Since 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.