02/21/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big-Band Samba Conjures Up the Brazil of Dreams

It seems like it can be pretty hard to get away from samba in Brazil, but then again, why would you want to?

Like reggae in Jamaica, samba is the heartbeat rhythm of Brazil. But there isn't one type of samba: there is the samba enredo, the theme songs sung by samba schools along with hundreds of thundering drums for the carnaval marches (go to the newspaper O Globo to see eye-popping pictures and video of this week's samba competition); there's MPB (musica popular brasiliera) samba, often flavored with rock, reggae or rap.

Then there is the small sub-genre of gafiera - big-band, ballroom dance samba. Gafiera's pre-rock heydays are long gone; it fell into the ghetto outside both the mainstream and the alternative scene, carried on by elegant, gray-topped dancers and a few bands. There have been a few jazz-leaning samba big bands, but since 2002, Orquestra Imperial has sambaed down the fine line between reverence and hipster irony without overstepping into parody.

The band came together when several musicians - friends who played in different genres - were discussed putting together a one-time gafiera project, but with a contemporary sensibility. They brought in other like-minded musicians and created a loose assemblage of friends celebrating a style of music for which they all had a big, soft spot. The band did a few shows and instantly drew a loyal following, but the members stayed with their other bands, so Imperial became a sometimes thing, albeit a popular one.

At their Carnegie Hall show last December, part of the venue's "Voices of Latin America" series, Orquestra Imperial demonstrated their Rat Pack-like insouciant sway, which barely masks some keenly honed musical chops. When the 18 musicians ambled onto the stage, they looked like denizens of a vintage-record collectors convention. One guy looked like a classic-rocker, another like a '70s soul man, and one silver fox in a smart porkpie hat.

In the midst of this Oceans 18 of Brazilian hipsters was the lone female: singer Thalma de Freitas. She was dressed to the nines, despite being surrounded by a bunch of guys with their shirt tails hanging out (isn't it always the way, girls?). The close-cropped scarlet-haired singer sashayed in a black-and-white gown that looked like a Frank Gehry building in a windstorm.

Freitas's date for the night was a shifting (but not shifty) array of smooth-singing lounge lizards who slickly slid their crooned syllables, and effortlessly swung to the frothy eddies of their samba. If only romance was always as smooth as all this sunshiney sweetness.

The group's first album from 2007 Carnaval so ano que vem is a sweet, goes-down-easy collection of bonbons. On their latest, there is more female lead singing, highlighting the sultry singing of Nina Becker (now on maternity leave) and de Freitas. The male singers are not as strong as the women - but several have a bit of a malandro feel - malandro being the storied Brazilian sly rogue, not necessarily criminal but certainly smart-alecky. That said, when the male singers are on (more so on the second album), they imbue the music with a nice, casual feel.

The group's second album, Fazendo as Pazes Com O Swing (Making Peace With Swing), doesn't depart from the formula of the first, but it does refine their sound even more for a thoroughly enchanting album. De Freitas, also a successful actress, purrs and caresses the lyrics of "Enquanto a Gente Namora," followed by the creative, smile-inducing brass arrangement of "Velha Estoria" that glides atop the gently insistent rhythms. It's an almost-nonstop boxful of seductive sweets, executed with the deft efficiency of game-ready pros.

While the musicians play with machine-like efficiency, they give the music some unexpected touches to keep it interesting. They add the occasional unusual instrument - a sitar, say - to a traditional-style tune, but they are always game for an out-of-the-blue cover. At Carnegie Hall, they did a sambafied "Stairway to Heaven"; a few years back, they did the Yes song "Owner of a Lonely Heart."

The group doesn't seem to sweat, yet somewhere along the line they sweated the details because they spin out their melodious tunes like the purr of a finely tuned engine. And they don't seem to be sweating for greatness either, they are about relaxing and enjoying the moment, even if the moment consists of a cocktail of several different eras.

The band members' other commitments make Imperial a side project that comes and goes like the occasional meteor shower, so catch them if you can. But their latest album provides a reliable portal to the mythical Brazil, a place where life is a beach, romance perfumes the salt air and the sun caresses every curve it lightly touches.

For those interested in a survey of other types of pop samba, The recently released Rough Guide to Samba is an eclectic examination of the various facets Brazilian musicians make of their homegrown rhythm. Veteran singer Alcione demonstrates the small group samba you might hear in a bar, Luisa Maita's "Lera-Lera" is a contemporary, radio-friendly tune and Loop B melds electronic sounds to its rhythms.

Singer Thalma de Freitas - Can her eyes say that on TV?

Singer Nina Becker with Orquestra Imperial