Tuesday 20 August 2019

Obituary: Joao Gilberto

Brazilian musician who pioneered the seductive jazz rhythms of bossa nova

Original and inventive: Joao Gilberto in Rome in 1963
Original and inventive: Joao Gilberto in Rome in 1963

Joao Gilberto, the Brazilian vocalist and guitar virtuoso who died on July 6, aged 88, was a strange and wonderful artist who effectively invented bossa nova. With its insouciant swinging rhythm and languid jazz tones, bossa nova, the "new thing", woke the imagination of Brazil and the wider world to a dance beat of hushed emotional intensity and singular beauty.

During his heyday from 1958 to 1964, Gilberto was supremely impressive on stage, partly because he managed to keep perfectly still. The slightest raising of an arm in time to the music or tapping of a foot was enough to make him more seductive and cool than any Brazilian singer before or since.

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He was one of the first popular singers to realise a big voice is not essential to put across emotion. In the wrong hands, however, bossa nova was bland cocktail music. The Girl from Ipanema in Frank Sinatra's version was heavy on the flutes and heavenly choirs, but the exquisite restraint of the original was lost.

Gilberto's elegant, conversational music was rooted in the avant-garde of Brazil's inter-war period. In his 1928 book Manifesto Antropofago, the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade described his country's culture as cannibalistic, eating other forms of European and African literature and music.

Gilberto borrowed from the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos as well as from the cool lyricism of West Coast jazz; above all, he reconfigured Afro-Brazilian slave rhythms for affluent urban tastes. The result was a New World blues, suffused with saudade (loosely "yearning" or "nostalgia" in Portuguese).

Born in the Bahia region of Brazil on June 10, 1931, Joao Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira led a troubled and nomadic existence as a hopeful singer, day and night playing the same guitar chord in innumerable different ways. A heavy user of maconha (marijuana), he wore his hair long and drifted from job to job.

At school in the coastal city of Aracaju in the late 1940s, he had discovered the hothouse stomps of Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey, but samba was always in his blood. In 1950 he joined the Garotos de Lua (Moon Boys) vocal quintet in Salvador, and moved with them to Rio de Janeiro.

In Rio's opulent Copacabana neighbourhood there was a taste for jazz and American movies; but Gilberto did not want too much of the United States in his music. In 1955, having been sacked from the quintet for erratic behaviour, he went to ground for six months in Minas Gerais in south-eastern Brazil. There, according to legend, he locked himself in a bathroom with his guitar to forge his own music.

His first bossa nova composition, Bim-Bom, evoked the faltering step of washerwomen balancing basketfuls of linen on their heads. Gilberto's mother was said to have warmed to the strange, vibrato-less voice emanating from her son Joao.

The song's off-key samba notes and faltering jazz tempo were anathema to his father, who sent him to a psychiatric clinic in Salvador, where the young songwriter stared abstractedly out of the window.

"Look at the wind depilating the trees," Gilberto announced dreamily to his therapist. "But trees have no hair, Joao." To which Gilberto retorted: "And there are some people who have no poetry," before discharging himself and, in 1956, heading back to Rio.

Gilberto was now 26, Brazil was changing, and his music caught the new mood. His ground-breaking debut album Chega de Saudade ("No More Blues"), released in 1959, incorporated Brazil's deepest Afro-slave rhythms.

To audiences accustomed to Carmen Miranda cabaret and accordion-heavy bolero, the album was a brazen avant-garde jazz masterwork, reflecting a period of optimism and modernity in Brazil after the country had won the World Cup in 1958.

The record coincided with the release of the French director Marcel Camus's acclaimed Brazilian film Black Orpheus. Set during carnival in the favelas (slums) of modern-day Rio, the movie introduced music by the great Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim and the Oxford-educated diplomat-poet Vinicius de Moraes, who had between them written Garota de Ipanema, later given English lyrics by Norman Gimbel.

Gilberto, himself, recorded three bossa nova songs for the soundtrack. Overnight there were bossa nova cars, bossa nova girls and - with eye-catching geometric designs to rival those of New York's Blue Note jazz label - bossa nova album covers.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Gilberto's highly syncopated form of violao gago (stammering guitar) caught the attention of North American jazzmen such as Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Mann and Kenny Dorham.

A concert at Carnegie Hall in New York on November 21, 1962 was sold out. Gilberto played to an audience of 3,000, alongside fellow Brazilians Roberto Menescal, Tom Jobim, Oscar Castro-Neves and the wonderfully named Milton Banana on drums.

Gilberto would not have conquered the US without the enthusiasm of the saxophonist Stan Getz, who between 1962 and 1964 recorded five jazz albums which introduced the "new thing" from Rio.

These albums, with Jobim's precisely weighted piano chords and Gilberto's seductively low-key vocals, launched what would become known as world music. Gilberto's wife, the German-Brazilian jazz singer Astrud Evangelina Weinert, better known as Astrud, lent her own inimitable saudade to the recordings: on Jobim compositions such as Desafinado, and the wistful Corcovado, Astrud's waiflike voice complemented the sour-sweet romanticism of Getz.

Her recording with Getz of The Girl from Ipanema won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1965.

Gilberto divorced Astrud and married the singer Miucha (Heloisa Buarque de Holanda) in the mid-1960s: Astrud had run off with Getz. Gilberto's life had taken another blow in 1964, when the Brazilian government was toppled by a military coup.

For 14 years Gilberto lived in exile in the US and Mexico, where he continued to record albums, among them Joao Gilberto en Mexico in 1974. On his return to Rio in 1979, he inspired a new generation of Brazilian composers and singers, including his own children, the guitarist Joao Marcelo Gilberto, son of Astrud, and the singer Bebel Gilberto, daughter of Gilberto's second wife, the singer and composer known as 'Miucha'.

During his final years, Gilberto found a new and appreciative concert audience in Japan, but he became eccentric and withdrawn. He weighed barely nine stone, so the Brazilian press reported last year, and lived, Howard Hughes-like, in pyjamas.

Gilberto found himself caught up in a family feud and a disagreement of royalties that were said to be owed for his first three LPs.

He was glimpsed in public in 2015, when he appeared in an internet video with his daughter by his partner Claudia Faissol (a former journalist 40 years his junior), Luisa Carolina, who was then nine.

Dressed as usual in pyjamas, he was seen to strum The Girl from Ipanema on an out-of-tune guitar, with Luisa Carolina on vocals. The song's spare, blues-tinged saudade seemed to say: the secret of life is suffering. Gilberto indeed looked sad.

In Brazil today, his bossa nova recommends itself to all levels of brow; deceptively sparse and unadorned, it hides the most complex musical structures. The man they call 'Il Maestro Supremo' lived out his last days in Rio as an enigma.

Joao Gilberto and Miucha separated in the 1970s and she died in 2018; he is survived by his children.

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