Sergio Sayeg (aka Sessa) has always been entranced by what he calls “the mess” of music: the accidental, tortuous nature of it, a path on which musicians and audiences alike can attain a higher purpose. A love supreme, if you will. While Sessa’s 2019 debut Grandeza explored the corporeal pleasures and gentle drunkenness of being in love, his new album, Estrela Acesa (which translates as Burning Star), gazes up to the heavens and ponders love both sensuous and spiritual, in the throes of its resultant hangover.
São Paulo-born, at-home-everywhere, Sessa conceived of his new album as a bridge to connect the earthy and astral realms of music: “Estrela Acesa" comes to remind people of how music grounds our existence in a meaningful way, with its potential to give roots to the divine in a modern world lacking in symbolic weight,” Sessa says. “Connections with the cosmos, gods, nature …in many cultures that means a relationship with music. I think life can be fulfilling and meaningful and music is one of those experiences.”
Sensuous joy courses through the twelve songs of Estrela Acesa. It is evident in the title itself, but also in the seductive sway and hushed poetry of Sessa’s music. It’s all right there in the concise two minutes of “Gostar do Mundo” (Taste for the World), the opening number. “I felt like I was watching behind palm fronds,” he says of that song and the lovers it chronicles. “Its elements play with the feeling of tension sometimes associated with Brazilian music: tropical sunny light and good vibes. But there’s also the very impossibility of sustaining that: the world in a pandemic, a fascist president… It’s still about desire and erotic experiences, but also about the end of the world.” Brazilian in feel, with hints of Erasmos Carlos and João Donato – but Sessa says the biggest influence on the rhythm was the roots reggae of Johnny Clarke.
Sessa was born into São Paulo’s Sephardic Jewish community, and while he describes his religious family as not very musical, temple remains integral to his appreciation of music. “My music education started in the synagogue: the chants, the rituals, the melodies,” he says. “I’m still fond of them.” He remembers Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges' epochal Clube Da Esquina filed next to the Beatles’red and blue compilations in his family’s record collection. As a teen, he fell for the dirty, raw sound of the Sonics, garage rock, and early New Orleans soul, and when he moved with his family as a teenager to New York City, he became even more immersed in hard rock perennials: Jimi Hendrix, MC5, the Stooges, Black Sabbath.
But at a distance, he pined increasingly for the sounds of home, nurturing a deep appreciation for Brazil’s rich musical heritage: Bossa Nova, Tropicália, Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), and more. Playing bass in loud rock bands by night and working at the legendary East Village record shop Tropicália in Furs by day, Sessa immersed himself in the many splendors of the sounds that blended around him. “I was already toying with making my own record and had sketched out some songs.” While always singing in his native Portuguese, Sessa favors the minimalism and poetic directness of writers like Bill Callahan, Nick Drake, and Leonard Cohen, coupled with the vivid timbres and textures of spiritual seekers like Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and Yusef Lateef – artists who transcended their nationalities to achieve ecstatic musical heights. Hints of that liberated jazz sound would first emerge on Grandeza with the ascendant interjections of its backing free jazz ensemble Música de Selvagem.
By contrast, on Estrela Acesa, the stunning orchestrations offer smooth transport and gentle transcendence. Foregrounded is the nuanced interplay between Sessa and his core trio: featuring bassist Marcelo Cabral and percussionist / co-producer Biel Basile. But there are also the backing vocals and added percussion from Ciça Góes, Ina, Paloma Mecozzi, and Lau Ra, providing elision between each carefully wrought passage, interwoven with Gabriel Milliet’s elegant voicing on the flute. It’s all paired to the galaxial orchestration provided by Belarusian arranger, Alex Chumak, and the New York-based Simon Hanes, making Estrela Acesa feel minimal and opulent, the spare songs gradually blossoming into a lush, fertile landscape.
“Cançao da Cura” (Song of Healing) is a break-up song in the tradition of Paulinho da Viola or Baden Powell, but it is also about the cathartic properties that such music can have. Sessa says he sought to “combine sounds as a way to make sense of emotions, of being alive.” It also reveals an aspect of his personality and Brazilian musical culture: a sense of hesitancy. “There’s something about the laziness of the beat, where you’re going and you give up in the middle,” he says. “In a small space of music, it has this hesitancy. I find it way less in American rock ‘n’ roll bands, assertively always moving forward. Brazilian music is always ‘Am I going? Am I not?’ It describes my personality. My Mars is in Pisces.”
Early in the pandemic, Basile left the city and settled on the island of Ilhabela, situated just off the coast of São Paulo, setting up his own studio. “There I found this oasis on the beach to make this music,” Sessa says. “A nice garden, rainforest, mountains. But even on the beach, I barely left the house.” He may not have dipped into the ocean often, but says that the album’s serene instrumental “Helena” reminds him of the water: “This piece brings me the feeling of being immersed, of witnessing the power of water around me with its movement, depth, color and smell, and with it comes the emotions, memories.” Chumak and Hanes conveyed such intense feeling with an astonishing wash of orchestral strings, fluttering woodwinds, skittering percussion, and timbral color. The result is a gorgeous and ponderous peak as the centerpiece of the album.
It is the sound of Rogério Duprat on those famous Tropicália records or Waltel Branco on Marcos Valle’s sublime Previsão Do Tempo, and of course the legendary arranger Arthur Verocai. Sessa says that despite the ocean separating him from Chumak and Hanes, their work “communicated the intensities of human life, the forces of nature.” It also gives Sessa’s music an electrical charge, amplifying the smallest of gestures: a caress, a whisper, a bead of sweat, the knowing shiver of anticipation. “If loving is business/ I’m just the singer,” Sessa admits on “Que Lado Você Dorme” (On What Side Do You Sleep?). His words acknowledge the comedown ahead, while the musicians luxuriate a moment longer.
These double-edged concepts abound throughout the album, as does the meaning of music itself. In his softened, assuring voice, Sessa sings that “you are music,” and reminds us throughout the album that songs can be healing, and yes, those drums can consume you. There is a knife in a lover’s words. Of course, he also winks: “Music is the sluttiest country.”
Estrela Acesa is an album of conflicting urges in sweet balance. At once intimate and grandiose, Sessa finds reason to celebrate the magic of life amid the crushing reality of the present. Our heart is fragile and indestructible. Pain comes with that heavenly pleasure. And there’s a light to be found in the consuming darkness.