The Boss of Bossa Nova

Some songwriters spend their entire careers hunkered over a keyboard or a guitar, scribbling words and fiddling with melodies in hopes of obtaining that most elusive of songwriting trophies -- the standard, the kind of song that worms itself so deeply into the fiber of the pop-cultural subconscious that it becomes easy to forget that lives were being led before its creation. Some actually snare that trophy, only to find that its shine can be blinding, its mere possession a hindrance, an albatross that whistles the standard's tune incessantly while wrapped around the songwriter's neck.

Such was the case for the late Antonio Carlos Jobim: songwriter, guitarist, and pianist, an originator of bossa nova and the creator of the finger-popping genre's universal anthem "The Girl from Ipanema." Along with "Feelings," "Michelle," and, more recently, "Celebration," "The Girl from Ipanema" is a must-know for lounge acts, cover bands, and any ensemble that hopes to make a living on the wedding-reception/bar-mitzvah circuit. Jobim reportedly grew to loathe his most famous creation after hearing its lilting groove and supple melody mangled too many times in cocktail lounges, concert halls, and just about every other place where musicians gather to keep listeners, dancers, and drinkers happy. Certainly the song has a way of popping up in places both likely (Muzak-filled elevators) and unlikely (punky-pop icon Alex Chilton has been slipping the song into his set off and on for the last ten years).

The song's signature version was actually one among many tunes recorded at something of a bossa nova summit meeting, a two-day session in March 1963 that included key players such as Jobim, tenor sax man Stan Getz, Brazilian guitarist/vocalist and bossa nova co-creator Joa~o Gilberto, and his wife, vocalist Astrud Gilberto. It was Getz A a respected jazz man who logged time in the Forties with the orchestras of Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman -- who suggested that Astrud lend her breathy, detached, and enchantingly flat voice to the English lyrics of "The Girl from Ipanema." Joa~o (who sings part of the song in Portuguese) and Jobim both objected, ostensibly because of Astrud's deadpan delivery. Getz's insistence paid off: Soon after its release, on the now-classic album Getz/Gilberto, "The Girl from Ipanema" scaled the Billboard pop charts, spending twelve weeks on Billboard's Top 100 and reaching the number five spot in June 1964. By the following year, it had earned four Grammys.

Yet there was much more to this composer and musical innovator than a slinky ode to a tall and tan and young and lovely female from a town near Rio de Janeiro who makes men go aah. Even before "The Girl from Ipanema," as early as the mid-Fifties, Jobim and co-conspirator Gilberto were mixing the samba grooves of their youth with the smooth rhythms and light improvisations of the "cool jazz" sound ushered in by Miles Davis on The Birth of Cool album and associated with jazz men in California; the results were dubbed bossa nova, or, roughly translated, a new wave of Brazilian music. In 1959 Gilberto recorded the album that is usually referred to as the bible of bossa nova: Chega de Saudade, which included liner notes by Jobim and some of his soon-to-be classic bossa nova standards. Songs such as "Desafinado," "Wave," "Corcovado," "Jazz Samba," and "Meditation" worked their way into the repertoire of numerous American jazz artists, including Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd (the pair whose 1962 album Jazz Samba presaged the monumental Getz/Gilberto collaboration).

As most music trends do, the American bossa nova craze eventually fizzled, although Jobim continued to perform and record well into the Seventies and Eighties. In 1974 he released a duet album with Brazilian vocalist Elis Regina; much of Jobim's later work found him experimenting with strings and orchestras, collaborating with arranger Claus Ogerman for the albums Urubu (1974) and Terra Brasilis (1980). He was also featured on three albums by Frank Sinatra: 1967's Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim; 1971's Sinatra and Company; and Duets, the oddball hit of 1993.

Even after his death in 1994 at age 67, resulting from complications after a bladder operation, Jobim's influence continues to shape the work of countless musicians, both in and beyond the jazz spectrum. In 1995 tenor sax giant Joe Henderson assembled an all-star group for the recording of Double Rainbow, a collection of Jobim classics performed by Henderson and other musicians, including Herbie Hancock, Jack DeJohnette, and Christian McBride. Bassist and mambo creator Israel "Cachao" Lopez calls Jobim "an absolutely excellent musician," while Brazilian soul singer Ed Motta describes him as "an artist who broke a lot of barriers and created a lot of new rules for Brazilian musicians."

"If you're coming up as a musician playing jazz, Jobim's music is essential," raves guitar pioneer Stanley Jordan during a phone interview from his vacation spot near Flagstaff, Arizona. The 36-year-old Jordan -- an innovative musician who plays the guitar like a keyboard, tapping the strings on the instrument's neck A is appearing alongside Cachao, Motta, and others for a tribute this Saturday to Jobim in particular and to Brazilian music in general. "His songs have become standards," Jordan continues. "They're a part of the repertoire. I've been playing his music since I was a teenager."

Jordan's unique style of playing, derived in part from his adolescent years as a pianist, brought him the kind of mainstream attention seldom accorded to jazz musicians. Magic Touch, his 1985 major-label debut for Blue Note Records, helped him land high-profile gigs at esteemed events such as the Montreux Jazz Festival and spots on the Tonight Show and Late Night with David Letterman. With that celebrity, though, also came a kind of pressure that Jordan felt was keeping him from appreciating the value and importance of his art. Although a pair of albums followed Magic Touch, Jordan has spent more time off the road than on, releasing only one album this decade, 1994's Bolero.

"Music to me is a spiritual thing," Jordan states. "The spirit and the sound of the music is more important than the numbers and the sales and the fame. I just wanted to get out of it for a while and regroup. I needed to do a lot of things for myself that I hadn't been able to do for a while, and I've always had a hermit's streak in me. I'm just taking a break from the business for a while."

Nevertheless, Jordan was compelled to emerge from his self-imposed semi-retirement to make an appearance at the Jobim tribute, where he will offer a rendition of the composer's classic "Corcovado." "There's no way I could not do this," he admits. "I've always been looking for a way to pay tribute to him, to honor him. From a jazz point of view, his tunes have so much space for creation and improvisation. It's not like his versions of the songs were the last word. Instead they were like canvases on which you were encouraged to paint."

Daniel Jobim, keyboardist and grandson of the late composer, worked with the elder Jobim as co-producer of his final album, 1995's Antonio Brasileiro. He recalls his grandfather as a painstaking craftsman who would retool and restructure songs on a daily basis. "He was always composing in the studio," recalls Jobim by phone from his home in Rio. "He was very meticulous and was always changing his work. You would think the song was finished and be ready to move to the next song, but he would say 'Let me do it again,' and he would come up with something different. In his last years he was working on a songbook of his work, written out for piano. And he could never finish it because he was always correcting the old songs. For him, his work was never finished.


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