Together, they represent the Assad family, for whom making music is like breathing.
Growing up in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, music was a part of everyday family life for Sergio. He was surrounded by his parents and their friends, singing and playing, just socializing and having fun. His mother, Angelina, was a superb amateur singer. His father, Jorge, a watchmaker, was an ardent self-taught musician whose sacrifices enabled his young sons to study with an excellent guitar teacher in Rio de Janeiro.
Clarice grew up in a musical environment, too, with her father Sergio, and sometimes her uncle Odair, holding rehearsal at their house. And although there were no professional musicians on Clarice's mother's side (other than a handsome uncle who sang dance music with a big band), they loved music and were wonderful singers. The combined musical embrace proved irresistible, and the inclusivity of family music-making led her to the inevitable.
Today, Sergio and Clarice live in Chicago, and recently gave a joint concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. With Fathers’ Day approaching, we spoke with the father-daughter duo about their collaboration, and the love and deep mutual appreciation they feel for one another.
WFMT: Sergio, tell us about the legacy of music and family values that you inherited from your father.
Sergio Assad: Mostly his passion for music, you know? It was so strong and inspiring that we tried to pass that through. With Clarice, I was playing music games with her when she was very young. Not because I wanted her to be a musician but as part of what I lived. She responded so well! And I said, "This girl's going to be a great musician!" But you never know. I was a teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory for nearly ten years, and I know it's hard for these kids because they won't all make it as professional performers. There's no guarantee. In the case of Clarice, there was just too much talent there, so I encouraged her. She had a moment when she thought of stopping but I said, "No, you're not going to stop! Just keep going, keep going."
WFMT: Clarice, did you feel pressure to go into music, or was it just the opposite?
Clarice Assad: No, no pressure! From my point of view, I was being provided for by my father who was a musician, and we had a very good life! It's not like we were rich or anything, but we had everything we needed, so I never thought there was going to be an impediment for me to go into music.
Clarice and Sergio Assad performing songs they wrote together, 1984
Clarice: I remember being alone with my father, just hearing him play. I think my mom worked during the day and he stayed, either teaching or practicing, by himself, or with Odair. And I remember just being around that, hanging out! Bugging him. He would let me play the guitar. Those are like my earliest memories: just hanging with guitar sounds.
Sergio: She was really attracted to music, to sound. I remember this so clearly. One day I had my guitar. She was maybe two or three and she wanted to touch the strings. Of course I let her. Then I was moving the chords so she could hear the difference. She was so excited!
Clarice: My dad really is my hero. I know it sounds corny but he is. There was nothing he couldn't do at so many levels. Looking at him on stage, that was amazing. Not every little kid had a chance to see that! And he was my dad. All he needed was a cape.
WFMT: Sergio, how would you describe Clarice to someone who doesn't know about her?
Sergio: My daughter is a genius. Everybody in the family is involved in music somehow. She is the best Assad. She's extraordinary in many respects. She's a great vocalist, a good pianist. I'm not saying she's a great pianist — there are great pianists out there, she knows that. She's a great composer, an amazing orchestrator. I wish I had half of her talent to orchestrate. Not half, I’d be happy if I had twenty percent!
And she can do it so fast. We were somewhere in France, driving back to Paris. She asked to look at score we were working on, and when we got to Paris it was orchestrated! All the information, everything — the crescendos, the stops, all the articulation — it was there in four hours.
WFMT: And Clarice, how would you describe Sergio and his music?
Clarice: He has a very organic way of going from one place to the next, and it's so beautiful, like a gift for a song that stays in your head in a good way. That's one thing I wish I had. I don’t have direct access to that. I love that about the way he writes. It just flows out of him.
WFMT: When did you both realize collaboration was something that would be worth pursuing?
Clarice: My dad had a vision a long time ago to have all the family members perform together in a concert, including my grandparents. Prior to that, we made music in our living room. He took that experience and put it on stage for a lot of people to see.
Sergio: We toured quite extensively here in the U.S. That was the first time my parents had ever left Brazil or gone on stage to perform. And the first appearance was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York! Can you imagine the responsibility?
Clarice: You were so brave to do that!
Sergio: I was crazy!
Clarice: Crazy! You had them, no experience, no English, no clue. And on the other side of the no clue spectrum — me! I was really young. I was fresh out of college. I had no stage experience whatsoever. Jeepers. It was a great experience. And from there we started doing these family concerts more often.
WFMT: Clarice, you have an ability to communicate fluently in a variety of musical languages. How much of that comes from growing up as Sergio's daughter?
Clarice: Because I was with him all the time as a kid, I heard everything he listened to. Secondhand listening! I remember he loved Mahler. He played Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for me. He played Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, and film scores from John Williams because he liked the orchestrations. Definitely the love for orchestra came from that. He loved it! I remember him saying, "Oh my god, can you believe this sound!"
My dad was always very engaging. He would play chords and come up with melodies and have me finish the ideas that he started. He would help me organize that into a song. I didn't know what I was doing, I was just following my instincts. In the beginning, he also wrote the songs and told me I wrote them.
WFMT: There's a great amount of confidence that can grow out of that kind of experience. At your performance at Old Town School it was really beautiful to see the blending of your musical personalities.
Sergio: I have just one "complaint" about this combination. I spent my life playing as a duet with my brother, right? We rehearse regularly and we play the same pieces over and over again. With Clarice, it's impossible to make her repeat more than a couple of times before she goes, "Dad, it's going to be ok. In the moment when that part comes in the concert, it will be fine."
Sometimes we sit there and I don't know what's going to happen! I think that surprise is good because we like to improvise and we're open. You have to react to the challenge that's in that particular moment and it seems like it was written that way.
WFMT: Clarice, what would you like the world to know about Sergio?
Clarice: Without him, the world of guitar today that exists would not be here. When the brothers started their career, the repertoire was extremely limited. He changed that by writing new music and also by arranging repertoire that people would never even dream of arranging for two guitars, like Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin. And it sounds really good! There were good guitar duos that had the chops and the interpretation, but not that combination of level of playing and creativity and vision. People should know that and appreciate it.
Clarice and Sergio Assad, 2018 (Video: Rodrigo Assad; Sound: Paulinho Tó)
WFMT: What's in store for your duo in the future?
Clarice: I want to play with my dad forever! We love hanging out. We like writing music together. So let's find all the ways to collaborate and keep it evolving. And I think that's going to be very exciting.
Sergio: I don't think Clarice and I thought, "We're going to become a duet." We do it because we love doing it. She has her life and her career, and my career is with my brother. It's really fun. I wish we could do more.
Clarice: Yay! Happy Father's Day, Papa.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.