Whispers heard worldwide: The story of João Gilberto and bossa nova - GulfToday

Whispers heard worldwide: The story of João Gilberto and bossa nova

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Brazilian musician João Gilberto, 77, acknowledges the audience during his presentation late at night on August 24, 2008 at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro. Photographer: Ari Versiani/AFP.

Randall Roberts

In 1964, collaborative effort ‘Getz/Gilberto’, featuring the breakout hit ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, won the album of the year trophy and turned a saxophonist and an intensely private Brazilian singer-guitarist into an unlikely hit-making duo.

The British Invasion gets all the ink, but that year, as the Beatles were upending pop culture, jazz hit-maker Stan Getz  and  Brazilian bossa nova innovator João Gilber stormed the Grammy Awards and the American charts.

Gilberto's death at age 88 was announced last weekend through the Facebook page of the musician's son, João Marcelo Gilberto. The son offered no details on Gilberto's death.

Over a seven-decade career, the guitarist's quick, liquid acoustic chords hit with a smooth but percussive energy, and coupled with his subtly expressive voice, transformed the music of his country and helped spread the sound across the world.

One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Gilberto and his peer and collaborator Antonio Carlos Jobim helped create and popularise bossa nova, a toned-down and romanticised take on Brazilian samba music. "He could read a newspaper and sound good," Miles Davis once said of Gilberto's tone.

As much a feeling as a set of musical rules, Gilberto's aesthetic has resonated in the work of artists including Caetano Veloso, Sade, Gal Costa, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Stereolab, Seu Jorge and pretty much every Brazilian songwriter since 1960. Gilberto's daughter Bebel has been a guiding force in carrying bossa nova into a new electronic century.

 

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Relatives and friends of late Brazilian musician JoãGilberto attend as musicians perform during his wake in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photographer: Ian Cheibub/AFP.

If it's true that some cultures are just better at making music, Brazil's reputation was solidified when Gilberto and Jobim, both then based in Rio de Janeiro, joined forces in the late 1950s. Born 1,930 kilometres north in the province of Bahia, Gilberto was first drawn to the guitar at age 15.

In 1958, he recorded ‘Chega de Saudade’, a mesmerising Jobim-penned crooner. Never much of a songwriter himself, Gilberto, then in his late 20s, regularly tapped Jobim's work. That symbiotic musical relationship defined a movement, and along the way, bossa nova integrated itself into the global conversation in much the same way rock 'n' roll did.

The difference? Where Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley upped the tempo, attitude and energy, Gilberto and Jobim soothed and seduced their way onto dance floors.

Rather than building Carmen Miranda-esque samba wildfires of big beat percussion to propel loud, expressive singers, Gilberto lighted a few candles and channelled the breathy tones of Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, as well as successful Brazilian singers Lucio Alves and Dick Farney. His success earned him a US deal with Capitol Records in 1960.

Samba and bossa nova had already worked its way into American jazz by then, mostly through the efforts of musicians Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Byrd. By the end of 1962, bossa nova had been cited by Life magazine as "fast becoming a US rage."

 ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ was a beguiling pop song wrapped inside a cool jazz number. Sung by Gilberto's then-wife, Astrud, the song marvels on the titular girl as she strolls along the beach. "When she walks, she's like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle."

"Showing an utter lack of artifice, he sings as if trying out each tune in the silence of his living room."

That cool and gentle swing was the calling card for ‘Getz/Gilberto’. Featuring Jobim adding sparse counter melodies and accents on piano and Gilberto's longtime drummer Milton Banana tapping out barely audible cymbal and tom-tom patterns, its eight songs defined a universe.

The Jobim-penned ‘Desafinado’ became Gilberto's calling card. "Que isto e bossa-nova, isto e muito natural," he sings, defining his music as "natural" while characterising himself as the outcast. He sings as if whispering the words into a lover's ear.

"The singular essence of João Gilberto is his capacity for understatement in dealing, not with jazz, but with superior popular songs," jazz writer Feather wrote in The Times of a 1967 performance at UCLA. "Showing an utter lack of artifice, he sings as if trying out each tune in the silence of his living room."

A perfectionist and contrarian who seldom granted interviews, Gilberto in concert was notable for the meditative beauty of his voice and his fierce devotion to sound quality.

In 2003, he cut short a much-anticipated performance at the Hollywood Bowl due to his dissatisfaction with the microphones. The Times reviewer described the incident as "yet another instalment in the long list of eccentric episodes associated with an artist almost as well known for his unpredictability as for the quality of his music."

That unpredictability could frustrate audiences, but the artist had his reasons: "To understand and be understood is a kind of peace," Gilberto wrote in the ‘Getz/Gilberto’ liner notes, adding that he found "great peace in real communication with another person."

Gilberto's musical communiques were as real as his guitar, and provided peace to millions.

Tribune News Service