Polygram Millennium collection: João Gilberto
Sunshine and Samba
The summer is when Rio de Janeiro really becomes Rio – blue sea, blue sky, yellow sands, multi-coloured beach umbrellas, bodies toasting in the sun and – forty-six years ago – it began to pulse with a new rhythm…. João Gilberto’s rendering of “Chega de Saudade”, which changed forever how Brazilian popular music would sound. Nelson Motta in Noites Tropicais: “I listened to him passionately as the creator of a new way of singing and playing, with a minimum of voice and a maximum of precision, with rhythms and harmonies which made any song sound refined and sophisticated. Through him I got to know Tom and Vinicius…. and the Brazilian grand masters, whose music entered my ears, my head and my heart, and my life for always”.
So many were influenced by this music: his three landmark albums were Chega de Saudade (1959), O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (1960) and João Gilberto (1961) and this way of playing – expanded and developed by many musicians, but especially Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Morais – became known as Bossa Nova. João Gilberto continues playing, and recorded a CD in 2000, showing through all these years the same style and mastery, still presenting some of his original repertoire.
The Polygram CD, crudely packaged with practically no explanation, nevertheless brings us songs from various phases of his career, with some very typical examples of his style, and some of his very best tracks.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira
He was born in Juazeiro, Bahia in 1931, was given his first guitar when he was 14, and thereafter was never separated from one for long. In his home town, he would hear both jazz and Brazilian popular music over the public loudspeakers; he formed his own group, and at age 18 moved to Salvador to work as a singer. At the time, he sang in the lyrical sentimental style with its roots in the Portuguese fado, and sounded like a mixture of Lúcio Alves and Orlando Silva. On the strength of this, he was hired in 1950 to come to Rio to sing on the Radio Tupi as a member of the “Garotos da Lua”. He was not a big success, and was fired after a year for always showing up late or not at all. Then began seven years out of the limelight, when he lived with friends, fascinating them with his playing, and charming them with his conversation. After a period playing in Porto Alegre (usually late night/early hours of the morning), he went to stay for months with his elder sister in Diamantina, where he spent all day experimenting with chords and rhythms (in the bathroom!) before returning to Rio in late 1956. Among his friends there was Tom Jobim, already experimenting with advanced harmonies, already an acknowledged composer. Tom was interested by the possibilities of the rhythmic pattern João was playing – it simplified the rhythm of samba and allowed a lot of room for modern harmonies of the kind Tom was creating. Chega de Saudade, written by Tom and Vinicius, was transformed by João’s way of playing, and Tom insisted with the record company (Odeon, part of EMI) that it be recorded. However, in 1958 it was not an instant hit: João’s sotto voce style of singing was so different from the style of the time. But the sophistication and subtlety were what the young needed, to be different from the oldies, the melodramatic, the primitive, the folkies and the american rockers. They grasped it, became addicted, and in the huge wave of creativity that followed, the music became known as Bossa Nova.
The Bossa Nova rhythm
One of the things which sets the rhythmic pattern apart, is that it repeats itself every eight beats, not every four. The right hand on the guitar divides into two patterns – the thumb has one, a steady pulse on the low notes) and the fingers another (which is syncopated). In fact, out of the eight beats, the fingers only play the first two on the beat – the rest are anticipated or missed out. Then if there is a rhythm instrument (but João is quite happy with just his voice and the guitar) then the tapping is light and continuous, but with emphasis on beats one, four and seven (two groups of three and one of two), So this is where the subtle rhythmic impulse comes from. On the CD, fine examples are Isaura, Falsa Baiana, and Eu vim da Bahia. But this is just the beginning; there are all sorts of small variations depending on the context of the music.
The harmonies are also not conventional – always slightly dissonant, they seem to change in the interior of the chord, without being clearly one thing or another. (Very different from the four straightforward chords of the blues or much of pop music!) The chords go merging from one to another – the well-known Samba de uma nota só, which is not on this record, exploits this by changing the harmony every bar, while the melody is – one note! However, whatever the difficulty of the chord, João’s guitar-playing is always absolutely precise and clear.
The first thing that strikes one about João Gilberto’s singing is that it is whispered, rather than projected. On low notes, he is sometimes almost inaudible. But the words are beautifully articulated, very clear – but what sets it apart is the rhythm, which seems completely detached from the guitar. Now he drags behind, now pushes forward, now anticipates a whole phrase. Sometimes the consonants sound like another percussion instrument. And a tremendous rhythmic impulse emerges. Magic.
The twenty tracks on the CD are a fine selection. They include six tracks recorded with Tom Jobim and the tenor sax of Stan Getz, including The Girl from Ipanema, the 1964 track which topped the US charts and launched Bossa Nova world-wide (and João’s wife Astrud as a singing star). These tracks are a particular delight, because of the minimalist, completely apposite piano of Tom Jobim, and the lovely flowing improvisations of Stan Getz. Their Corcovado must be the definitive version, while Doralice is brilliant. On other tracks, João sings in Spanish and English, always in his very personal interpretation. But the purest expression of his art is when he sings with his guitar and minimal percussion – showing tremendous swing in Eu quero um Samba – while in Eu Sambo Mesmo he says
É só no samba que sinto prazer
Mexe com a gente
Dá vontade de viver…..