Bossa nova forever young

by Suzannah Tartan

The music may be ageless, but bossa nova’s founding generation are aging. Forthcoming tours to Japan this month and next by Joao Gilberto, who, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, was credited with creating bossa nova in the late 1950s, and Sergio Mendes, bossa nova’s great popularizer, may well be their last.

Bossa nova has always had a particular popularity in Japan. During the ’90s, it underpinned two of Tokyo’s most fertile music movements: The Japanese version of Acid Jazz, whose proponents included UFO, mirrored its fusion of jazz and Latin rhythms, not to mention its very adult vibe; and Shibuya-kei drew on its introspection and sculpted melodies.

Literally meaning “new beat,” bossa nova first emanated from Rio de Janeiro’s beach districts nearly 50 years ago. Yet, like a Frank Lloyd-Wright home or an Eames chair, bossa nova still seems fresh and new.

Although nominally a simplified samba, bossa nova rejected the populism and exuberance of Rio Carnival’s chosen soundtrack. Jobim may have written its most popular song, “The Girl from Ipanema” (subject to countless sappy cover versions), but Gilberto created bossa nova’s musical template: Subdued, almost whispery vocals, and a pared down, syncopated guitar style.

Cool and restrained (and, some might say, predominantly upper class and white), it was far removed from the tumult of the favelas in the outer reaches of the city or of the politically engaged music of Tropicalia, the musical export from Brazil that followed bossa nova and which is represented in Tokyo later this month by Gal Costa.

As much a troubadour as a professional musician, Gilberto is famous for having no fixed address and for being less than punctual — at his first Tokyo shows in 2003, he let the audience wait some 70 minutes. Yet, as the live album of those shows document, he is a mesmerizing performer, able to hold a large venue like Tokyo International Forum in his thrall using only his voice and guitar.

If Gilberto distills bossa nova’s essence, then Sergio Mendes resurrects its spirited, kitschy Carnival roots.

Mendes is a showman, and in parts of Latin America, a superstar. His versions of Gilberto compositions such as “One Note Samba” are anything but subtle, with thick layers of vocals and percussion and rousing, brash crescendos. His stage persona plays on the cliche of the virile Latin male. Think of a Brazilian Austin Powers.

Mendes’ penchant for almost Vegaslike showmanship is coupled with a talent for tuning into — if not exploiting — whatever is popular. His 2005 album, “Timeless,” was produced by Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am. Thus it is easy to lose track of Mendes’ very real skills as a musician and arranger and view his music as “bossa nova lite.” Nonetheless, his live shows are consummate enough to forgive his flexible take on bossa nova.