Remembering the “Father of Bossa Nova” João Gilberto (RIP) with Four Classic Live Performances: “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Corcovado” & More

If you first heard the work of great Brazil­ian gui­tarist and singer João Gilber­to in a lit­tle tune called “The Girl From Ipane­ma,” you’re in the com­pa­ny of mil­lions, whose intro­duc­tion to Gilber­to and the sounds of bossa nova jazz came from that song, record­ed with sax­o­phon­ist Stan Getz. When the L.A. Times’ Ran­dall Roberts com­pares their col­lab­o­ra­tive album Getz/Gilberto to the arrival of the Bea­t­les in the U.S., this may sound like an exag­ger­a­tion. But bossa nova, like rock and roll, was already huge­ly pop­u­lar, and sound of this record was a qui­et rev­o­lu­tion.

Gilber­to, who died this past Sat­ur­day at age 88, was “one of the most influ­en­tial musi­cians of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” He and “his peer and col­lab­o­ra­tor Anto­nio Car­los Jobim helped cre­ate and pop­u­lar­ize bossa nova, a toned-down and roman­ti­cized take on Brazil­ian sam­ba music.” Jobim may have writ­ten “The Girl From Ipane­ma,” but Gilber­to first turned Amer­i­cans on to its charms, and to what Allmusic’s John Dougan calls “the sig­na­ture pop music of Brazil.”

Called O Mito, “the leg­end,” in his home coun­try, Gilberto’s influ­ence is incal­cu­la­ble and has “res­onat­ed in the work of artists includ­ing Cae­tano Veloso, Sade, Gal Cos­ta, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Stere­o­lab, Seu Jorge  and pret­ty much every Brazil­ian song­writer since 1960,” writes Roberts. His coun­try­man Veloso has said, “I owe João Gilber­to every­thing I am today. Even if I were some­thing else and not a musi­cian, I would say that I owe him every­thing.”

Many peo­ple have said sim­i­lar things over the years about John Lennon or George Har­ri­son, but an unas­sum­ing acoustic croon­er singing in Por­tuguese? Could he real­ly have that kind of cul­tur­al sway world­wide? It may be hard to see it now, but “bossa nova inte­grat­ed itself into the glob­al con­ver­sa­tion in much the same way rock ‘n’ roll did.” Yet instead of rebelling, it dressed up; rather than “upping the tem­po, atti­tude and ener­gy,” it “soothed and seduced.”

Bossa nova pro­vid­ed a coun­ter­point to the raw ener­gy of Amer­i­can and British rock, but not in the com­fort­ing, nos­tal­gic way of soft, soporif­ic music like that of Lawrence Welk. Rather—partly through its influ­ence on jazz musi­cians like Getz, Dizzy Gille­spie, and Char­lie Byrd—bossa nova became its own kind of hip pop­u­lar idiom, cool instead of hot, but still sexy and new. Elvis even tried to cash in on the music’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty in 1963 with his “rol­lick­ing ‘Bossa Nova Baby’” from the movie Fun in Aca­pul­co.

The shoes didn’t quite fit. Bossa nova was sub­dued and sub­tle, a sound cre­at­ed for small spaces and small moves. It’s said that Gilberto’s qui­et style of play­ing “devel­oped in 1955 when he sequestered him­self inside of a bath­room at his sister’s house so as not to dis­turb her fam­i­ly,” writes Felix Con­tr­eras at NPR, “and to take advan­tage of the acoustics pro­vid­ed by the bath­room tiles.” This inti­mate ori­gin sto­ry aside, his was also a style that demar­cat­ed class lines in pop music.

Pop­u­lar among a slight­ly old­er set of lis­ten­ers, in Brazil bossa nova first attract­ed “a new mon­eyed class eager to move away from the more tra­di­tion­al sam­ba sound of explo­sive drums and group singing.” In its influ­ence on Amer­i­can jazz, bossa nova also telegraphed lux­u­ry, with its deeply relaxed atmos­phere and lush, unhur­ried tex­tures. It is the sound of sea­side resort hotels and upscale night­clubs, of yacht par­ties, art gal­leries, and pent­house apart­ments. “The Girl from Ipane­ma” sounds like the singing six­ties worlds of James Bond and Hugh Hefn­er, not Haight Ash­bury.

Nonethe­less, the song is an absolute clas­sic for good rea­son, with Gilberto’s then-wife Astrud “on a sul­try vocal” in Eng­lish, repeat­ing his under­stat­ed Por­tuguese, and a “now-icon­ic tenor sax solo” by Getz. “It was a world­wide hit and won the 1965 Gram­my for record of the year. Getz/Gilberto won album of the year and would go on to become one of the high­est-sell­ing jazz albums of all time.” For a time, bossa nova was every­where, then it gave way to the hard­er-edged Trop­i­calia move­ment of younger musi­cians like Veloso and Gilber­to Gil, and its vocab­u­lary became absorbed into so many dif­fer­ent kinds of music that we are hard­ly aware of its pres­ence any­more.

If “The Girl from Ipane­ma” was the first, and maybe, the last, you heard of João Gilber­to, you owe it to your­self to learn more of his work. And, if you’re already a life­long fan, you’ll appre­ci­ate all the more these live per­for­mances from Gilberto’s career. At the top, see him per­form “The Girl From Ipane­ma” with the song’s com­pos­er and his old col­lab­o­ra­tor Jobim; fur­ther up, Gilber­to plays “Desa­fi­na­do” and “Car­in­hoso” live in con­cert,” and, just above, see him play “Cor­co­v­a­do.”

Gilber­to was cut out of his biggest glob­al hit for the 1964 TV per­for­mance above. Pro­duc­ers opt­ed to make Astrud the face and voice of “The Girl from Ipane­ma.” But the mil­lions who bought the record heard his mes­mer­iz­ing vocal and gui­tar work, and then kept hear­ing their influ­ence on records released for decades after­ward around the world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Girl from Ipane­ma” Turns 50; Hear Its Bossa Nova Sound Cov­ered by Sina­tra, Krall, Methe­ny & Oth­ers

The Strange His­to­ry of Smooth Jazz: The Music We All Know and Love … to Hate

The Exis­ten­tial Adven­tures of Icon­o­clas­tic Brazil­ian Musi­cian Tim Maia: A Short Ani­mat­ed Film

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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