Sharps & Flats

Bossa nova veteran Joco Gilberto -- with just guitar, voice and the songs of Brazil -- still swings harder than most.

By Michael Ullman

Published June 28, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"Don't let that gentleness fool you," saxophonist Stan Getz wrote about the Brazilian singer-guitarist Joco Gilberto and his band, "these guys know how to swing harder than most, and they do it without pushing." The gentleness has been fooling a lot of people since the late '50s, when Gilberto started to record in his murmuring, conversational baritone the tunes that came to be called bossa nova. The songs and their presentation were revolutionary in Brazil, where the drum-driven samba was virtually the national dance. Influenced by North American jazz, Gilberto was making a cool, nuanced music that took off, as composer Antonio Jobim commented, "the excess of percussionists in Brazilian music." Using the harmonies and aura that typified the cool jazz of Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz, Gilberto and Jobim tamed the wilder spirit of the samba, while maintaining something of its rhythmic complexity.

No wonder bossa nova was almost instantly successful in the United States: It sounded somehow familiar. Jobim's sweetly self-contained melodies were instantly memorable, their unimpassioned yearning sounded appealing in any language. If the folk samba was overtly sensual and driving, the bossa nova spoke wistfully of lost love or missed opportunities, almost serenely. The singer never talks to the girl from Ipanema. "Go my sadness, tell my beloved I can not live without her" is a translation of "Chega de Saudade's" opening. Yet the singer sounds calm, if not resigned. Not surprisingly, Gilberto's notes to his blockbuster hit album from 1963, "Getz/Gilberto," begin: "Peace is a beautiful feeling."

There is more than a peaceful feeling in Gilberto's new album, his first in almost a decade, and the first American-issued disc to feature solely his voice and guitar. Gilberto doesn't sound dated when he reprises his greatest hits, including "Desafinado" and "Chega de Saudade," on this intimate masterpiece of an album, whose only fault is that it is too short.

Gilberto's acoustic guitar sets the beat and he, as in the best jazz, sings gracefully around it and against it. He has a small range, and on Caetano Veloso's "Desde que o Samba e Samba" he both reaches downward for a long note and, barely hitting it, stretches upward. But he manages to make those moments touching, as are the measures where he suddenly adds a slow-moving vibrato to his usually pure tones. On "Joco Voz e Violco," Gilberto sings several new songs by Caetano Veloso, as well as previously known songs by Gilberto Gil and other top-notch Brazilian composers. He does so with his usual clear enunciation and lack of affectation: He might as well be singing to himself. On Marino Pinto's "Segredo," he descends to a whisper, but he also injects an appealing rhythm into his singing: His best vocals are as cleverly accented as a drum solo.

Gilberto was seen as an innovative figure in Brazil, and here, in the United States, as a conservative one, focused on melody and sweetly complex rhythms. Getz said that in the '60s Gilberto was important as a counter to the egomania of many contemporary jazz players, a common complaint about free jazz. I am not sure that Gilberto ever realized the irony of his reception here, where his music, beautiful in itself, came at a particularly apt moment in jazz history. Today, it sounds timeless.

Michael Ullman

Michael Ullman is a jazz writer and lecturer in the music department of Tufts University.

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