Anyone who knows me fairly well also knows that the music I listen to almost exclusively in the summer is Brazilian bossa nova–a mellow jazz style that evokes images of lounging in a hammock strung between two palm trees on a sandy beach. I’ve even shared a number of videos by Brazilian artists on my Facebook page through the years, hoping to spread the word. Here, while I’m neither an expert nor a musician, I’ll offer a bit of history and a few recommendations, in case you might be so inclined to add bossa nova to your music collection (sorry, hammock and palm trees not included).
Bossa nova (rough translation: New Wave), first appeared in the late 1950s, descended from established South American styles such as samba and salsa. But bossa nova arrived as the mellower, more quietly sensual musical cousin, deliberately replacing samba’s harder-edged percussion with soft brushes on the drums, and shakers. The lead instruments most often include a gently-strummed or picked nylon-string classical guitar, piano, and flute or saxophone. Of course, there have always been variations in arrangements, instrumentation choices, and tempo, but it doesn’t take long to identify true bossa nova and distinguish it from its musical relatives.
The men who can be considered the “inventors” of bossa nova, composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto, lived in Rio de Janeiro–Jobim as an arranger and producer, Gilberto as a musician in jazz clubs–when they recorded the first-ever bossa nova hit song and album, Chega de Saudade, in 1958.
As a musician, composer (with lyricist and Brazil’s cultural diplomat Vinicius de Moraes) and producer/arranger, Jobim quickly established his reputation. Other hits from these early years that would soon become standards include “One Note Samba,” “Desinfinado,” “Corcovado,” and, of course, “The Girl From Ipanema.” You might not know them all by name, but chances are good you’d recognize them if you heard them.
A compilation album, The Legendary Joao Gilberto, contains all of these original recordings, spanning between 1958-’61 (and available on CD). Many other top singers and musicians in Brazil were soon contributing to the genre, Sergio Mendes becoming the best-known in America.
By the early and mid-1960s, several American jazz musicians, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Charlie Byrd, and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, had gotten wind of bossa nova, and began making their own recordings in the genre, both with and without Jobim or Gilberto by their side. Unfortunately, some of these individuals rarely gave proper credit for bossa nova to their innovative Brazilian counterparts. Being a purist, my bossa nova collection consists solely of Brazilian artists, and some of these albums contain not a speck of English. But the Portuguese consonants somehow take on a pleasantly soft, mellow sound when sung (unlike Spanish, which to me sounds harsh and chattering).
Jobim and de Moraes began working more independently of each other, and with other collaborators, in the ’70s. De Moraes died in 1980, while Jobim continued writing, recording, and performing. Always a passionate environmentalist and conservationist, he wrote and recorded “The Waters of March” in 1974–music and lyrics, in both Portuguese and English. The song is a celebration of nature; brilliant in its simplicity, it consisting of little more than a few, repetitive notes coupled with lyrics that basically list many of the little things we rarely notice that make up life. It has been called “his masterpiece” and “his most perfect composition” by music historians, and is still my favorite song of all time (yes, including the songs of the Beatles).
It has been covered hundreds of times by artists all over the world, but to me, the definitive version was recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’88 for their album Brasil ’88 (released in 1978). The band recorded the song on an earlier album as well, but this version achieves absolute perfection. You can hear it here, in the clip posted below.
While bossa nova began to lose favor in the mainstream by the late ’60s and early ’70s, many up & coming singers and musicians, boasting a deep devotion to Jobim in particular, were determined to keep the genre alive. Throughout the ’80s and beyond, this younger generation carried on the tradition, and they continue to do so today. They include Jorge Ben, Oscar Castro-Neves, Djavan, Leila Pinheiro,
Ana Caram, Elaine Elias, and Celso Fonseca. Jobim honored his disciple and student Caram on her debut album by playing on some of her renditions of his classics (he died in 1994 from complications following heart surgery).
Eliane Elias is a sort of Brazilian Diana Krall, i.e. a world-class jazz pianist with a soft, sensual voice and tremendous respect for her musical predecessors. She, like Ana Caram, has recorded several albums, some consisting only of Jobim’s songs, featuring her unique interpretations of them.
Even the pop singer Basia, born and raised in Poland, and whose early ’90s hit “Time and Tide” established her in America, is a devoted bossa nova fan. She lists Astrud Gilberto, former wife of Joao and original singer of “The Girl From Ipanema,” as one of her singing heroines.
Basia co-writes her own songs, and her albums are chock full of her and collaborator Danny White’s tasteful bossa nova arrangements (she covered “The Waters of March” as well).
By the way, the albums by all of the artists I’ve mentioned are available at Amazon.com, so they’re not as tricky to find as you might think.
There are so many more recordings I can recommend (feel free to contact me for details), but for now, here are two video clips: a 1986 visit with Jobim by Today Show host Jane Pauley (not as cringe-inducing as I expected it to be), and the audio track of the aforementioned Brasil ’88 version of “Waters of March.” Now if you’ll excuse me while I head out into the summer sun with bossa nova on my iPod, and mentally replacing the New Jersey maple trees here with gently swaying cocoanut palms.
Until next week…