Voltarol - related music

Monday, 11 August 2008

Bossa Nova - the new way

It's generally agreed that the first true bossa nova record was João Gilberto's recording of Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes' 'Chega de Saudade which was released in July 1958. (The version you see here is a much later performance). However, as is so often the case, this 'new thing' or 'new way' didn't just emerge fully formed from nowhere. As I observed in my last posting, there were strong elements of it in the work of Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank in 1953, but the true early stirrings of it can be traced back to Noel Rosa and his fellow musicians of Bando de Tangarás, who were probably the first to bring a more progressive approach to the form known as Samba-canção. I include this extremely rare clip, not because it sounds much like bossa nova, but because it illustrates a factor in the development of the music. The essentially Afro Brazilian samba was beginning to acquire white middle-class practitioners that were taking it in a new direction, in much the same way that the 'cool school' jazz had developed in the U.S.A.

A figure often mentioned in the same breath as the more famous bossa nova practicioners is Dick Farney, and his 1946 recording of 'Copacabana' (a composition by Bando de Tangarás member - Braguinha) was another recognisable step along the route. Here is Farney performing the song sometime in the seventies, accompanied, I thought, by the great Brazilian pianist, Cesar Camargo Mariano. I now know that it is in fact Hilton Valente, and I thank the correspondents that put me right on this (see comments below). The song may well be familiar to you bossa enthusiasts out there, but how many of you realised that it predates the official birth by 12 years? I certainly didn't until I started digging!

Another significant figure is the guitarist Garoto, who was experimenting with more complex harmonies, using many of the altered and extended chords (although in the context of Samba and Choro) that were to become such a part of the bossa sound and would influence so many guitarists. I could find no clips of Garoto himself but here are two of his compositions performed by another great Brazilian guitarist, Paulo Belinatti.

Meanwhile, the Rio based singer and pianist Johnny Alf (real name Alfredo José da Silva - he had been advised to change it when he joined an artistic group at the Brazil-United States Institute) was beginning to evolve his own style, mixing Brazilian songs by the likes of Dorival Caymmi with North American influences that undoubtedly included Bebop. He played regularly in the clubs and bars that were frequented by many of the soon-to-emerge new breed of bossa nova musicians. His 1955 recording of Rapaz de Bem was another distinct milestone along the way. This performance of it recorded in 2005 shows that he continues to deliver the goods!

The stage was more or less set and the artists that would put the final elements of bossa nova in place were now beginning to emerge - Louis Bonfa, João Donato, Tom Jobim, Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal started to produce a string of compositions that were quickly taken up by the public in Brazil. By the time that Marcel Camus' multi-award winning film Orpheo Negro ('Black Orpheus'), with it's sound track of Bonfa and Jobim compositions, was released, the world seemed ready for this new sound. That the North American 'cool school' jazz musicians took such an interest in it is not surprising, given that the harmonic approach that drove bossa nova owed a lot to jazz in the first place: what was more surprising was the enthusiasm with which it was taken up generally. By 1963, the phrase 'Bossa Nova' had become thoroughly mainstream and was being used indiscriminately to promote all manner of things. Unfortunately, the music itself often got forgotten along the way, witness this dreadful Elvis Presley clip - 'Bossa Nova Baby" (Don't worry. It's mercifully short).

I have a few theories of my own about the development of this music and the influence of North American jazz upon it. There is no doubt that Messrs Farney and Alf were influenced by jazz, or that Garoto had visited the United States and met jazz musicians there. Laurindo Almeida was consciously trying to blend the two elements of Brazilian music and jazz together. Jobim cites J.S.Bach and Hector Villa Lobos as influences, but was also an enthusiastic admirer of many of the composers responsible for The great American songbook. The idea of taking the samba and some how 'cooling it down' was at the heart of the groove, the trick being to retain the fire of the 2/4 samba in a laid back 4/4 beat. This was achieved by stretching the basic rhythmic phrase over two bars and the addition of the kind of harmonies that were more often associated with 'cool' jazz went a long way towards completing the picture. But there was also Rio de Janeiro itself. All of those ingredients could have come together in São Paulo or Salvador and the results would have been very different.

One last element: we associate Bossa Nova with a very laid back style of singing - undersinging even - and my theory is that Chet Baker's vocal style was an influence on this. I have some recordings of João Gilberto that predate 'Chega do Saudade' and he is much more of a 'sambista' in style. We know by their own testament that many of these innovators were listening to West Coast musicians, and Gerry Mulligan is often mentioned. Could it be that Gilberto heard the 1956 'Chet Baker Sings' album and was inspired?*

If you want to know more about this subject I can recommend a book - 'The Brazilian Sound. Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil' by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha. (ISBN 1-56639-545-3) and a new DVD -'Bossa Brazil: Stories of Love. The Birth of Bossa Nova' narrated by Carlos Lyra and Roberto Menescal. (Warner DVD 5 051442 806328).

I'll conclude this post by including a little clip from the end of Orpheo Negro, not because it's a bossa nova milestone but because it invokes the spirit of the music for me - and the spirit of an innocence that is, alas not so easy to find in Rio these days. The tune is Louis Bonfa's 'Samba Do Orpheo'. I have taken the liberty of including a comment on this video from the YouTube site that I thought was particularly pertinent:-

MP S Shanahan writes -"By itself this scene can seem too sweet. But in the film it immediately follows the death of Orfeu, Euridice in his arms. This moment of hope in the wake of tragedy, with its sense of an ancient tradition being carried forward by the children, is one of the most bittersweet endings in all of cinema. It is, to me, a much more satisfactory ending than most other retellings of the Orpheus myth (while several great operas tell this story, for example, none of them have particularly good endings)."

- and if that whets your appetite to see the film then so much the better!

* The answer to my speculation would seem to be -probably not. I have just (12/8/08) found this excellent and informative piece about him by the splendid Daniella Thompson:-