- - Friday, July 12, 2019


Last Sunday, the world lost Brazilian music legend João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira, known professionally as just João Gilberto. He was 88 when he passed and had been living for many years in the Leblon section of Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Sul area. His family reported that he had been in declining health in recent years.

Mr. Gilberto’s voice is well-known to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Brazil’s famous late 1950s-60s Bossa Nova musical style. In his career he made endless recordings of the songs written by his Brazilian contemporaries, most notably those of the composer, poet and maestro, Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim. The most famous which are his many renditions of Jobim’s most famous hit, “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl From Ipanema”).

If anyone has ever heard Mr. Gilberto performance of this song, it is likely to be the 1963 version he recorded along with his wife at the time, Astrud, and the American jazz saxophonist, Stan Getz. This recording, which awakened the American music scene to the existence of Brazil’s Bossa Nova style of jazz and made Gilberto immortal in the music world, begins with him singing the complete lyrics in the original Portuguese.

Astrud then picks up the tune, but singing the English verses written by Norman Gimbel. It was the use of both the original Portuguese and English lyrics in the same recording that made it almost an iconic musical piece outside of Brazil. Almost forty years later, Astrud would record “Desafinado,” another Bossa Nova song made famous by Gilberto and included on the same Getz/Gilberto album, with the late George Michael and with both of them singing in Portuguese this time.

Recorded in 1963, the Getz/Gilberto album’s release was delayed a year due to the hesitation by the US album producer. The inclusion of the famous Rio de Janeiro landmarks “Ipanema” and “Corcovado” or other Portuguese phraseology like “Só Danço Samba” unfamiliar to the American ear in the song titles, it was feared, would make the album a total flop.

No one was more surprised that the exact opposite is actually what happened – that these and other Portuguese terms became engraved in popular culture - than Jobim himself. He was the composer of the music of the majority of the titles on this album in particular and in today’s Bossa Nova library of hits in general.

With the lyrics often supplied by the former diplomat and poet, Marcus Vinicius da Cruz e Mello Moraes, the two achieved a kind of magically prolific musical partnership. Referred to as “the Brazilian Gershwin,” Jobim wrote more than 700 songs in his career, many of them originally interpreted and recorded by Gilberto.

In a 1992 Brazilian TV documentary titled “Joao & Antonio” that was filmed not long before his death a quarter of a century ago, Jobim discussed how unexpected it was that the songs that he and Vinicius de Moraes wrote - and to which Gilberto lent his unique style – became internationally known hits.

The songs were melodies “that we wrote about local places [in Rio],” he said as he sat at his Yamaha concert grand piano in his spacious home in Rio;s Jardim Botanico and lit up a Havana cigar. “We never dreamed that these names would end up being famous all over the world.”

The story of how Gilberto and Jobim’s destinies became intertwined goes back to 1958, six years before the album with Getz that would propel him onto the world stage. In that year, Gilberto released his first hit single, also written by Jobim, titled “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”).

The definitive historical work on this period of Brazilian jazz takes its title from this famous song. The book “Chega de Saudade: A História e As Histórias da Bossa Nova” (the English-language title is “Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World”), is written by the Brazilian journalist and writer Ruy Castro, who describes the impact that this first Bossa Nova hit single had. It was “the 1 minute and 59 seconds that changed everything.”

The song was a breakout hit and the first composition where Gilberto revealed his unique style as a “new beat on guitar.” The rhythmic patterns of the music and lyrics and his guitar chords alternated in a new almost syncopated performance. The result was, as Jobim described in the same TV documentary decades later, was “som contínuo (continuous sound) – like the sea.”

That analogy was how many in the international jazz community came to describe the style that Gilberto had invented. It was the type of musical technique that “one could float on” said the famous Henry Mancini, to the point where it allows the use of impossible melodies.

It is “Garota de Ipanema,” which is the song that is universally identified as the one perfect signature example of the sound of Bossa Nova. The number of places in the past decades where I have heard some version of it playing over a music system in a public place is endless — from a McDonald’s just outside of Moscow to the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Chengdu, China. For years the song traded places with Yesterday by the Beatles as the most recorded song in the world – and it is performed endlessly in the four corners of the earth beyond Brazil.

Other than the unique rhythmic style of playing and interpretation of Bossa Nova melodies, Gilberto himself brought a special style to his performances. He had a method of blending his vocals with his guitar chords, and Castro describes Gilberto’s voice as a trombone “of the highest precision. He made each syllable fall on every chord as if the two had originated together.” He played in one speed and sang in another. He sounded as if he was singing barely above the level of a whisper, and yet his voice could project over the cacophonous din of a room full of party goers.

Gilberto toured and recorded into the 21st century but was forced to retire from public performances in his later years due to health problems. Even when he was still active on the music scene his lifestyle made that of the average hermit seem like a social butterfly by comparison. The dozen or more years when I was living for months at a time in Rio, articles were written about him that described him as rarely venturing beyond his doorstep. He subsisted on food that he would ring up to be brought in from one of the same two or three restaurants every day.

Eccentric, difficult to work with and otherwise seeming to live in his own world even in his heyday, he sadly carried on in this isolated manner in his later years. So much so, that he never really contributed to a 21st century project of collecting the entire body of musical works of Jobim into a comprehensive history of the Bossa Nova years.

In 2001 I spoke with Jobim’s eldest son, Paulo, who had painstakingly arranged all of his father’s compositions into a collected five volumes of sheet music scores accompanied by photos, interviews and other anecdotes with those artists who were active in that period. I asked him why Gilberto was not among those who had contributed.

“Ringing him to try to find some time to meet with him – well it’s like gambling,” he told me. “Sometimes João answers, sometimes he does not. Perhaps you can contact him and organize some time to meet with him on a Wednesday, but then that morning he rings you and tells you ‘oh I did not sleep at all last night and I am just wiped out today’ and eventually you have to move on and finish the project.”

In this manner, the rich catalogue of memories that he could have contributed to a re-telling of one of the most exciting and pivotal moments in the history of jazz were lost. What he does leave us are decades of recordings that carry his own special stamp and which no one has ever been able to imitate.

Reuben F. Johnson is a political and military affairs correspondent residing in Kiev, Ukraine, who also resided for more than a decade in Rio de Janeiro.

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