Bossa nova from a different beach
No, you’re right, that isn’t Ipanema or Copacabana. It’s the seafront at Aldeburgh in Suffolk, in a picture taken by me this afternoon, a couple of hours before the Flipside festival of Brazilian culture began just up the road at Snape Maltings, with a concert devoted to the origins and techniques of the bossa nova.
I made the 250-mile round trip from London in order to see Paula Morelenbaum, who is not only my favourite Brazilian singer but one of my favourite singers irrespective of nationality. I discovered her by accident in 2004, when I was loitering in the CD section of a Lisbon department store, browsing the content of their listening posts. I’d never heard of Morelenbaum, but her album Berimbaum caught my ear from the opening half-dozen bars, and it’s been probably my most played disc of the past 10 years.
It’s a recital of a dozen songs written by the great Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes, either by himself or in collaboration with others, including Tom Jobim, Baden Powell and Carlos Lyra. What’s different about the project — apart from the obvious matter of Morelenbaum’s voice, which has all the coolness of better known Brazilian female singers, but with just a little more expression and a whole lot more musicality — is the way her producers and musicians, including Antonio Pinto (who wrote the soundtrack for Senna), Leo Gandelman, Celso Fonseca and her husband, the cellist and arranger Jacques Morelenbaum, apply modern techniques, particularly those of trip-hop, to these well known songs. It infuses them with new vibrancy, as you’ll hear if you spend just seven minutes listening to these extracts from four of the tracks.
Tonight’s concert was something different: an intimate masterclass in the work of Jobim and de Moraes, 20 compositions performed either in part or in full by Morelenbaum with the pianist-singer Jose Miguel Wisniak and the guitarist Arthur Nestrovski, who analysed them for they could tell us about why bossa nova was so different, so refreshing, when it appeared half a century ago. So “Desafinado” was deconstructed for its artful dissonances, “Garota de Ipanema” for the meaning of the contrast between its crisp main melody and its legato bridge, “Gabriela” for the way Jobim manufactured an entire melody out of a simple C-major scale, “Samba de Uma Nota So” for its minimalistic brilliance, and the ever-astonishing “Aguas de Marco” for the meaningful tension between Jobim’s almost absurdly simple diatonic melody and the undercurrent of emotion implied by a descending chromatic bass line.
Wisnik, a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of Sao Paulo, gave his explanations in Portuguese, translated by Nestrovski, who has degrees in music from York University and literature from Iowa State, is now the artistic director of the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra. Sitting between them, the black-gowned Morelenbaum simply sang.
Just when it seemed that the evening might be getting a little too didactic, Wisnik played a Chopin prelude that mutated seamlessly into a full performance of “Insensatez”, revealing not just the source of Jobim’s inspiration but the power behind the perfect restraint of Morelenbaum’s delivery. “Amor em Paz”, better known to most of us as “Once I Loved”, needed no explanation and was the evening’s highlight. Or maybe that was the quick-witted medley of “Consolacao” and “Berimbau”. Anyway, it was all good, and greatly enjoyed by an audience including the guitarist Phil Manzanera, the poet Blake Morrison and the novelist Ian McEwan.
“That was the best lecture I’ve ever been to,” the photographer Eamonn McCabe said, which just about summed it up.