Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Chega de saudade, Joãozinho

Last Saturday João Gilberto passed away at age 88, of natural causes, at his home in Rio de Janeiro. Contrary to his reputation of being a recluse and despite his age, only four days earlier he had gone out for dinner with his partner and his attorney, a rather central figure in his life of late.

Since his passing, the outpour of love and recognition from all over the world for the singer and guitarist has been overwhelming. Part of it is due to João's public visibility thanks to his success in the USA in the early 1960s—I'm sure I'm not the only one to play Getz/Gilberto, a sensational record, from track #2 onwards, skipping “The Girl from Ipanema”.

But beyond fame—the one aspect Brazil's current president was able to acknowledge—what made João special? In jazz terms, he was to bossa nova what Charlie Parker was to bebop.

The massive success of bossa nova and its turning into a fad—the only way a “bossa nova fridge” can be explained—may obscure the exuberant riches of Brazilian music. From the outside looking in, bossa may seem the absolute apex of their music; it may be so, but it is not a solitary tree in vast plain, but a tall one in a rich jungle which encompasses everything from Pixinguinha's choros to whatever erupts from Hermeto Pascoal's fertile mind. João was unique, but didn't come from a void: fellow singer Caetano Veloso, for one, puts him in the lineage of Dorival Caymmi and Orlando Silva.

Bossa's popularity is closely tied to the relationship of this music with the US. While this brought about an unprecedented commercial success, and a cultural impact outside Brazil only comparable to Carmen Miranda two decades earlier, it also confused things with titles such as Bossa Nova: New Brazilian Jazz (the infamous Carnegie Hall concert of 1962) or Jazz/Samba (Stan Getz's record with Charlie Byrd), and “critical” descriptions like Joachim E. Berendt's mix of “sambas with cool jazz”. Claus Schreiner's Musica Brasileira elaborates on this, but suffice to say that bossa nova is not a fusion of samba and jazz.

In the mid-1950s, Brazil lived a sweet moment of national pride, with Juscelino Kubitschek as president, the building of a new capital and the work of its architect Oscar Niemeyer, and a group of composers and poets which included Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Morães. One of the works by these two was called “Chega de Saudade”, enough of saudade, of yearning, of melancholy.

As the story goes, although João was liked by some musicians, he was not favoured by the movers and shakers in the industry. When Jobim, pianist, composer and arranger, managed to have the song recorded for the first time, it was sung by Elizete Cardoso, with a group including João on guitar. This was made around March 1958. Interestingly for us, there are parts where Cardoso is accompanied solely by João's guitar.

Not long after that, vocal group Os Cariocas were going to record it when a member of the group came across João, told him that he hadn't managed to learn the rhythm on the guitar, and asked him to show him. Instead, João offered to play it on the record, anonymously.

Discussions about the first recording of a musical genre are generally pointless. However, these two takes on this song illustrate how radical João's role was in establishing the new genre. Yes, it came from samba, but the concept, the approach to singing, the enunciation, the rhythmic tensions between vocals and guitar—which in time would reach ridiculous levels of virtuosity—were all his.

Almost with the same band as in Cardoso's record, this is João doing the first track of his solo career, which would be released as a single, and later would become track 1 on side A of his first LP. João, with the indispensable Jobim on piano and Milton Banana on drums, finished this track 61 years ago today, on July 10, 1958.

After this, there would be three LPs, Chega de Saudade, O Amor, o sorriso, è a flor, and the eponymous João Gilberto. Then, success in the USA, fame, prestige. In his music, a deepening of his convictions regarding sound and execution, with a growing rhythmic elasticity between his voice and his guitar, with his voice seemingly rushing to end the verses and leave room to his metronomic chords.

Those three albums, plus an EP with three versions of songs from Marcel Camus's film Orfeu Negro, all done for the Brazilian branch of Odeon, i. e., EMI, show him establishing the blueprint, in terms of execution and repertoire, for bossa nova, which is not just one rhythm, but an approach, softer than samba, with more sparse instrumentation and more surrealistic lyrics, even to the point of self-reference. Originally a parody by Jobim and Newton Mendonça of second-rate singers, João's second release, “Desafinado” can also be taken as a defense against some of the criticisms he had to stand, accusations of being “out of tune”, which are “immensely hurtful”, vindicating that “this is bossa nova, this is very natural” and that “in the chest of desafinados' there beats a heart too”. In another example of metatext, also by Jobim and Mendonça, “Samba de Uma Nota Só”, which contrasts static melody—one note—against moving harmonies and vice versa, while the lyrics describe what the music is doing.

At the beginning I said that João's attorneys have played a central role in his last years. Besides stories about cancelled concerts in 2011 for which significant advances had been payed, and the rifts between relatives, partners present and past, and his offspring, those seminal three albums have been at the centre of a long-standing dispute between João and EMI, now Universal. As I've said elsewhere, the result is that we don't have an official edition of this music. If it happens, an effort should be made to unearth footage like this.

João Gilberto was a special man in many ways, and all the legal and personal quarrels in his last years were something he didn't need. No more blues. Chega de saudade, Joãozinho.

How to listen to João Gilberto, 1958-1961

  • The “official”, out of print CD The Legendary João Gilberto (O Mito in Brazil) released in 1990 included the three LPs plus the three songs from Black Orpheus, with “A Felicidade” and “O Nosso Amor” together in a medley.
  • As part of a vast Brazilian music series, Él/Cherry Red did the first CD reissues in years of this music, breaking down the Black Orpheus medley back to its original, separate form. By doing it over three CDs (ACMEM179CD, ACMEM201CD, ACMEM223CD), they also included a lot of contemporary music relevant to João's work, providing context and thus highlighting his uniqueness.
  • There's also The Warm World of João Gilberto (Ubatuqui, UBCD 314), which carries the same music, including the medley, plus an alternative take of “Este seu olhar”, from the third LP, originally included in the US version of the Atlantic LP Boss of the Bossa Nova (USA, 1962).
  • The Master of the Bossa Nova (Malanga 400147) does not have the alternative “Este seu olhar” but carries “A Felicidade” and “O Nosso Amor” in two tracks.
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