Bossa Nova Keeps Its Cool

Fresh New Sounds from the Softer Side of Samba

Bossa Nova Keeps Its Cool

On November 21, 1962, a concert took place at Carnegie Hall that featured a long list of Brazilian musicians who prior to that night had received limited recognition in the United States as well as their native country. News traveled fast and far—all the way back to Brazil, in fact, and throughout the U.S. And after the Getz/Gilberto single of “The Girl from Ipanema” was released on July 25, 1964, what was still a young genre enjoyed widespread popularity around the world.   

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out why this musical style that was still in its infancy would appeal to listeners. With a beat that’s light and sensual, chords that are rich and jazzy, and lyrics that can be hauntingly wistful or charmingly playful, this fresh new blending of cool jazz with a soft samba beat has an unmistakable allure. Seductive, dreamy, and romantic, it can seem the most lighthearted of music, evoking blue skies, sandy beaches, and women in bikinis, yet bossa nova will also take you to dark places. (As Caetano Veloso pointed out, “It was possibly the first popular music where the themes were existential.”) And all of these qualities can exist in one song—one example being Jobim’s iconic “Girl from Ipanema.”

From the beginning, bossa nova has had an adult audience. The same has been said of jazz, but for different reasons. The upfront complexity of jazz can be a turnoff for younger listeners. While Caetano Veloso is right to classify bossa nova as “high art on its own terms,” it also happens to be quite accessible. That said, bossa nova would probably seem too introspective for teenagers clamoring for madder music and stronger wine. Eventually, though, adults start hungering for new musical adventures, and those who choose to explore the current bossa nova scene will be well rewarded. Along with drawing from some exciting new composers, the current crop of musicians playing bossa nova and Brazilian jazz can dip into a deep songwriting tradition that includes works by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Marcos Valle, Baden Powell, Chico Buarque, Tonino Horta, Milton Nascimento, João Donato, Gilberto Gil, Moacir Santos, and Roberto Menescal. Songs by these composers are spread liberally around the albums in this survey. Only a handful of these tunes seem overplayed, which is a blessing for current artists who wish to explore bossa nova. Where current jazz vocalists sometimes have to sidestep or reinvigorate old warhorses, the current generation of bossa nova musicians can pick from a treasure trove of compositions that still sound fresh.

And the same can be said about the genre as a whole. There are musical styles that date—and there is bossa nova. Part of that may have to do with the cool demeanor and lack of sentimentality we associate with the genre. Also, its unadorned style simply continues to sound modern in the same way that houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright still look contemporary. By now it’s clear that, while bossa nova has helped launch other styles, it isn’t going to experience radical reinventions every five years, as there’s only so much wiggle room before it morphs into something else. In other words, there’s no such thing as bossa nova nova. And that’s okay—as these releases demonstrate, the real thing is doing fine as it is.

Cristina Braga: Samba, Jazz and Love.
“I am yours/I love you/Love and trust and faith/In the human race and entre nous/Le parfait amour” begins Cristina Braga’s Samba, Jazz and Love, the first verse setting the tone for a record that is unabashedly romantic. Although her voice could technically be seen as her second instrument—early in her musical career Braga established herself as a harpist in the classical world—her voice is so warm and seductive, each note seeming to melt in the air as soon as it leaves her lips, that it’s the highlight of this this 2013 Enja release. With percussionist Joca Moraes and double bassist Ricardo Medeiros providing the rhythmic foundation while Arthur Dutra (vibes) and Jessé Sadoc (trumpet and flugelhorn) add color, Samba, Jazz and Love benefits from compositions by Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, and Roberto Menescal. The YouTube video of “Samba e Amor” will give you a taste of the album overall; with its dreamy harp-and-voice intro, light samba rhythm, vibes solo that’s as cool as a morning breeze, and spicy trumpet work, it’s a splendid mood setter. Play Samba, Jazz and Love on your next date, and if things don’t go as you’d hoped, perhaps you should replace your tweeters.

Carol Saboyo/Antonio Adolfo/Henrik Muerkens: Copa Village.
On the AAM Music label, this 2015 release is a group effort with three musicians sharing top billing. Carol Saboya is a Brazilian singer who has worked with Sergio Mendes and Jobim; when German-born and NYC-based Hendrik Meurkens isn’t coaxing sweet sounds out of his chromatic harmonica, he switches to vibes; and Antonio Adolfo, a founding member of Trio 3-D, is a veteran Brazilian pianist and composer. This light, airy, and highly melodic album is split almost evenly between Jobim covers and new songs that the musicians on Copa Village helped compose. Viewable on YouTube, “Como Se Gosse” is a Muerkens co-write where the harmonica lines he weaves around Saboya’s vocals recall Toots Thielemans’ recordings with Elis Regina (makes sense—Adolfo was a part of those sessions). Just as the Jobim songs on Copa Village have stood the test of time, the original compositions are sturdy enough to warrant new interpretations decades from now.

Catina DeLuna: Lado B Brazilian Project.
This 2015 release is a group effort where the vocalist functions more as a band member than a leader; as Tierney Sutton states in the liner notes, “The featured artist here is the ensemble.” The pianist, accordionist, and arranger for the project, Otmaro Ruíz, is active in both the jazz and Brazilian scenes. There’s plenty of solo space for him, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Edwin Livingston, and flautist Bob Sheppard, and nearly half of the songs break the six-minute mark. Far from a Brazilian blowing session, however, this record features imaginative arrangements with instrumental sections that provide interesting points of departure. The reharmonized “Garota de Ipanema” offers a unique spin on the most-played bossa nova song of all, yet the sense of yearning remains intact. The sparse accompaniment of “Contrato de Separacao” frames DeLuna’s voice in a way that allows the haunting melody to achieve full impact. For almost ten minutes another Jobim composition, “Chovendo Na Roseira,” continues to unfold in unpredictable ways, climaxing with a dramatic refrain sung by a vocal choir. Fully prepared to tackle masterworks by Egberto Gismonti, Milton Nascimento, Jobim and others, this ensemble deftly combines accessibility with musical depth.

Thievery Corporation: Saudade.
When Thievery Corporation dedicated their 1996 debut Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi to Antonio Carlos Jobim, it wasn’t a purist’s nod so much as acknowledgement from a band whose music might often be described as bossa nova with a twist, the band members adding elements of electronica, dub, and trip-hop to a soft samba sound. It’s interesting, then, that when band member Rob Garza classifies the 2014 release Saudade as “a bit of a departure,” it’s actually the closest thing to a straight bossa nova record the group has made. Released on the band’s own Eighteenth Street Lounge (ESL) label, Saudade has a hypnotic quality that, even though the instrumentation is primarily acoustic, may remind you of the layered electronic sound of Stereolab. Five different women sing on the record, and here I’m less inclined to highlight a specific vocalist or song than I am to praise the record for sustaining a dreamy mood from the first cut to the last. Saudade doesn’t sound radically different from any of the albums in this survey—just enough to click with a wider audience.