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Gilberto, João (Prado Pereira de Oliveira)

Early in his career, singer and guitarist João Gilberto stepped out of Brazilian popular music. Unable to find work or to fit in with his country's melodramatic musical traditions, he chose instead to convert his sister’s bathroom into an acoustic laboratory.

What Gilberto invented in 1956 set Brazilian music, and then the jazz world, on its ear. He captured the key elements of samba percussion - the squeak of a talking drum, the rat-a-tat of the snare, a shaker's rattle and the boom of a bass drum, with the plucking motions of his fingers.

João Gilberto

He used his thumb to play the bass drum's steady downbeat and to provide the lowest voice of the chord. With his other fingers, he recreated the syncopations of percussion instruments while outlining the higher register of the song's harmony, alternating against the bass.

On top of this, he added deadpan vocals to create a quiet storm. This new style, for which Rio de Janeiro musicians adopted a slang term, calling it a "bump" to describe its charm, shrewdness and skill, came to be known worldwide as bossa nova.

To understand João Gilberto's sound, imagine a lover who whispers in your ear, while in the distance you can hear the vibrations of a Carnaval samba parade as it throbs, shakes and sweats on the other side of town.

João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born in Juazeira, a small inland village in the Brazilian state of Bahia, June 10, 1931. His father was a local merchant who believed all of his seven children should get a high school diploma.

Although Joãozinho was considered clever, he never got his diploma. He got his first guitar at age fourteen and never looked back.

At age 15, João led a vocal group that was said to have rehearsed under a tamarind tree, and performed at local dances. He also spent a lot of time at a local record store, where he absorbed the sounds of the big bands led by Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey, and the music of French popular singer Charles Trenet.

Brazilian popular music was, of course, in full swing in the 1940s, and songs which made an early impression on Gilberto included “Bolinha de Papel” by Geraldo Pereira, as performed by the Anjos do Inferno; “O Samba da Minha Terra” by fellow Bahian Dorival Caymmi; and “A Primera Vez,” by Orlando Silva. Silva's vocal style, in particular, exerted a strong influence over the boy.

In 1949, João went to the capital city of Bahia, Salvador, with the intention of becoming a singer on live radio shows. While he failed to land this gig, he caught the ear of a member of the group Garotos da Lua, which had a daily show on Radio Tupi in Rio de Janeiro. The group’s artistic director, Antonio Maria, hired João as lead singer.

Ironically, the singer he was hired to replace – Jonas Silva – had a soft, whispering sound, much like the one Gilberto would adopt for bossa nova. The bandleader, however, wanted a frontman who could sing in the florid style of commercially popular groups like Namorado da Lua, led by singer Lucio Alves.

Gilberto’s tenure with the Garotos da Lua was short. He was an unreliable member of the ensemble, showing up late for rehearsals and shows or not at all. In a year, he was fired. This marked the beginning of a difficult and shiftless period for João of penury and maconha, or chronic pot-smoking. Depressed and without a plan, his girlfriend Sylvia Telles, who later became a successful bossa nova singer, left him.

Broke, João hung out between sets at nighclubs with a group of friends and fellow musicians. Among them were pianists Tom Jobim, Johnny Alf and João Donato; the guitarist Luiz Bonfa; and singers Dolores Duran, Ivon Cury and Lucio Alves.

Almost at rock bottom, João received help from the leader of a group call the Quitandinha Serenaders, Luis Telles, who briefly hired him. In 1955, Telles brought João to Porto Alegre, a small city in southern Brazil, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

The enigmatic João turned Porto Alegre's nightlife upside down, showing up to play at venues like the Clube da Chave at wildly unpredictable times. It wasn’t unheard of for him to show up at 3 in the morning and play for hours. Audiences were delighted and intrigued.

After a few months, João moved to the small mining town of Diamantina in the state of Minas Gerais so he could stay with his sister Dadainha and her husband Pericles.

To the concern of his family, Gilberto cloistered himself in the bathroom, pleased by the natural reverb of bare floor and walls. It was within these bathroom walls that he found his way to reconcile all of the musical influences he had absorbed, and the result was bossa nova.

