João Gilberto: The Architect of Bossa Nova Remembered

João Gilberto: The Architect of Bossa Nova Remembered

Guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto helped make placidness and minimalism an aesthetic in jazz and pop. As a primary designer of the Brazilian music called bossa nova — the new thing in Brazilian Portuguese — he emerged in the late 1950s with a style of playing and singing that was so gentle it felt audacious. He died on July 6 at the age of 88.

Prior to the daydreamy sounds that Gilberto conjured up with his most important co-creator, the songwriting genius Antonio Carlos Jobim, there certainly was quietude in 20th century music: think ballad singing, the less bombastic edge of Brazilian samba, the cool-tempered West Coast jazz that influenced the bossa-nova cabal based in Rio de Janeiro at midcentury. But bossa nova looked to softness and introversion as an ethic, and like all great examples of vanguard art, it hasn’t lost its ability to startle. To hear Gilberto’s many recorded solo concerts today is to be confounded again by the serenity onstage; in the same way that metal and punk bands aim to turn venues into uninterrupted frenzy, Gilberto channels his considerable power to make you lean in, listen and shush.

In 1964, Gilberto experienced monumental success with the LP Getz/Gilberto, a collaboration with the American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz that also featured Jobim underplaying on piano and Gilberto’s then-wife, the vocalist Astrud Gilberto. Two years prior, Getz and the American guitarist Charlie Byrd, a gifted early adopter of bossa-nova technique, had done their part to further the popular burgeoning sound with the extraordinary LP Jazz Samba. But Getz/Gilberto was the genuine article that nudged the movement into the territory of a pop-culture phenomenon. It stands among jazz’s best-selling albums, with an enduring smash, “The Girl from Ipanema,” several future standards and an armful of Grammys. Along with victories in the jazz and engineering categories, “Ipanema” earned Record of the Year, and the LP was named Album of the Year — the only jazz record to win that designation until Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, in 2008.

Since then, Gilberto’s influence has run so deep it’s more philosophical than stylistic. There are countless very fine vocal-jazz interpretations of songs he made famous, for instance, but a lot of them miss the point; his spirit has little to do with acrobatics or histrionics or forced romance. He made stillness and patience a workable mode in jazz and pop, and artists as far-flung as Seu Jorge, Vinicius Cantuária, Bill Callahan, Jack Johnson and Frank Ocean owe him a nod of gratitude.

The following track selections fill in the story further.

“Chega de Saudade” (1958)

Before Gilberto cut his own version of this bossa-nova bellwether by Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, he played guitar on this heavily arranged rendition by the Brazilian singer and actress Elizete Cardoso. On display here is the Gilberto strategy for accompaniment that every self-respecting jazz and Brazilian-music guitarist has had to dive into since. It’s an intensely rhythmic fingerstyle technique full of deceptive simplicity — adaptable and modular, but with voicings passing seamlessly at a rapid-fire clip.

“The Girl from Ipanema” (1964)

This phenomenal song, with music by Jobim and lyrics by de Moraes (Portuguese) and Norman Gimbel (English), requires some reconciliation. Is it an impeccably designed vision of stealthy desire, with one of the most aphrodisiac tenor sax solos ever committed to tape and a gorgeously candid performance by Astrud Gilberto, at the time a hobbyist singer? Or is it a beacon of middle-class midcentury-modern kitsch, a done-to-death Brazilian-themed token to place alongside the tract home and the tiki bar? (Answer: It’s both.)

“Águas de Março” (1976)

While Gilberto did write music, he fared best when he deferred to his brilliant friend Jobim in the way of repertoire. Jobim’s “Águas de Março,” with its brightly cryptic lyrics and nimble headlong drive, is split vocally here between Gilberto and his second wife, Miúcha, with an expectedly plush tenor solo from Stan Getz. This reunion album, The Best of Two Worlds, also features first-rate jazz personnel like drummer Billy Hart, bassist Steve Swallow and percussionist Airto Moreira. It’s just one of Gilberto’s excellent post-’60s LPs — see also: ’81’s Brasil, with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethânia — obscured by his bossa-craze contributions.

“Wave” (2004)

Gilberto’s reputation as a taxing eccentric goes way back. Enjoy this early-career anecdote from the late critic and songsmith Gene Lees: “[Jobim] and I went to the kitchen and he poured Scotch for both of us. I remember standing by the refrigerator with him when he said, ‘I’m crazy, but he’ — indicating João in the other room — ‘is more crazy.’”

Concert producers and live-sound engineers who dealt with him have plenty of stories for the bar, and live reviewers sometimes had their work cut out for them. But he also wasn’t called “O Mito” (the legend) for nothing. Gilberto had a history of turning hallowed rooms like Carnegie Hall into house concerts, and this golden take on Jobim’s “Wave,” recorded live in Tokyo in 2003, argues for those nights when Gilberto liked what we heard in the monitors.

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