Saturday, January 29, 2011

João Gilberto, EMI, and us

(El texto en español está aquí)

One of many singular aspects of the 20th century, is what happened to popular music. It could be said that, from a traditional or folk form of expression, it got more and more sophisticated artistically while still keeping some of its folk qualities. While that tension was kept – until sometime in the second half of last century – a great treasure trove of jazz and pop was created and, some of it, preserved. Personally, I think what we know as "bossa nova" fits that picture perfectly.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of João Gilberto's first recording of "Chega de Saudade", and commented on the deadlock between the singer/guitarist and EMI, the owner of the master tapes of Gilberto's first three albums. The result is us not having a proper, readily available, way to enjoy a masterpiece.

In 1990 EMI did a reissue with all three albums crammed in one CD. Apparently Gilberto was not consulted and was subsequently unhappy for the sound quality and other liberties taken, such as combining "O Nosso Amor" and "A Felicidade" into a medley (which is debatable, although it does make sense: those two tracks were not in the original LPs, both are versions of tunes from the film Black Orpheus, and both are the only ones to feature a batucada). That CD (O mito in Brazil, The Legendary... in the rest of the world) was removed by a court order in 1997 and since then Gilberto and EMI have not reached an agreement.

This year not only marks the singer's 80th birthday (June 10th), but also all this music's becoming public domain in Europe. From EMI's point of view, this can be quite discouraging, but I truly think that a reissue, carefully done, can beat whatever whoever does with other sources. So far, UK label él records have released the first two albums, on individual CDs, and the results are pretty good, to be fair. The sound is not perfect, possibly taken from clean LPs, but still better than the 1990 EMI; the liner notes are informative and they have added relevant extra tracks, versions of Gilberto's songs by other artists.

One of the good things about those extra tracks, is that they provide a neat picture of Gilberto's impact when his “Chega de saudade” came out. Judging from Elizete Cardoso's earlier version of “Chega...”, which was the original and had already part of Jobim's classic arrangement, Gilberto's singing and playing must have been a real shocker! From our point of view, we may think that all the criticisms of being out of tune or just plain weird were made by extremely narrow-minded people. I think they can only be accused of not knowing how to react to something really new (and we owe them the inspiration for “Desafinado”, after all).

The music in those three LPs is pure magic. It's one of the best examples of music as a moving force, and one of the summits of 20th century popular music, bar none. The tragedy is that there are many people in the world today who have NEVER heard it.

That's why I think that Mr. Gilberto and EMI should try to reach an agreement and do this properly. If the three albums don't fit in a CD (I think they actually do, even with “... Nosso Amor” and “... Felicidade” as single tracks) they should do a 2-CD set, with pristine remastering, a big fat booklet explaining who are these guys (Gilberto, Jobim, de Moraes, etc.)

A friend, also a music lover, asked me the other day: “But would it sell?”

It will. It has to.

In the meantime, and if you're on Facebook, you're welcome to "like" this page. It'll cost you nothing, and you may be contributing to a worthy cause.


"Brigas, nunca mais"
(Jobim, de Moraes)

João Gilberto, vocals and guitar
Edmundo Maciel, trombone
Antonio Carlos Jobim, piano and arrangements
Milton Banana, drums
Rubens Bassini, percussion
plus strings

January 23, 1959

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