Playlist: The Most Interesting Recording Artist of the Century (So Far)

Hint: It's not Kanye

The other day I almost got lured into one of those endless parlor-game threads on Facebook. This one was about music released since the year 2000: Who is the most important recording artist in the new century?

Not the top selling. Not the most prolific. The most important. The criterion seemed challenging, maybe impossible, just as arbitrary as any of those canonical lists of “Top Guitarists” critics generate with regularity. We don’t have enough distance from 2001 or 2010 to properly assess any artist’s impact on the artform. Importance is relative, demands context. It’s not measured in sales or other statistics. If music history teaches anything, it’s that composers and experimentalists are often misunderstood when they’re active; it can take generations for the culture at large to catch up to the work of a visionary.

So I began mulling a different metric: Who’s been the most interesting recording artist since 2000? That’s also a subjective distinction – quite possibly too vague. But “interesting” to me suggests “of interest” – someone people who care about music should be paying attention to, or at least know about. This figure would need to have had an impact on the specific musical world he/she inhabits, and have recorded frequently enough over the last 20 years to show some artistic evolution. This is someone who’s going about things in an interesting way, opening up new roads, challenging conventional wisdom, changing the conversation.

There’s no shortage of entirely defensible choices – Taylor Swift would be a frontrunner in part because of her pandemic-era work, for example. But as I flashed through the crazy scattered mountain of listening I’ve done since the turn of the century, I kept landing in the same place: Hamilton de Holanda.

The virtuoso of the mandolin-like Brazilian stringed instrument called the bandolim, de Holanda was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1976. He grew up playing the brisk style known as choro, which links the lamentations prevalent in Portuguese music to more extroverted, celebratory African rhythm. He learned the demanding traditional choro songs, and then wrote his own tunes in the style, adding chord sequences and voicings more common in jazz. And when his compositions began incorporating more intricate harmony, he had a custom 10-string bandolim made to give him more voicing options.

Since beginning his recording career in 2000, de Holanda has put together a staggering discography, impressive for its range and its size. The Discogs database identifies him as having genre affiliation with “jazz, Latin, folk, world and country,” and its listings are incomplete, missing some of his output on smaller Brazilian labels. In addition to his choro titles, he’s created gorgeous, open-ended improvisational music with a trio, composed hauntingly lyrical works for quintet that express some of the many dimensions of Brazilian identity, done convincing forays into (for lack of a precise term) progressive fusion, recorded with several orchestras and helmed deeply reverential tributes to musical trailblazers Pixinguinha, Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. Releasing an average of an album each year, de Holanda has collaborated with the entire who’s who of Brazilian music as well as Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, French accordionist Richard Galliano, Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

All the supporting evidence needed to make the case for de Holanda is contained in music on this playlist, which is not in chronological order but does include a live-performance example of the blindingly fast style that first attracted attention to his Brasilia Brazil trio back in 2000. That recently reissued title, Brasilia Brazil Trio Au Vivo, is known to cause dizziness — proceed with caution.

And that’s just scratching the surface – de Holanda has made a lot of music during quarantine, yet only a few of the livestreams have been released as standalone records. It should also be noted that some of de Holanda’s significant works are missing from Spotify; to complicate things further, his website, which previously included a comprehensive discography, is currently under construction.

And here’s today’s entirely earnest attempt at reader engagement: Please send along your nominations for Most Interesting Recording Artist of the Century (So Far).

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