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Bossa Nova Keeps Its Cool

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.


Sherie Julianne: 10 Degrees South.
If this 2014 release of soft Brazilian jazz and bossa nova sounds polished and self-assured, there’s a reason for that. Vocalist Sherie Julianne, who lives in the Bay area, spent ten years fronting a band led by Grammy-nominated pianist and arranger Marco Silva, a native of Rio de Janeiro, before 10 Degrees South was released. Here the singer calls the shots with Silva in a supportive role on an album filled with less familiar material by some of Brazil’s premier composers, including Joao Donato, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Roberto Menescal, Sergio Mendes, and Chico Pinheiro. The tempos are often on the brisk side, with a light, breezy touch that perfectly complements Julianne’s melodious voice. Silva’s rich arrangements allow space for interesting instrumental detours without detracting from the song. Sunny, lyrical, and unabashedly pretty, this Azul Do Mar release is both soothing and stimulating. Take it with you with when you hit the beach, and play it when you dream of returning.

Bebel Gilberto: Tudo.
Bebel Gilberto was raised the daughter of musical royalty, her father a central figure in bossa nova while her mother’s discography includes collaborations with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sounds like a great way to grow up—but not in every respect. “It’s not easy to find your own place in such a successful and creative family, certainly in Brazil,” Gilberto said in a New York Times interview. “The pressure was enormous. Brazilian people expected a lot from me. I did not want to call myself a bossa nova singer.” Because of those pressures, Gilberto left Brazil, but Brazil did not leave her. How could it when, while she was growing up, her father Joáo Gilberto spent almost all his waking hours playing guitar around the house? Tudo, which means “everything” in Portuguese, is an emotional scrapbook of the ups and downs of Gilbert’s sometimes tumultuous life over a five-year period, and stylistically the music also covers a wide range, liberally mixing sounds from her previous albums, including straight bossa nova, pop music, and the more electronic approach of 2000’s Tanto Tempo. Whether it’s the warm pop stylings of “Somewhere Else,” the dreamy “Areia,” the club-friendly “Tout Est Bleu” and “Inspiração,” or the straight bossa of Luis Bonfa’s “Saudade Vem Correndo” and Jobim’s “Vivo Sonhando,” Bebel Gilberto impresses. A key current figure and a bearer of the tradition—and on her own terms.

Eliane Elias: Made In Brazil.
On a literal level the title of this 2015 Concord release points to the recording sessions that took place in São Paulo, but there’s more to it than that, as some recent projects by this vocalist and pianist have had a crossover quality. So is Made in Brazil a conservative “back to the roots” project? Contemporary touches (including collaborations with Ed Motta and Take 6) suggest otherwise; nor is the album a greatest hits package of standard bossa nova fare. In fact, there’s plenty of new music, and the primary songwriter is Elias. Even so, it seems a welcome return to form that benefits from connecting with bossa nova more directly than on some recent efforts. Highlights include two originals, “Searching” and “Some Enchanted Place,” with their panoramic sound and lush, creamy strings that recall that period in the 1960s when arrangers like Claus Ogerman and Nelson Riddle added a huge, swelling backdrop to bossa nova and other genres. Where bossa can seem the province of aesthetes, Elias oozes sensuality, and you would be hard pressed to find a better voice to melt into the soundscape.

Vinicius Cantuária: Indio de Apartamento & Sings Jobim.
Vinicius Cantuária grew up in Rio de Janeiro; after moving to New York City in the 1990s, he became part of the downtown scene, collaborating with David Byrne, Arto Lindsay, Bill Frisell, and other experimental musicians. This and some early pop records may suggest a “non-traditionalist,” but generally the sparse and mostly acoustic arrangements on his two most recent albums should appeal to those who seek bossa nova in its most distilled form. The revolving cast of musicians (including Ryuchi Sakamoto and Norah Jones) who join Cantuária for a song or two on Indio de Apartamento, a 2012 Naïve release, form duets and trios that collectively play fewer notes than some solo musicians. The unvarnished recording keeps the focus on Cantuária’s deep baritone with minimal vibrato. Although the emphasis switches to a different composer, Vinicius canta Antonio Carlos Jobim shares the same sound and feeling of Indio de Apartmento. While other musicians feel compelled to create novel arrangements of more well-known Jobim material, this 2015 Sunnyside release gives it to us straight, keeping the spotlight on Cantuária’s voice, which, like Jobim’s, has gained weight and emotional nuance over time.

