Having Fun With Serious Music

I was once told that at the offices of David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, the word "quirky" was banned - apparently they had heard it way too much as a descriptor for their artists, but it's sure to pop up if you are releasing the records of Tom Zé.

With his impish humor, penchant for odd sounds, and relentless tinkering with the aural landscape of his songs, Zé has always seemed to be in a separate orbit than his contemporaries - the Bizarro-world's version of Brazil's smoothly swinging superstars.

Luaka has released a three-album set - in vinyl - of Zé's works, Studies of Tom Ze: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You - with one "new" album, Estudando de Bossa, which was in fact released in Brazil several years ago. Estudando de Bossa, which is also available as a single CD, is Zé's take on bossa nova, the iconic music that rolled out of Brazil in the late 1950s and took the world by quiet storm. At first listen, it would seem like Zé is mocking the music, which has been unfairly stereotyped as proto-lounge music, its coolness mistaken or co-opted for ironic hipness.

But bossa was a revolution at the time of its birth - a repudiation of the big-sounding music of the time. Birthed by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, among others, it was quietly intellectual and heartfelt music that caught the fancy of a rising generation of young Brazilians. Powered by "The Girl from Ipanema" and the film Black Orpheus, it became internationally popular in the early 1960s, only to be displaced by four lads from Liverpool and their ilk.

In somewhat of an anthem for bossa, "Desfinado (Slightly Out of Tune)" Jobim and lyricist Newton Mendoça playfully rebut those who accused bossa singers of singing off-key when in fact the composers were experimenting with sounds that were atypical of contemporary popular music.

So Zé's take on bossa can be seen, in a way, as a natural extension of bossa's playful experimentation. His notably froggy vocals are just a bit more craggy than Jobim's. In most of the songs on Estudando, Zé sets up bossa's characteristic soft, samba-derived swing and adds sweet female vocalists (including Badi Assad, Zélia Duncan and Mônica Salmoso). He sometimes tweaks the choral vocals to be a bit over-the-top and then crashes the cocktail party with his own un-pretty voice, but without wrecking the mood. Mr.Luaka Bop himself, David Byrne, shows up for one duet, with Zé making Byrne's voice seem suave and silky by comparison.

According to the liner notes, the songs are inspired by unusual things: lectures, performances, articles. The album finds Zé in a less experimental mood than his previous work - no use of power tools nor jarring electronic effects. His affection for bossa leads him to a more honeyed version of his own sound. Estudando may not be a gateway for future bossaheads, but it is a welcome expansion of the small genre, which still has some wonderful apostles, such as Rosa Passos, but has also been watered down by performers who imitate the whispery sounds without understanding the music's depths.

Another artist that playfully remakes a revered and hallowed genre is Deolinda, a Portuguese group that is having great success remaking the usually melancholic style called fado.

The group formed a few years ago, acquaintances and relatives that took a stab at collaborating and soon realized they had some real chemistry. They began to create a set of songs built around a fictional character named Deolinda, a young fan of fado who watches the world of contemporary Lisbon go by.

The band's nontraditional perspective on fado, which borrows some aspects of the usually dramatic genre, is reverent even though it is a fair distance from fado's inherently dark character. The result is bright acoustic, music that features singer Ana Bacalhau's strong, fado-esque voice.

Deolinda is one of a new generation of Portuguese artists who have revived fado even as they have messed with the established formula. The genre's story is tied up with the country's history. During the years of its dictatorship, fado was pushed by the government to promote nationalism. For that reason, many turned away from fado after the regime fell from power. In the 1990s, young musicians and fans who did not have those bitter associations with the old regime, re-discovered fado and it has now become an export with several talented performers achieving international success.

With their debut album an unlikely platinum record in Portugal, Deolinda is now tackling the U.S. market, which has been somewhat hospitable to young fado singers such as Mariza and Dulce Pontes. The group's latest album, Dois Selos e um Carimbo, is not as strong as its 2009 debut, Canção Ao Lado, but it still provides a great accompaniment for Bacalhau's beguiling singing. Deolinda's contagious chemistry makes for a singular hybrid that should appeal to an audience wider than devotees of traditional fado.