Gilberto's range of inspirations was broad. As a singer, he was drawn to the enunciation and clarity of Orlando Silva and Frank Sinatra, as well as the understated approach of Jonas Silva.

He also incorporated the influences of American jazz accordionist Joe Mooney and two Brazilian pianists known for their syncopated right hand techniques, João Donato and Johnny Alf.

Making progress but still disconsolate, João went home to Jauzeiro, were his father and childhood friends derided his music as effeminate and bizarre. Ostracized, he took solace practicing alongside the Sao Francisco River, on the outskirts of the village, where he watched laundry women as they washed clothes.

It was here that he is said to have composed “Bim Bom”, the first bossa nova song, which he recorded later with Jobim, on the album Chega de Saudade in 1959.

The song’s title is a phonetic, rhythmic rendering of the sounds of the women made as they swayed, washing clothes in the river. An emphasis on onomatopeia and alliteration are signatures of Gilberto’s singing and writing; he uses his voice not only to convey melody, but also as an additional percussive element.

Gilberto plucks the bass string on the guitar almost metronomically, while the other fingers caress and pull on the top four strings, providing an alternating three/two, two/three pattern which gently evokes the snare, rattles and taps of samba percussion. The accompaniment on his recordings is minimal, often only the unobtrusive accents of a high-hat snare.

The lyrical content, too, is nostalgic, innocent, and spare: “E so isso meu baiao/ E nao tem mais nada nao/ O meu coracao pediu assim, so.” (My Bahian song is just this/ Nothing else./My heart asked for it this way.”)

After a brief stay in a hospital - Gilberto’s friends and family became convinced he was mentally ill - he returned to Rio in 1957, where he reconnected with his friends Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Nara Leão, Jonas Silva, and most significantly, Tom Jobim.

Jobim was a cabaret pianist when they first met, but by the time Gilberto returned to Rio, he was an arranger and producer for the Odeon record label, a subsidiary of the British-owned EMI.

When Jobim first heard João play “Bim Bom,” he was struck by the rhythmic interplay of guitar and voice, and particularly the use of space, which he thought could work well with his own experiments with modern harmony.

Gilberto first recorded in the bossa nova style in 1958, backing singer Elizete Cardoso on the song “Chega de Saudade.” Written by Jobim and poet Vinicius de Morães. Not long afterwards, he recorded his own version of the song, then in 1959 it became the title track of his first album.

The song never fully came alive until Gilberto, after dozens of takes, and arguments with Jobim and the engineers, finally recorded his own version. His perfectionism paid off.

João’s early version of “Chega de Saudade” is like a blueprint for the bossa nova style, as one can clearly hear all of the elements of his rhythmic interpretation and vocal delivery.

His intimate, in-your-ear singing style, is often ahead of or behind the beat, and flows with and sometimes pulls against the rhythmic foundation of the guitar. This createdsa metaphorical backdrop, a constant pushing and pulling, a rhythmic duality that complements the lyrical content.

“Chega de Suadade,” which later became a jazz standard as well, is imperfectly translated in English as "No More Blues." “Saudade” in Portuguese means “longing” or “yearning:” when Brazilians say they have “saudade,” it means they miss someone or something. The association with the "blues" is partially accurate, in that saudade often implies a sense of bittersweet, martyred suffering, which is deeply embodied in Gilberto's music.

The recording did nothing at first, and sat on the shelves of record stores in Rio. It wasn’t until the Odeon sales team in Sao Paulo began to see Gilberto's style as an innovation that they began to push the record, and sales took off. In 1960 he recorded the album “O Amor O Sorriso E a Flor” and in 1961 “João Gilberto.”

Also in 1961, the U.S. State Department arranged a goodwill tour of jazz artists in Latin America. American jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd was part of this group, and when he discovered what Jobim had done with Gilberto, he flipped.

He began to learn some of the Brazilian songs, but when he played them for U.S. record executives, they were unmoved. He then played them for his friend, saxophonist Stan Getz, and the two recorded the album “Jazz Samba” in 1962, which consisted of instrumental versions of Jobim songs, among them, “Desafinado” and “Samba de Uma Nota So (One Note Samba).”

