Article from the Denton Record-Chronicle (April 2001)
Circo. Lee Tomoboulian and his wife, Betty came to Denton via Arkansas in 1993 so Lee could pick up his master’s degree in jazz at UNT. Arkansas’ loss was Denton’s gain, and today they husband and wife compose one-third of the eclectic group Circo. Betty, who has performed professionally since the early ‘70s, provides vocals that range from earthy to ethereal and hit every note in between, while percussionist Ricardo Bozas brings the rhythms of his native Uruguay to the sound.
Jazz drummer Dennis Durick and bassist Brian Warthen help keep time with a post-bop ethic, while woodwind whiz Pete Brewer rounds out the sound with the sax and flute. Together, this combo takes their broad spectrum of skills and influences to create a full-bodied rhythmic adventure that is comfortable within many genres without ever conveniently being pigeon-holed into any of them.
Article from the Denton Record-Chronicle (August 13, 2000)
Lee and Betty Tomboulian have a review in Rolling Stone to blame for their addiction to jazz-infused, popish Latin music.
When Lee Tomboulian was “19 or 20” he was perusing rock’s most respected magazine. In the reviews, he came across an article about an album by Airto, a South American band. That one review led the Tomboulians to their Denton music machine, Circo, and a full-blown exploration of Uruguay’s musical lexicon. Circo will release its self-titled debut later this year.
“If I remember right, the reviewer, Robert Palmer said they wrote in 7/4 time and made it groove like the Rolling Stones do in 4/4,” he said in an interview at Dan’s Bar, the site of the band’s Aug. 18 gig. “It was a really good album and it ended up being important for me.”
He bought the album, and loved it. That album led Mr. Tomboulian to another artist, Hugo Fattoruso, who formed a group named Opa with his brother George and a drummer named, of all things, Ringo. Opa was essentially the back up band of Airto.
In 1989, when he was living in Little Rock, Ark., he started a group, Circo Verde. At first, the band was an outlet for a group of musicians who happened to like South American popular music, heavily influenced by the Beatles but laced indelibly with South American quirks. If the lyrics seems overly simple, it’s because the country’s military dictatorships silenced musicians’ political voices through censorship. Yet the easy sentiment and sweetness of the music is what gives the music its humanness, Mr. Tomboulian said.
Almost all the members of Circo are unapologetically American, which affords them a shot at being contrary. They can celebrate sweetness and stomach sentiment and let alt-rock outfits do the sullen, angst-milking act. Besides, the Tomboulians are sure of a seriousness if you just scratch beneath the surface of Uruguayan confections. Betty Tomboulian got into the game in Little Rock, too. A working musician, she met Lee at a jazz gig in Little Rock.
“I thought he was doing some interesting things on the piano,” she said. “I got involved there. It was really a whole community of people who were interested in the music. It gave us a good start.”
Betty Tomboulian isn’t an ostentatious singer. She is an alto who can turn an effortless soprano. She can handle a lullabye or rise t the occasion when a good jazz tune calls for some range roving. With Circo, she doesn’t back down from indulging in some wordless vocals. She’s a fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell and black gospel music. She considers herself a contemporary of the late Elis Regina, a Brazilian singer who introduced the music of Brazilian Milton Nascimento to a broader audience.
After Circo Verde broke up -- thanks to Lee Tomboulian’s decision to join the University of North Texas Jazz Studies program – the Tomboulians and Walter Henderson and a few of their peers formed Circo. Now they are happily bringing Milton Nascimento to a broader audience.
Mr. Tomboulian classifies Circo as a pop-Latin-jazz out-fit. Ms. Tomboulain said the music is danceable.
“The main thing is that we like to have fun,” he said. “We like to think a lot of people find it fun, too.”
Percussion is the ruling muse for Circo, if band percussionist Ricardo Bozas, who is Uruguayan, and drummer Dennis Durick, have anything to say about it. But then bassist Brian Warthen raises up a praising angel or two, jamming some funky poetry into the forthcoming disc.
Mr. Tomboulian reminds you that the piano is a percussion instrument, too. He winds his rhythms around the Durick-Bozas affair to a nice effect. He’s the group primary composer. He’s competent in making melodies and harmonies, yes, but he understands implicitly that hammers and strings are up-town cousins of the drum.
Pete Brewer, the flutist and sax player of Circo, works its on the jazz end, ricocheting from ??????note when he’s on the flute. He and Betty Tomboulian can be found playing tag with a theme on more than one tune. It’s their partnership that gives Circo its intrigue and fleshiness.
All in all, Circo can affect the urban grit of a Meshell Ndegeocello record, braiding what feels like a little bit of funk into an allegiance to jazz technique and spontaneity.
The group’s core percussion is grounded by a respect for authenticity. Some of the album uses the candombe, an indigenous Uruguayan percussion style that builds its rhythmic structure from three drums played with the hand and a stick. The condombe form gives new life to “The Old 100th,” which is best known as the Protestant offertory “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Lee Tomboulian harmonies are set over the drums, and it represents the celebratory street drumming in Uruguay.
“We started with the three drums, and then the rhythm is played over and over, adding in more drums. By the end of the song, there are nine drums,” Ms Tomboulian said. “I was surprised because eventually, can hear in the percussion all of these different vocal lines and harmonies, and they are all coming from the overtones of the drums. It’s incredible.”
It’s the candombe that brings out the joy in the traditional, reverent hymn, and is evidence that Circo is a risk-taking ensemble that, like Bravo Combo, believes experimentation is a worthy pursuit.
The Tomboulians raise eye-brows sometimes. What in the world brings two very anglo musicians to the Uruguayan table, and can they be legitimate? For Lee Tomboulian, is an emphatic “yes.”
“My mother said it’s possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been,” Mr. Tomboulian said. “I’ve never been to Uruguayan. We really need to go. But there is something about the music that I think we really connect with.”
His mother, a sculptor, urged Mr. Tomboulian to examine his goals, and she might be the main reason Circo has produced an album.
“She’s an amazing artist,” he said. “Her stuff is all over the house. I came to Denton to get a degree to teach as well as to play and my mom said I had to get this book, ‘The Artist’s Way.’ It was all about how to get going and do what you need to do as an artist. Part of the process was writing every day. I kept reading (what he wrote), and one of the themes I kept seeing was that I wanted to record an album.”
The group scraped together the finances and went to the Palmyra Studies, a studio south of Dallas and at Modern Vintage Studies in Dallas. With help and support of Opa alum Hugo Fattoruso, they began the painstaking process of making an album that presents the band for what it is, a collective of different stylists collective of different stylists who love South American music. So far, the disc reveals a group that leans heavily on Lee Tomboulian harmonies and Ricardo Bozas percussion.
“It’s really tedious,” Ms. Tomboulian said. “We were going to record all the vocals in one day, but we didn’t get but one song finished. We did the rhythm tracks for 14 songs in three days.”
“It’s difficult,” Mr. Tomboulian said. “We recorded in different rooms. That’s hard when you’re used to playing together. And then you want to go back and re-work so many things. You can’t do that, though, when you have limited time.”
The band members are hoping to get a Christmas release.
Denton audiences can get a sneak preview of what the album might offer at 10 p.m. August 18 at Dan’s Bar. Wayne Delano will stand in for Pete Brewer on flute, and Big World Records recording artist and Opa alum Mr. Fattoruso will jam with the group.
The gig will be smoke-free, though smoking is allowed in the bar.