Emy Tseng: Sonho.
This 2012 debut album by vocalist Emy Tseng is primarily devoted to bossa nova and Brazilian jazz. Highlights on this Mei Music release include warm readings of two Baden Powell compositions (“Deixa” and “Berimbau”), Caetano Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” and Jobim’s “Brigas Nunca Mais.” The Taiwanese-born Tseng has a relaxed singing style and a clear voice that nimbly navigates tricky melodies while Andy Connell adds dabs of color on clarinet and soprano saxophone. The accompaniment on Chico Pinheiro’s “Na Beira do Rio” is minimal—just guitar, bass, and percussion—and the duets with nylon-string guitar (“California Dreaming”) and upright bass (Bernice Petkere’s “Close Your Eyes”) are even sparser. Ideal settings, these, for framing a beautiful new voice.

Joyce Moreno/Kenny Werner: Poesia.
Vocalist Joyce Moreno recorded her first solo album in 1968, and since then more than 20 albums have appeared under her name. The heavyweights she’s collaborated with include Elis Regina, Toninho Horta, Vinicius de Moraes, and João Donato. A 2015 release on the Pirouet label, Poesia consists of duets with pianist Kenny Werner. This is a ballad-oriented set—and that’s especially true of the Brazilian material, which includes songs by Jobim and Chico Buarque, as well as a nice reading of Bruno Matino’s “Estate,” an Italian song that long ago worked its way into the bossa nova canon. Werner is a sensitive and tasteful player whose accompaniment fits Moreno like a glove; their delicate interplay should appeal to listeners who love the art of the duet. A German label, Pirouet has a penchant for recording acoustic instruments with exceptional clarity and tonal accuracy, and this album is no exception.

Marcos Valle and Stacey Kent: Ao Vivo.
Shortly after Walter Wanderley released “So Nice (Summer Samba)” as a single in 1966, countless vocalists added it to their repertoire, and it quickly became a bossa nova classic. The breezy and catchy-as-Velcro chart-topper was composed by Marcos Valle, a prolific and versatile songwriter who soon began merging Brazilian music with rock, funk, soul, psychedelia, and just about every musical other style you could stuff into a song. The Light in the Attic label did the world a favor when, in 2012, it began reissuing some Valle albums from the early 1970s, hipping a new generation to the talents of a singer, band leader, instrumentalist, and songwriter whose compositions breathe the same rarified air as his greatest influence, Burt Bacharach. Ao Vivo pairs Valle with Stacey Kent, whose sweet, unaffected singing style proves that bossa nova can combine sophistication with girl-next-door charm. Originally released by Sony in 2013, this album was reissued on vinyl by Pure Pleasure Records in 2015. Remastered by Ray Staff at Air Mastering and pressed at Pallas in Germany, the 180-gram 2-LP live set stands out for its transparency and clarity. Valle is a brilliant arranger, his scoring of horns and wind instruments creating an impressionistic haze that is captured quite nicely in a natural-sounding recording with plenty of air. Sometimes reissue labels wait decades before they roll out the audiophile vinyl treatment, but in this case there was no reason to force listeners to wait—Au Vivo already feels like a classic.

It’s nice to see Marcos Valle getting his due, but what about the rest of the old guard, those musicians who helped create bossa nova or who, early on, helped reshape and popularize it? Some, of course, have passed away. Of the old masters who are still alive, the space between albums seems to be growing. We haven’t heard much lately from João Donato, Luis Bonfa, or Astrud Gilberto. The same can be said of João Gilberto, who continues to work and “tour” at his own pace (in other words, don’t hold your breath). The last time Gilberto was supposed to perform at Carnegie Hall—what would have been his first show in the U.S. in years—he announced, at the last minute, that there was some sort of snafu concerning travel regulations. That wasn’t his first cancellation, but you can bet that, should another North American date be set, true believers will once again clamor for tickets and make reservations to fly across the country. Sergio Mendes is a hit with a new generation of hipsters, his 2014 Magic a funky and lively collaboration with a stream of guests that include John Legend and Janelle Monáe. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are on tour together, and hopefully there will be documentation of that. Gil’s 2014 Gilbertos Samba and 2015 Gilbertos Samba Ao Vivo were both solid albums in the most bare-bones samba style. While listening to such lovely music, it’s worth remembering that, if things had gone just a little differently, bossa nova never would have happened. In Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced The World, Ruy Castro describes how João Gilberto played his guitar nonstop while searching for a sound he could imagine but which, for a long time, eluded him. Eventually he found it, and although Gilberto has never gone out of his way to conquer the music industry, somehow that sound spread. More than half a century later it’s clear that, while the world in general keeps getting louder, and more shrill, bossa nova continues to keep its cool.

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