Blame It on the Bossa Nova: 50 Years of Sublime Music

Bossa Nova has been celebrating its fiftieth birthday in grand style this year, with commemorations having taken place in Brazil, the U.S. and other countries.
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Bossa Nova has been celebrating its fiftieth birthday in grand style this year, with commemorations having taken place in Brazil, the U.S. and other countries. The Brazilian musical genre has demonstrated an enduring global appeal, and is the favorite type of music of millions of listeners around the world. Bossa still sounds fresh and modern despite the worst efforts of a hundred thousand lounge singers who have committed untold audio atrocities to "The Girl from Ipanema" over the years from Tokyo to Las Vegas. Recently, there has been a steady stream of new bossa and bossa-informed releases by notable Brazilian and international artists, ranging from jazz and classical musicians to rock and electronica performers. Bossa nova is here for the long term, and few other musical idioms offer its potent mixture of intimacy, romanticism and sophistication. Songs like Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado," "Dindi," and "Samba de Uma Nota Só" (One-Note Samba) will be played by friends on their acoustic guitars in cozy settings for many years to come.

Bossa nova was born in July of 1958 when singer-guitarist Joao Gilberto released the single "Chega de Saudade" ("No More Blues" in the U.S.), written by Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, and given further life four months later with Gilberto's recording of Jobim and Newton Mendonça's remarkable "Desafinado." Bossa was a new type of samba in which the genre's rhythmic complexity had been pared down to its bare essentials, transformed into a kind of "stuttering" beat on Gilberto's guitar that many listeners recognize immediately. The songs were casual and subtle, yet imbued with an infectious swing. Gilberto sang the lyrics in a personal, intimate, whispering style. And Jobim bolstered the beautiful melodies with unusual harmonies heard before only in the realms of modern classical music or jazz. Bossa's rhythmic and harmonic richness was expressed with a sophisticated simplicity, and was something unprecedented in the world of popular music, in Brazil or elsewhere.*

Alas, the critics in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo mostly hated it. They were offended by the unconventional harmonies (calling it "music for off-key singers"), the apparently strong influence of American jazz, and Gilberto's subdued vocals.

Yet Brazil's musicians "got it" and bossa had a powerful, catalyzing effect on their musical tastes. Enough of the public was intrigued by the strange new sound to warrant the release of Gilberto's Chega de Saudade album the next year, and the style grew into a national success.

American jazz artists discovered bossa nova a few years later, and Quincy Jones, Herbie Mann, Paul Winter, Coleman Hawkins, and Cannonball Adderley all released bossa-themed albums in 1962, as did Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd. The latter's Jazz Samba made a huge splash, camping out on the Billboard pop-music charts and eventually hitting the number-one position, unprecedented for a jazz album. Jazz Samba ignited a bossa craze in the United States, and a flood of bossa recordings followed (some bossa in name only). Elvis Presley's peculiar "Bossa Nova Baby" and Eydie Gormé's "Blame It on the Bossa Nova" were among the songs capitalizing on the style's popularity. Bossa nova was the big pop-music trend of the early 1960s, until it was supplanted by the English rock invasion led by the Beatles. Then, as the bossa fever seemed just about to wane, Getz teamed with João Gilberto on the Getz/Gilberto album in 1964.

Getz/Gilberto was another phenomenonal success and won a Grammy as the best album of the year, a first for a jazz work. Its centerpiece was Jobim and Moraes's "Garota de Ipanema," aka "The Girl from Ipanema." Gilberto sang the Portuguese parts and his wife Astrud performed newly added English lyrics, with her cool, light, gentle vocals. The breezy song bridged the language gap with the U.S. audience, won a Grammy for best song, and opened the minds of many Americans to the richness of Brazilian music. Its smooth syncopation and graceful lyricism made it into a standard, one of the most recorded and performed songs of all time.

Jobim, who had played piano on Getz/Gilberto, appeared on American television variety shows, and released several albums in the U.S., including two recorded with Frank Sinatra. Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 also kept bossa on the pop charts. The success of the genre initiated a widespread infiltration of Brazilian music and musicians into North American music, which ultimately influenced both jazz fusion later in the decade and the percussion and rhythms of our popular music.

Later, bossa went from hip to kitsch in many countries after rock and roll took over the global market. There were too many crooners and lounge singers doing awful, overblown bossa-nova renditions. Yet, that very association with corny cocktail music helped spark a bossa revival when "lounge music" came to the forefront in the 1990s, and bossa interpreters like Sérgio Mendes, Wanda Sá, and Walter Wanderley, and composer Marcos Valle, found a new popularity. At the same time, hip DJs and producers were mixing bossa and samba with drum loops and electronic music in a musical movement some called "nova bossa nova." DJ-producers Gilles Peterson, Niola Conte, Joe Davis (Far Out Records) and Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza and Eric Hilton were among those employing bossa and Brazilian sounds in their remixes.

Over the last five decades, bossa nova has had a huge impact on international music, and countless jazz and pop composers have incorporated bossa melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and textures into their works. The best bossa compositions were written by the late Antonio Carlos Jobim (see my blog Two Musical Giants Left Us On December 8: Lennon & Jobim), whose songs are among the most recorded in history. "Água de Beber," "Só Danço Samba," "Insensatez," "Wave," "Meditação," "Ela É Carioca," and "Tristeza" are a few of his other compositions not mentioned above. His work has been so frequently recorded that it is hard to find a jazz great of the last fifty years who didn't record a Jobim tune. Luiz Bonfá, Baden Powell, Toquinho, Roberto Menescal, and Carlos Lyra were other seminal bossa composers, along with the poet Vinícius de Moraes, who collaborated with many of them. Celso Fonseca, Rosa Passos, Paula Morelenbaum, and Leila Pinheiro are among the best contemporary artists in the area.

Bossa nova was also important in the evolution of Brazilian music, leading directly to the creation of Brazil's rich eclectic popular music (MPB) that followed in the late 1960s and '70s. It remains an influence on virtually all young Brazilian musicians today, whatever their style.

I'm always listening with delight to Jobim and Elis Regin's superb Elis & Tom, Jobim's sublime albums Urubu and Matita Perê and various bossa collections, and finding little current popular music that compares in quality.

Blame it on the bossa nova!

*For more on the history of bossa nova and Brazilian music, see my book The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil (Temple University Press):

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