Tribute to João Gilberto: 15 classic songs by the ‘father of bossa nova’

Laura Fernandez is the host of Café Latino on JAZZ.FM91.


It’s with great sadness that I’m writing this small but heartfelt tribute to one of Brazilian music’s great iconic figures, João Gilberto.

Gilberto quietly passed away in his apartment in Rio de Janeiro this past Saturday at the age of 88. I learned of this great loss from one of my listeners during the broadcast of Café Latino. Gilberto had been suffering from health problems, had not performed since the 2008 celebration of the 50th anniversary of bossa nova, and had been enduring financial issues, as well.

João Gilberto changed the course of Brazilian music, but it didn’t stop there — he changed the world with his bossa nova beat.

His first recording of The Girl from Ipanema became a worldwide hit and peaked at No. 5 on Billboard. Getz/Gilberto, the album on which it appeared, won the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year in 1965, beating out Barbra Streisand and Henry Mancini, among others. The Girl from Ipanema went on to become the second most recorded popular song in history after The Beatles’ Yesterday.

All of this from a then-unknown musician who had his wife Astrud — who was not a professional singer at the time — sing on the recording, and who had previously been in seclusion in a little town in the mountains for eight months, suffering from severe depression. It was there that Gilberto found solace in his guitar and invented the style of music that took the world by storm. It changed not only his life but the lives of many others around him, notably Antônio Carlos Jobim. There are plenty of composers of whom we may never have heard had it not been for the brilliant rhythm and relaxed vocal style that Gilberto created and became known for.

Bossa nova has influenced many musicians and songwriters in jazz. pop and beyond. Rarely do I receive a new Latin jazz album in my mailbox that doesn’t contain a bossa nova track. Bossa nova has made its place in music history, and we owe it all to Gilberto.

I know that when I feel the stresses of life and just need to breathe, I put on João Gilberto and melt into oblivion. Bossa nova is like a breath of air: sexy, sultry and relaxing. It conjures up visions of beaches, sunsets and the softness of a warm ocean breeze. I share this with you weekly on Café Latino —there is rarely a show during which I don’t include Gilberto on my playlist. This is my gift of relaxation to you.

So, it is with a tear in my eye — both eyes, actually — that I recommend to you, for your listening pleasure, some of my favourite recordings by the one and only João Gilberto. I’ll be featuring them and more on this Saturday’s episode of Café Latino, so be sure to tune in.

I love these beautiful songs and I hope you do, too.


Recommended Links


The Girl from Ipanema

Need I say more? This  Getz/Gilberto is a must for your desert-island record collection, and this song written by Antônio Carlos Jobim and internationally popularized by Gilberto is, rightfully, a classic. I never, ever get tired of it.


Wave

The string arrangements on Gilberto’s album Amoroso are so sublime — a gorgeous, sensual addition to his voice and guitar. This is my favourite version of this Jobim song, which saw later covers by Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal. While there are a few versions that I love, this one by Gilberto remains the king.


Estate

Also from Amoroso, this is an absolutely gorgeous version of this song by Bruno Martino and Bruno Brighetti. It had been a minor hit in Italy, but it was Gilberto’s bossa nova interpretation that made it a worldwide jazz standard. The sweeping strings are like soft clouds floating on a summer sky. And the mood is so sexy and melancholy — it just makes me weep.


‘S Wonderful

This is a brilliant version of a Gershwin classic. I love his timing and tone so much that whenever I sing the song, this is how I sing it. It’s been recorded by Bing Crosby, Brian Wilson, Anita O’Day, Gene Kelly, Ella Fitzgerald Judy Garland, John Pizzarelli, Sarah Vaughan and countless others — but it’s Gilberto who has forever changed how I perform this song.


Bésame Mucho

Gilberto recorded possibly the best version of Bésame Mucho, originally written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez. That’s high praise, considering how many beautiful versions of this famous bolero have been recorded over the course of nearly 80 years.


Sorriu pra Mim

This song is so happy and lighthearted, and it’s quicker than many of Gilberto’s others. It always puts a smile on my face and a little spring in my step. This song appeared on Gilberto’s simply titled album João, released in 1991 just as he had entered his sixties.


Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) 

Here’s another from the classic Getz/Gilberto. Astrud sings on this and is so charming. Together, she and João defined the bossa nova era with that very relaxed singing style and alluring accent.


Desafinado

I absolutely love this. The title means “slightly out of tune,” and it was sung that way. Jobim wrote it originally as a response to critics who claimed that bossa nova was made for singers who couldn’t sing. It’s another charming song, and I’m always compelled to sing along with the “dum-dee-dum” at the end. Gilberto’s 1959 recording of the song was inducted into the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.


Vivo Sonhando

Literally translated as, “I Live Dreaming,” this song — the last one on Getz/Gilberto — conjures up daydreams and private thoughts. I love the saxophone on this one.


Só Danço Samba

Also known as Jazz ‘n’ Samba, this light and charming song composed by Jobim in 1962 always puts me in a great mood; the saxophone is so breezy and carefree.


Chega de Saudade

Known in English as No More Blues, it was recorded on Gilberto’s debut album Chega de Saudade and is considered the first bossa nova recording. With music by Jobim and lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, the song would go on to become Brazilian royalty. The sparse arrangement and deep sentiment — melancholy yet hopeful — is absolutely beautiful. It is pure Gilberto, unadorned. You can really hear the genius of his guitar technique and the subtlety of his voice.


Águas de Março

This Jobim classic is rendered sparsely and simply. Drummer Sonny Carr’s hypnotic rhythm juxtaposed against the relentless plucking of Gilberto’s guitar makes it feel like a ticking clock, but riveting. The album on which it appeared, the self-titled 1973 effort often referred to as Gilberto’s version of The Beatles’ White Album, was named by Rolling Stone Brazil as one of the 100 best Brazilian albums in history.


Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar

What can I say? This is one of the most beautiful songs ever written by the masters Jobim and de Moraes, performed by the master Gilberto later in his life. The live recording is bittersweet.


Meditação

The first of many recordings of this Jobim song was released on Gilberto’s 1960 album O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor. Those two really had a connection — one that started well before anyone had any idea what they would become. Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World is an entertaining must-read for anyone seeking insight into the birth of the genre and the artists that made it happen.


Insensetez

Translated as How Insensitive, this is a definitive breakup song. The song has been recorded by Olivia Newton-John, Petula Clark, The Monkees, Liberace, William Shatner, Iggy Pop, Judy Garland and more, but the first and definition version arrived in 1961 via Jobim’s reliable partner — the legendary João Gilberto.