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Posts from the ‘Bossa Nova’ Category

Astrud (& Gil)

By the time Astrud Gilberto got to sing with Gil Evans, the great arranger had slowed his pace of working. Eventually he would take as long to compose eight bars as some writers took to complete a symphony, but in 1965 he was still able to write 11 arrangements to order for the singer who had shot to unexpected, almost accidental fame with “The Girl from Ipanema” alongside Stan Getz the previous year.

Those 11 pieces, however, amounted to less than 25 minutes of music — enough for one side of a 12-inch LP. Creed Taylor, supervising the album for Verve Records, knew all about Gil’s working habits, having produced two of his classics, Out of the Cool in 1961 and Individualism in 1964. Probably in desperation, he hired the reliable Al Cohn to arrange two more songs which padded the album out to a total of 32 minutes: 15 minutes on one side, 17 on the other, barely respectable.

But you don’t weight the value of Evans’s music with a set of scales, and there were sublime moments on the album, titled Look to the Rainbow and released in 1966. The opening track, “Berimbau”, featured Dom Um Romao — later to join Weather Report — on the eponymous single-string percussion instrument. “Once Upon a Summertime” is a gorgeous ballad that Evans had arranged for Miles Davis on the Quiet Nights album three years earlier (another LP that had to be bulked out, this time with a six-minute quintet track). “A Felicidade” has Evans finding subtle colours to accompany Tom Jobim’s song: listen to the opening unisons and momentary dissonances in the writing for brass and woodwind, and wonder at the combinations. And “I Will Wait For You” is the diaphanous highlight: Evans in excelsis, featuring one of those moments in which he prepared the ground with exquisite care for an incoming improviser, in this case the trumpeter Johnny Coles, one of his favourite soloists.

Astrud wasn’t a great singer, or even a good one in a technical sense; what she had was a presence that transferred itself to tape, apparent to everyone who heard “The Girl from Ipanema” for the first time in 1964, cherishing its evocation of a certain sun-splashed insouciance that suited the times.

When I heard the news today of her death at the age of 83, I thought immediately of my friend George Taylor, who died a couple of years ago. It was George who bought “The Girl from Ipanema” and The Astrud Gilberto Album when they were brand-new, for us to listen to with our girlfriends on warm summer evenings.

* You can get an expanded CD of Look to the Rainbow on Amazon for practically nothing these days. If anyone knows who took the lovely portrait above, I’d be grateful for the information.

Lio sings Caymmi


Every now and then an album wanders in and becomes part of the furniture, always there in times of need. Lio Canta Caymmi, an album of songs by the Brazilian composer Dorival Caymmi interpreted by the Portuguese singer Lio, seems likely to become one of those.

Curiously, its predecessors for me include two albums of Brazilian music by female singers: The Astrud Gilberto Album from 1965 and Paula Morelenbaum’s Berimbaum from 2004. It’ll take a couple of years before I can be sure that Lio Canta Caymmi shares their status, but on the basis of a few weeks’ listening to an advance copy, I’ve got a feeling that it will.

The album was the idea of Jacques Duvall, a French lyricist who has worked with Lio and many other artists. Caymmi, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, was a key figure in the establishment of Brazilian popular music in the twentieth century. Although not as well known outside Brazil as Tom Jobim, his songs — many of them written in his twenties — helped lay the foundations for the arrival of bossa nova in the 1960s. Duvall enlisted the aid of his compatriot Christophe Vandeputte to create new settings that employ modest means — guitar, accordion, bass, drums, percussion, the occasional wash of synthesised strings  — with great sensitivity.

Lio — born Vanda Maria Ribeiro Furtado Tavares de Vasconcelos in Lisbon — was a pop star in France and Belgium in the 1980s before becoming a film actress. Her earlier musical collaborators included Telex, Sparks and John Cale, but the extroversion apparent on YouTube clips from those days is held in check here. Her delivery of lovely songs such as “Tão Só” and “É Doce Morrer No Mar” (also a favourite of the late, great Cesária Évora) is restrained and unaffected, allowing the gentle, beautifully shaped melodies to shine through, along with the extra verse in French tacked on to each of the original Portuguese lyrics by Duvall. The arrangements include the occasional surprise: the beach sounds and laughter prefacing “Sábado em Copacabana”, a dab of organ making a late entry to underpin the delicate funky groove of “Nunca Mais”, hand-drums animating the humming bossa of “Samba da Minha Terra”.

Nothing here is going to rearrange your life, but it forms a graceful, imaginatively conceived and beautifully executed tribute to a great figure in Brazilian culture. And when you want to let a little sunlight into the room, it might be just the thing.

* Lio Canta Caymmi is released on March 30 by Crammed Discs. The photograph of Lio is by Jane Who.

The Waters of March

Joao GilbertoSince Rio de Janeiro is the focus of a lot of the world’s attention at the moment, and since I’ve just watched The Girl from Ipanema: Brazil, Bossa Nova and the Beach, the cumbersomely titled but otherwise mostly pleasant BBC4 programme presented by Katie Derham, it feels like a good time to alert you to the version of Tom Jobim’s “Águas de Março” performed by João Gilberto on Getz/Gilberto ’76, a newly discovered set of 40-year-old live recordings from San Francisco’s Keystone Korner released a month or two ago on the Resonance label.

It wouldn’t take much to persuade me to argue the case for “Águas de Março” — in English, “The Waters of March” — being not just the greatest song of the bossa nova era, or even the greatest Brazilian song ever written, but one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. The way Gilberto sings it on this album makes that seem even less of an outrageous claim.

Jobim’s song is a list of things: just things. It starts with things you might find flushed out by Brazil’s autumn rains. Naturally, it sounds better in the frictionless Portuguese spoken and sung by Brazilians: “É o pau, é a pedra, é o fim do camino / É um resto de toco, é um pouch sozinho / É um caco de vidro, é a vida, é o sol / É a noite, é a morte, é um laço, é o anozl / É peroba no campo, é o nó da madeira / Caingá candeia, é o matita-pereira…” But here’s the composer’s own English translation: “A stick, a stone, it’s the end of the road / It’s the rest of a stump, it’s a little alone / It’s a sliver of glass, it is life, it’s the sun / It is night, it is death, it’s a trap, it’s a gun / The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush / A knot in the wood, the song of a thrush…” And it opens out to encompass what sounds like the entire human condition. “It’s the wind blowing free, it’s the end of slope / It’s a beam, it’s a void, it’s a hunch, it’s a hope…” The images and thoughts skip by on a snatch of melody, repetition building a hypnotic momentum, the harmonies descending beneath it like a stream running between rocks.

Here’s a famous and lovely version of the song, done as a duet by the composer and the great Elis Regina. But it’s completely shaded by João Gilberto, for whose six-minute version — accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and Stan Getz’s rhythm team, the bassist Clint Houston and the drummer Billy Hart — I can’t provide a link. Gilberto’s phrasing is a marvel of conversational subtlety, full of understated but astonishing little details: sudden pauses, skips, rhythmic elisions, and seemingly infinite ways of attacking an initial consonant or shaping a vowel. You’ll just have to get the album. And you should.

* The photograph of João Gilberto (with Stan Getz in the background) was taken by Tom Copi and is included, with many others, in the booklet accompanying Getz/Gilberto ’76.

Bossa nova from a different beach

AldeburghNo, 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.