Joao Gilberto, guitarist, singer, songwriter, and a key figure in the creation and development of bossa nova, died in Rio de Janeiro, Saturday. No official cause of death was given. He was 88.
Born João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira, he launched his career, and announced the arrival of a new genre, with his recording of “Chega de Saudade” (1958), an early classic by Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes.
An album of the same name followed the next year. It was the first of a trilogy of albums by Gilberto, completed in 1961, that included O amor, o sorriso e a flor (Love, A Smile and a Flower), and Joao Gilberto. They defined the sound of bossa nova.
“Bossa nova was scandalously subversive in Brazil,” singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso once told me. “And the fact that it inverted the relation “center-periphery” [in global culture] going from influenced to influencer of jazz and pop is a sign of its subversive dimension at a global level.”
Getz/Gilberto, Joao Gilberto’s 1964 recording with saxophonist Stan Getz, featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim and Gilberto’s then-wife, Astrud, would make bossa nova a global phenomenon. Getz had had an earlier bossa nova hit with Jazz Samba, a 1962 recording with guitarist Charlie Byrd, which should be credited as the first bossa nova album recorded by American jazz musicians. But Getz/Gilberto, and “The Girl From Ipanema,” took the bossa nova craze in the United States to another level.
Also, as Veloso suggests, this foreign genre established a rare relationship as equals with jazz. Chalk it to artistic curiosity, commercial calculations, or both, but artists, as established as Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Cannonball Adderley (it’s a very long list), were moved to record albums of bossa nova, a new Latin style that must have sounded to them at once familiar and fresh.
After a thousand versions of bossa nova classics heard anywhere, from concert stages and jazz clubs to elevators, it might be hard to grasp how revolutionary Gilberto’s approach was. It was the essence of bossa nova: it had an ease, a deceptive simplicity that hid a sophisticated undercarriage. On the guitar, Gilberto miniaturized the sound of samba groups and turned the six strings into a percussion section, driving, pushing, dancing on harmonies that often drew from Cool Jazz and its classical relative, Impressionism. Gilberto’s swing wasn’t jazz style but rather what Brazilians call balanço, a gentle swaying.
As a singer, he had a modest range and sang in a plain, unaffected style. Astrud Gilberto once explained bossa nova singing as: “One’s song should be as simple as human speech.” But with Joao, it only seems that all flows by smoothly, predictably. If you listen closely, you’ll realize how he subtly added tension by phrasing behind the beat or setting a push-pull, almost a call-and-response, between voice and guitar.
“The emergence of João Gilberto in Brazil in 1959 was a scandal,” said Veloso, a passionate Gilberto admirer, in that same interview. “His album Chega de Saudade was like an atomic bomb in the Brazilian cultural scene. To sing without an operatic voice, without any apparent dramatics, without a conventional masculinity, [accompanying himself] with a guitar that broke the steady beat, [singing] the first optimistic love lyrics in Brazilian song (perhaps in Latin American song) written in a colloquial style refined by the modernist tradition, it all represented a courageous gesture.”
In his song “Pra Ninguem,” in which he pays tribute to fellow artists such as Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Chico Buarque, and Gal Costa by naming them and his favorite performances, Veloso closes by singing “Better than that, only silence; Better than silence, only Joao.”
Here is Joao Gilberto singing “Desafinado” (Out of Tune), a song the late journalist, music critic and lyricist Gene Lees, who wrote and translated to English lyrics for many bossa nova songs, once described to me as “a little love song. But the lyrics are also a tongue-in-cheek put-on of the critics that put down bossa nova.”
I only heard Joao Gilberto performing live only once, in Miami. He walked to his chair center stage, dressed in suit and tie, looking more like a banker than a musical genius, and without any fuss or an announcement that I can remember, he just sat down and started playing and singing. I knew of his near-pathological shyness, but I was still surprised that he barely looked up, and yet in the span of a few bars, he had turned the hall into his living room.
Joao Gilberto didn’t need special effects, dancers, or even other musicians. His guitar was his orchestra and he said what he needed to say on his own time, in a whisper. That was all — and it was magical.