We know Gregg Karukas as a smooth jazz superstar. But his love of Brazilian music will leave you breathless.
Let this preview for Serenata introduce you to a solo piano masterpiece.
by Scott Adams
When was the last time an album compelled you to listen from beginning to end, then return to it time after time? It just happened to me.
Great melodies are the essential quality that has defined Grammy-winning pianist Gregg Karukas’s 30 years in music, with a dozen albums and chart-topping hit songs.
But there’s another side to Gregg Karukas that has paced his greatest successes but has remained slightly out of the spotlight: His love of Brazilian music.
Serenata is his very first solo piano project. These 15 tracks offer romantic impressions of classic songs from iconic Brazilian artists Milton Nascimento and Dori Caymmi, as well as new and reimagined Karukas originals.
Gregg’s first introductions to Brazilian jazz came via records borrowed from friends, amazing albums from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and others.
Then, a move west from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles brought him a life-changing opportunity: the chance to play with Sergio Mendes as ‘second keyboardist’ behind Brazil’s greatest musical ambassador.
Karukas became quick friends with another member of the group, Dori Caymmi, and his career as a professional musician accelerated: He’d play and perform with Sergio Mendes on national tours and join Dori’s band for local gigs in southern California.
Gregg recalls those days, still fresh in his mind:
“Those Dori shows at that tiny Los Angeles music room were legendary, with everyone from Michel LeGrand, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones to Wayne Shorter in the audience. I played multiple keys, but Dori usually introduced me as: “My orchestra.”
Gregg Karukas struck out on his solo career soon after.
Read more about Serenata and Gregg Karukas
- 10 Questions for Gregg Karukas
- Gregg Karukas Serenata Review Roundup
- Upcoming Events for Gregg Karukas
- Press Release: Serenata by Gregg Karukas
What to know an interesting fact about Gregg Karukas? Here it is: The influence of Brazil’s beautiful melodies and captivating rhythms has been a constant companion throughout his 30-year career. Nearly every one of his albums has featured a Brazilian-themed song Let’s take a look.
The story behind ‘Rio Drive’
It was August 4, 2015, and Billboard carried the headline: ‘Rio Drive’ was #1 and Gregg Karukas took to his website to share the news: “2 for 2!”, he wrote. “Rio Drive goes to #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Radio Charts and The Smooth Jazz Top 20, the second consecutive #1 song from Soul Secrets, following ‘Elegant Nights’ climb to the top spot last winter Thanks to everyone for supporting my music.”
The song featured Ricardo Silveira’s Brazilian guitar, along with Ron Boustead and Shelby Flint’s vocals.
“My writing process usually starts out jamming on the piano for a while to see what comes, imagining the groove,” says Gregg. Sometimes I’ll jump from a ballad to a funky groove: It’s all just very free association.
“I always record these ideas without worrying about song form. Then I go back and listen to my ideas and pick the best melodic stuff, work on the groove accompaniment, and arrangements usually evolve with complementary melodies.
“In the case of Rio Drive, I went in with a purpose: the Rhodes electric piano intro groove would set up the whole song, especially as a live performance thing…..then the rest came very quickly.
“I love the bridge breakdown, which suspends the groove for a bit, then kicks back into gear for the piano solo.
In The Studio
“Ricardo Silveira was up from Brazil for his annual visit with his guitar and he played on it, plus a bunch of songs for Soul Secrets. Drummer and percussionist Luis Conte has been my Thousand Oaks neighbor and friend for many years, so he always has a role on my CDs, usually after most everything else has been recorded.
“Adding the vocals was a cool afterthought, since my friend and frequent collaborator, Ron Boustead, said it sounded so hooky and much like a classic Sergio Mendes vibe. Shelby Flint and Ron did their vocals and it was DONE. “
For Smooth Jazz fans, ‘Rio Drive’ tapped into Ipanema’s legendary heat to power the summer of 2015 to the hottest one on record, worldwide.
Gregg’s song would go on to be named the top Smooth Jazz song of the year on Alan Kepler’s Smooth Jazz Top 20, and #2 on Billboard’s 2015 Smooth Jazz airplay chart.
‘Rio Drive’ is still a much-requested favorite on our streaming station at Connectbrazil.com.
But ‘Rio Drive’ wasn’t Gregg Karukas’s only Brazilian-themed song. Far from it.
Part of our Gregg Karukas Serenata Preview includes a look back, so let’s begin with a smooth samba; the title track from 1991’s Key Witness. The piano and voice duet, ‘Dori’s Song’ followed a year later with Sound of Emotion. 1993’s Summerhouse pairs Shelby Flints vocals with Ricardo Silveira for a breezy bossa nova titled ‘Spinning Dreams’ and if you listen closely to ‘Moonlit Breeze’ you’ll hear Dori Caymmi’s Brazilian voice and guitar, too.
It was a favor returned by Karukas the following year of Dori’s If Ever album.
You’ll Know It’s Me came our way in 1995, and it included Karukas’s piano and synths on the decidedly Rio-esque ‘Avalon’. 1998 found the keyboardist creating a nuanced, mature sound to Blue Touch, and once again, subtle Brazilian touches are heard on ‘Conversation’, a sultry, Carioca-chill track.
The 2000’s gave us the horn-driven samba, ‘Small World’ from Nightshift, 2005’s ‘Corner Club – Clube da Esquina’ (from Looking Up), ‘Jamba Samba’ from 2009’s GK, and ‘Rio Drive’ (from Soul Secrets, 2014).
Gregg’s 13th album Serenata was released in February. His first solo piano album came as a surprise to many, because it was a direct kind of recording. Intimate, reflective, inspiring. And – for those who read this story – Serenata is also autobiographical, in the unique way that only music can be.
Setting music asisde
It’s been more than six years since the release of Soul Secrets, and during these years, Gregg Karukas has weathered life’s challenges.
During this time away from the piano, he has faced personal challenges of the highest order: caring for his lovely wife Yvonne until cancer took her life in 2018; a health scare of his own; a biking accident brought a broken collar bone. The pandemic.
Music took a break.
For any of us, this would be a lot to take in. But it turns out that Gregg’s love of Brazilian music helped to sustain him during the most challenging times of his life.
“I sat down at the piano and recalled many of Dori’s lush, melodic songs as best as I could and got very emotional, especially since I had also recently found the video of our wedding in 1992, where Dori sang “O Cantador” during the ceremony,” Gregg wrote.
The notion for Serenata began in his living room, seated at his grand piano.
The combination of memories and realities began to mingle with the powerfully beautiful melodies of iconic Brazilian songwriters Milton Nascimento, Dori Caymmi, and others.
The healing power of music
“That evening pulled me out of my comfort zone and set me on a surprising new adventure that I hope will bring some peace and joy to all who are suffering during this challenging time,” says Gregg.
Serenata is where the healing began. Experience it for yourself when you tap the play button on our Gregg Karukas Serenata Preview at the top of this page.
Let Gregg Karukas take you a personal tour of these cherishes and romantic memories and the magical, healing power that music brings to our lives.
Gregg Karukas Serenata Preview
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