Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three Ideal Places For Really Listening To João Gilberto

The seductive sounds of João Gilberto, age 77, performing with just
his guitar at Carnegie Hall (June 2008)

Today's special post requires some explanation. Earlier this summer, as part of my Sunday Spotlight feature, I (we) had the chance to get to know singer/songwriter Alyssa Graham a little better (back here) . One of the juicy bits Alyssa shared was her admiration for the Father of Bossa Nova, legendary Brazilian singer and guitar player João Gilberto. Always one to look for someone else to do my work for me, I asked Alyssa if she'd like to write a post in which she could open up even more concerning her love of João and his music and she most kindly agreed to. The result: Three Ideal Places For Really Listening to João. If you don't already know where the three places are (and I'll give you a hint: one's not in a Howard Johnson lounge), enjoy the following piece!

Three Ideal Places For Really Listening To João
by Alyssa Graham

The first time I heard João Gilberto it blew my mind. I was driving around northern New Jersey with my good friend BMC, listening to late-night radio, probably WKCR, and heard some selections from the Live at Montreux album, from the mid-1980s. During that initial listening, the fact that I couldn’t understand anything he was singing actually helped—it enabled me to experience the music almost as a force of nature, like water rushing over smooth stones, always finding a slightly different course within the same streambed. It was so powerful I had to pull over and just let the music flow over me.

Since then, I have gotten to know João Gilberto’s music, its achievements and its context much better, but it still has that power to sweep me away, as it has for so many people.

As a singer, some of the things I admire about João are his control, his restraint, and his power to drop down to the faintest whisper, knowing we’re hanging on every breath. He could sing like Pavarotti if he wanted to—or at least he could have when he was younger, and in fact when he was first getting started as a professional singer he was known for his powerful voice and his range. But his real power, it turns out, is exercised through bringing it down to the level of a whisper on your pillow in the dark. I’ve been in Carnegie Hall and seen hundreds of people leaning forward to hear every minute variation better, and João is up there singing softly into his lapels, knowing he is in complete command.

He’s doing similar things with the guitar, also—the tidal pull of his rhythm is so alluring that it is easy to miss all variations within it, but when you listen closely you can hear minute transformations in the way he plays the same chords—he might play the same passage five times in one rendition, and every time it will be just slightly different, and those variations are what give it vitality. He never solos, in the sense of playing improvised individual notes, but his whole performance is an unmistakably original interpretation of the material. There is an irony that bossa nova became the consummate background music for mediocre restaurants, because at its best it is music that really rewards close attention.

That way of playing required a radical transformation of the way people listened to popular music, first in Brazil and then around the world. When João was trying to break onto the nighclub scene in Copacabana in the late 1950s, those joints were packed and noisy, and the band was expected to provide animated background music for scenes of seduction and perhaps debauchery. For musicians, it could be a cutting contest matching guys with technical chops, but the emphasis tended to be on displaying those chops in some kind of pyrotechnical way—for someone like João, who was starting to develop this music of playing your cards close to your vest, holding back your aces, it was not the most hospitable environment.

And live radio at the time was also a pretty boisterous affair, feeding the market for uptempo Carnaval music.

João Gilberto and Tom Jobim in the movie "Copacabana Palace" (1962)

The best thing that happened to João, definitely, was meeting Tom Jobim, and being the first to record Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’s Chega de Saudade, in 1958. “Chega de Saudade,” was not just the first bossa nova, it was one of the first Brazilian radio hits really oriented towards people listening on their transistor radios, which were new to the Brazilian scene, and in the privacy of their cars. It's easy to think of Brazil as the place for the ecstatic celebration of Carnaval, but through bossa nova João and Jobim really pulled samba out of that ecstatic realm and into the world of intimacy. So my experience riding around in my car in New Jersey, although it seemed otherworldly at the time, was really not that unusual—João’s music is made for that kind of personal experience, whether it happens in the close quarters of your car or in the hushed and sacred anticipation of Carnegie Hall. In fact, I would say the car and the concert hall are two of the three ideal places for really listening to João. The third, of course, is in bed.

Here are three wonderful examples of Joao's unique and genuine style:

My absolute favorite song:

João Gilberto - Bahia Com H : João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira

The song I chose to put on Echo: (listen to her version below)

João Gilberto - Izaura : João Gilberto

Another favorite recorded on his triumphant return to studio in 2000:

João Gilberto - Voce Vai Ver : João Voz e Violão


Alyssa Graham

I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't now mention Alyssa's own album which came out in July. I've said it before, and I'll still stand by it. The album pulls from both the world of jazz and the Brazilian traditions Alyssa is so fond of to create an album that is elegant, simple, and refined. Think dinner music on a much more intimate level. I'll leave you with this quote, from Alyssa herself, about the album:

Echo is like a fairy tale. It reveals the different complexities of an alluring lover, equally at home with flirtation and passion and knowing the precise distance between the two. A love story that is true and eternal, Doug and I have been together since we were kids and this record is truly a tribute to our successful love story and to many of the places we have traveled together – emotionally and geographically.”

That love, both for her music and her partner, comes across clearly on the album. Pick up a copy of Echo to experience that fairy tale.

Visit her website, her label Sunnyside Records, and become her friend on MySpace.

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