We sit down with the talented musical son of a Brazilian jazz legend
10 Questions with Phill Fest, the popular Brazilian jazz singer, songwriter, and guitarist from South Florida.
A personal note from Scott Adams:
Every story has a beginning, and this one has long tails, going all the way back to my 18th year before Phill Fest was born. I was a young college student studying music and broadcast journalism in Minnesota.
On weekends, I’d frequent the Longhorn jazz club on the corner of 5th and Hennepin in Minneapolis, where – more often than not – Brazilian jazz pianist Manfredo Fest would be playing with his trio.
At 18, I was already hosting jazz radio, and Manfredo befriended me. He taught me the ropes of Brazilian music; introducing me to many of the musicians would kindle my lifelong interest.
Decades later, Phill and I crossed paths, and over time our connection grew into a musical friendship based on his Dad’s impressions of me, and my appreciation of Phill’s talents as a guitarist and songwriter.
So, when Phill Fest’s new album Café Fon Fon landed on my desk, I knew it was time to catch up. The conversation turned to the stories behind these songs, Phill’s creative process, and what it was like to grow up as the musical son of a Brazilian jazz legend.
This interview was conducted via email and edited for context and clarity.
10 Questions with Phill Fest
You were born in Minneapolis, far away from Brazil in terms of both culture and distance. Is it easy to keep your Brazilian heritage close?
Great question from a fellow Minnesotan who loves all things Brazil! I’ve made a concerted effort over the last 30 years to really immerse myself into it.
Two or three trips annually down to Brazil really keep things in check. I grew up speaking Portuguese at home, but English was always my first language, so I had lots of catching up to do. Having a Brazilian wife helps also!
Café Fon Fon is your latest album, named after a jazz club in your dad’s hometown of Porto Alegre, and you’ve played there, too. But there’s a special connection that you have with Café Fon Fon and the album’s opening track, ‘Isabel’. Tell us the story.
Actually, the Café Fon Fon wasn’t around in his day, but the owners were big fans. The tune ‘Para Lili Fest’ was composed by Bethy Krieger who is the co-owner of the club, along with husband and woodwind master Luizinho Santos, so I included it on this album.
My first time playing there was in November 2016. It was one of those magical nights where all the stars seem to align!
I spotted this beautiful brunette in the audience and made it a point to introduce myself…and now we are married! Isabel is her name, and the opening track is a dedication to her.
As a matter of fact, the entire album is like an Akashic record – as complete as it could be – of my trips to Brazil, performing there, and solidifying my life with her from 2016 to 2020.
What drives you to create? Is this something that you have in common with your dad?
It really is, but it also comes from my mother. She co-wrote much of my father’s material and they were always working on new ideas together. Being raised in that environment really did influence me to create and compose.
Reinterpreting standards is wonderful, but ultimately one needs to write their own music. So, I’ve found that a balance of both works great for me.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
That’s hard to say because I’ve never considered anything else but music. Perhaps being a rock-star! Lol.
What are you listening to these days?
I have quite a variety of things that I enjoy. There is an artist by the name of Toco that I just can’t seem to get enough of lately. He has a perfect blend of Bossa Nova and contemporary production ideas that I just love. He writes catchy compact tunes, yet they still deliver the goods. In some ways, my music isn’t too different from his.
What was the most impactful moment in your career as a musician?
Wow. Well, it’s tough to pinpoint just one. I will say that the Concord Jazz recording sessions (Manfredo had a four-album deal) were perhaps my defining moments.
These albums were live-in the studio, ‘old school’ sessions with seasoned Brazilian Jazz masters. Players like Claudio Roditi, Portinho, Cyro Baptista, and Hendrik Meurkens to name a few. Those memories stay with me, and I put that cap on every time I record an album.
Being the musical son of one of Brazil’s all-time greatest jazz pianists and of a gifted musical mother can be both a blessing and a challenge. Did you experience this while growing up and learning your craft?
I experience the benefits of both to this day! It took me a long time to deal with the anxiety of performing this type of music with my own reviews. I still have so much to learn and to improve on.
The family name does help when introducing myself to new contacts but after that, there’s always a sense of increased pressure to live up to the legacy. I’m blessed to have honesty in my playing which helps make up for the rest. Thank God, I don’t play the piano!
Which brings you the most pleasure? Composing, performing, or teaching?
Well, it’s a toss-up between composing and performing. Nothing beats writing a new tune that you feel shows your growth and intent, but the rush of a great live moment – when everything jells – is irreplaceable. Teaching a serious student that really wants it and knows there are no shortcuts has its own rewards.
Every song has a story behind it. Tell us about ‘Bossa No Choro’.
You’re right, and I think this one’s pretty special.
Years ago. my mother had mentioned a tune that my father had written and recorded in the 1960s which combined elements of Bossa and Choro. He called it ‘Bossa No Choro’.
Well, in July of 2018, during one of my trips to visit Isabel (and to perform at the Café Fon Fon) we ran into legendary Porto Alegre-based pianist Paulo Dorfman.
Paulo is roughly 10 years younger than Manfredo would have been, and he started talking about this cool tune he loves on my dad’s Manfredo Fest Trio album from 1965, called ‘Bossa No Choro’.
I was pretty amazed because I didn’t know the tune and my mother had only mentioned it years earlier. So, upon arriving back home, I went over to Mom’s house, and – hidden away – we found a chart for the song. I started listening to the song and was blown away!
On my next trip to Porto Alegre in October 2018, Paulo and I performed the song and also had the Café Fon Fon band learn it. The audience loved it.
So, fast forward to February of last year, while I was recording my Café Fon Fon album.
I had been talking with pianist Antonio Adolfo about performing on a few tunes and again, I recalled ‘Bossa No Choro’ because it would be a perfect fit: If anyone can bring that 1960s era piano playing to a tune, it would be Antonio Adolfo.
Due to the pandemic, ‘Bossa No Choro’ is the only tune on Café Fon Fon that features Antonio Adolfo, but it turned out great!
What words of wisdom guide your life?
I would have to say that staying in the moment and enjoying the ride is the ultimate advice. Is there ever really a final destination?
I’m not really driven by monetary gain, besides making a living and I try my best to treat everyone with the respect that I wish to be treated.
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