstage during a show in New York City for the song.

“People went crazy. They were falling from the second balcony,” Deodato said. “He loved it and I loved it too. He’s a great player.”

Still, Deodato gets called upon for high-profile work on occasion, working with Icelandic diva Björk on her 1996 album Telegram, and most recently working on Lupe Fiasco’s track “Paris, Tokyo” from his 2007 release Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, which sampled Deodato’s song “San Luis Sunrise.” When asked if he enjoyed working in hip-hop and if he would pursue more production projects his response was simple.

“I have a very good explanation for this. It’s called, ‘I need the money,’” Deodato said half-jokingly.

Deodato’s own recording career has been productive in recent years as well, most recently releasing The Crossing, and album that’s quintessential Deodato, flexing both his compositional muscle and industry connections. He’s joined by the likes of Fusion guitarist John Tropea and UK dance outfit Londonbeat on numerous tracks, but the tour de force comes in the form of vocal giant Al Jarreau’s appearance on the album’s lead single “Double Face.” Jarreau, still hospitalized from a collapse onstage in Europe due to exhaustion, had previously written the melody and lyrics for the piece and recorded his contribution before ever being released.

The album is surprisingly the closest thing to jazz that Deodato has recorded, well, maybe ever in his words. Despite gravitating toward rock and funk most heavily since the drop in bossa nova’s popularity in the ’70s, Deodato says he was “stigmatized” as a jazz artist early in the days when what bin your album was placed in really mattered. It’s what amounts to a case of mistaken identity that Deodato says has steered him for better or worse since then. The funk is strong with him still, however. One just has to listen to find out.

Eumir Deodato will perform with his five-piece band Saturday at the High Point Theatre.