In 1962, Gilberto moved to the U.S. and stayed there, with the exception of two years in Mexico, until 1980.

"Jazz Samba" topped the pop charts for several months, and set the stage for what would become the biggest selling jazz albums of all time, “Getz/Gilberto,” released in 1964.

The album featured João, his wife at the time, Astrud on vocals, Jobim on piano, Stan Getz on saxophone, and Tommy Williams on bass. It also featured Milton Banana on drums, whom Gilberto insisted on bringing from Brazil for the recording session.

The album contained “The Girl From Ipanema,” sung in English by Astrud, went on to become the second-most recorded and performed popular song of all time, after the Beatles' “Yesterday.” the album also includes So Danco Samba” and “Corcovado."

On “The Girl from Ipanema,” Astrud sings in her own version of the whispering, deadpan, vibrato-less style she learned from her husband. Never having performed professionally, she now became the international face of bossa nova.

The aggregate effect of Astrud’s haunting voice, Gilberto’s restrained duality of rhythm, and Jobim’s understated piano voicings beguiled the American public. Getz’s melodic and insouciant style, already popular with jazz audiences, added a welcome color to what Jobim and Gilberto had created.

In 1965, Gilberto and Jobim recordedianother collaboration with a jazz artist, flutist Herbie Mann. Mann had been to Rio in 1961, and, like Byrd was bedeviled by the sounds of bossa nova. He returned the next year to make an album with them that wasn’t released until after the success of “Getz/Gilberto.”

Like Getz, Mann recorded a version of “Samba de Uma Nota So, which features Jobim singing an English translation. Gilberto’s propulsive guitar is prominent in the mix; Jobim’s vocal is low, and lacks the simmering intensity of João or the coy innocence of Astrud. Mann’s solo is melodic and relaxed, and his tone warm; towards the end of the song, he doubles Jobim’s scat.

Ironically, the revolutionary Gilberto has since become a lover of the old classics of Brazilian popular music, which he has incorporated into his repertoire, albeit in a bossa mode. Songs from this classic repertoire include Ary Barroso's “Morena Boca de Ouro,” Dorival Caymmi's “Rosa Morena,” Noel Rosa's “Palpite Infeliz” and Geraldo Pereira's “Falsa Baiana.”

In 1980, Gilberto was back in Rio, where he was acclaimed by Caetano Veloso and the other younger stars of the Tropicalia movement, who regarded him as an emblematic figure.

From 1980 until the present, Gilberto has recorded eight albums. These include studio recordings and live recordings from around the world, almost always in the same solo performance setting.

At Gilberto's live performance at Carnegie Hall on June 18, 2008, this author was part of the sold-out audience of 2,804 souls. From my vantage point in the cheapest seats, Gilberto looked especially diminutive. He sat with his guitar on a solitary chair placed on a Persian rug, with two microphones in front of him - one for the guitar, and one for his voice.

The assembly of listeners hung on to every syncopation, every whisper, every crack, and every imperfection. Between songs, you could hear a pin drop. He played his repertoire of bossa standards, Brazilian classics, Tropicália, and an Italian song, each uniquely different from the next. Saudade was in the air.

Select Discography:

Chega de Saudade (1959)

O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (1960)

João Gilberto (1961)

Getz/Gilberto (1964)

Herbie Mann & João Gilberto with Antonio Carlos Jobim (1965)

Getz/Gilberto Vol. 2 (1966)

João Gilberto en Mexico (1970)

João Gilberto (1973)

The Best of Two Worlds (1976)

Amoroso (1977)

João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira (1980)

Brasil (1981)

Live at the 19th Montreux Jazz Festival (1986)

Live in Montreux (1987)

Stan Getz Meets João & Astrud Gilberto (1990)

João (1991)

Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar (1994)

João Voz e Violao (2000)

Live at Umbria Jazz (2002)

In Tokyo (2004)

Contributor: Ricardo Quiñones