Anyone who knows me fairly well also knows that the music I listen to almost exclusively in the summer months is Brazilian bossa nova, that mellow jazz style that evokes, to me, images of lounging in a hammock strung between two palm trees on a sandy beach. I’ve shared a number of videos by Brazilian artists on my Facebook page through the years, hoping to spread the word, and the joy, of this (mostly) tranquil music. It’s the middle of winter as I write this, usually a time when I’ve put bossa nova into hibernation for several months, yet I’ve got that music on my mind today.
So, here, while I’m neither a true expert nor a musician, I offer a bit of history, plus 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 Rio de Janeiro the late 1950s, having descended from established South American styles such as samba and salsa. But bossa nova developed as a mellower, more quietly sensual cousin, replacing samba’s harder-edged percussion with the use of shakers and soft brushes on the drums for most arrangements. The lead instruments most often include a gently-strummed or picked nylon-string classical guitar, piano, and flute or saxophone. Of course, there are many variations of arrangements, instrument choices, and tempo, but it isn’t difficult 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 — Jobim as an arranger and record 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 collaborator with lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, Jobim quickly established his reputation as a songwriter. 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 know them if you heard them.
A compilation album, The Legendary Joao Gilberto, contains all of these original recordings, spanning between 1958-’61 (and is available on CD). Many other top singers and musicians in Brazil were soon contributing to the genre.
By the early and mid-1960s, Sergio Mendes had moved to the U.S. and continued his recording career great success, while several Amercian jazz musicians, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Charlie Byrd, and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, caught 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 often failed to give due credit for bossa nova to their innovative Brazilian counterparts).
Being a purist, my bossa nova collection consists almost solely of Brazilian artists, and some of these albums contain not a speck of English, which is just fine with me. I love the sound of Portuguese being sung (the consonants, to my ears, somehow take on a pleasantly soft, smooth sound, perhaps more-so than when spoken).
The writing collaboration between Jobim and de Moraes drifted over time, and de Moraes died in 1980. Jobim proved himself to be quite the poetic lyricist himself. Always a passionate nature 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; a few simple, repetitive notes coupled with lyrics that basically list many of the little things we rarely notice that make up life. Music historians and critics have called it “his masterpiece” and “his most perfect composition,” and it is still my favorite song of all time, without question.
“The Waters of March” has been covered hundreds of times by artists all over the world, but to me, the definitive version appears on the album Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’88 (released in 1978).
While bossa nova began to lose favor in the mainstream by the late ’60s and early ’70s, many up & coming singers and musicians, with a deep devotion to the style, and to Jobim in particular, kept the genre alive. A still younger generation kept the tradition strong through the ’80s, and all the way into the 21st century.
These include, in no particular order; Jorge Ben, Oscar Castro-Neves, Djavan, Leila Pinheiro, Ana Caram, Eliane Elias, and Celso Fonseca. Jobim honored his disciple and student Caram by accompanying her on some of her renditions of his classics for her 1989 debut album, Rio After Dark(Jobim died in 1994 from complications following heart surgery).
Elias is sort of a Brazilian Diana Krall, i.e. a world-class jazz pianist with a soft, soothing voice and tremendous respect for her musical predecessors. She, like Ana Caram, has recorded several albums consisting only of Jobim’s compositions, offering her personal interpretations of them.
Even pop singer Basia, born and raised in Poland, and whose early ’90s hit “Time and Tide” established her in America, is a devoted fan of bossa nova. 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 with pianist Danny White, and her albums are chock full of their tasteful bossa nova arrangements (she has covered “The Waters of March” as well). Her former band, Matt Bianco, led by British singer Mark Reilly, also consistently includes songs of the unmistakable bossa nova influence in their work.
All of the albums by the above artists are available at Amazon.com (I’ll leave that downloading stuff to the millennials — I like being able to hold an artist’s work in my two hands). And there are so many more recordings I can recommend — feel free to contact me for details) — but I’ll close for now, and, on this chilly winter day, probably indulge in some bossa nova, and dream of those gently-swaying coconut palms.
Until next time…