How Joao Gilberto transformed global pop music

The British Invasion gets all the ink, but in 1964, as The Beatles were upending pop culture, a record by a jazz hit-maker and a Brazilian bossa nova innovator stormed the Grammy Awards and the US charts.

Called Getz/Gilberto and featuring the breakout hit The Girl From Ipanema, the collaborative effort won the album of the year trophy and turned saxophonist Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, the intensely private Brazilian singer-guitarist, into an unlikely hit-making duo.

Gilberto's death at age 88 was announced on Saturday.

Joao Gilberto performs at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2004. Credit:AP

Over a seven-decade career, the guitarist's quick, liquid acoustic chords hit with a smooth but percussive energy and, coupled with his subtly expressive voice, transformed the music of his country and helped spread the sound across the world.

One of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Gilberto and his peer and collaborator Antonio Carlos Jobim helped create and popularise bossa nova, a toned-down and romanticised take on Brazilian samba music.

"He could read a newspaper and sound good," Miles Davis once said of Gilberto's tone.

As much a feeling as a set of musical rules, Gilberto's aesthetic has resonated in the work of artists including Caetano Veloso, Sade, Gal Costa, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Stereolab, Seu Jorge and pretty much every Brazilian songwriter since 1960. Gilberto's daughter Bebel has been a guiding force in carrying bossa nova into a new electronic century.

"I owe Joao Gilberto everything I am today," fellow Brazilian Veloso has said. "Even if I were something else and not a musician, I would say that I owe him everything."

If it's true that some cultures are just better at making music, Brazil's reputation was solidified when Gilberto and Jobim, both then based in Rio de Janeiro, joined forces in the late 1950s. Born 1900 kilometres north in the province of Bahia, Gilberto was first drawn to the guitar at age 15.

In 1958 Gilberto recorded Chega de Saudade, a mesmerising Jobim-penned crooner. Never much of a songwriter himself, Gilberto, then in his late 20s, regularly tapped Jobim's work. That symbiotic musical relationship defined a movement, and along the way bossa nova integrated itself into the global conversation in much the same way rock'n'roll did.

Gilberto, right, chats backstage with a fan at the Newport Jazz Festival. Credit:AP

By the end of 1962, bossa nova had been cited by Life magazine as "fast becoming a US rage". Gilberto, Jobim and other Brazilian musicians had been invited to the White House by Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis Presley had recorded the rollicking Bossa Nova Baby. In Los Angeles, "exotica" band-leader Martin Denny tapped the rhythm for Quiet Village Bossa Nova. Music mogul and A&M Records founder Herb Alpert harnessed the Getz/Gilberto-inspired trend by signing Sergio Mendes.

But The Girl From Ipanema was something different: a beguiling pop song wrapped inside a cool jazz number. Sung by Gilberto's then-wife, Astrud, the song marvels on the titular girl as she strolls along the beach. "When she walks, she's like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle."

That cool and gentle swing was Getz/Gilberto's calling card. Featuring Jobim adding sparse counter-melodies and accents on piano and Gilberto's long-time drummer Milton Banana tapping out barely audible cymbal and tom-tom patterns, its eight songs defined a universe.

The Jobim-penned Desafinado became Gilberto's calling card. "Que isto e bossa-nova, isto e muito natural," he sings, defining his music as "natural" while characterising himself as the outcast. He sings as if whispering the words into a lover's ear.

A perfectionist and contrarian who seldom granted interviews, Gilberto in concert was notable for the meditative beauty of his voice and his fierce devotion to sound quality.

In 2003 he cut short a much-anticipated performance at the Hollywood Bowl due to his dissatisfaction with the microphones. A Times reviewer described the incident as "yet another instalment in the long list of eccentric episodes associated with an artist almost as well known for his unpredictability as for the quality of his music".

That unpredictability could frustrate audiences, but the artist had his reasons: "To understand and be understood is a kind of peace," Gilberto wrote in the Getz/Gilberto liner notes, adding that he found "great peace in real communication with another person".

Gilberto's musical communiques were as real as his guitar, and provided peace to millions.

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