Experts agree that two pop music genres were invented by individuals: bluegrass by the American mandolinist Bill Monroe in 1938, and bossa nova by Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim in the mid-’50s. Jobim wrote “Desafinado,” and while, in 1957, this was bossa nova’s first big hit, the single itself was sung and played by Joao Gilberto. Consequently, there are those who believe Gilberto should share co-inventor credit.
The claim has merit when you compare the two men’s backgrounds. Jobim was classically trained and something of a nerd. He idolized Debussy and listened to modernist West Coast jazz. Gilberto was a punk. A guitar and vocal prodigy from Bahia, he had trouble holding down band jobs because he was lazy and willful. He earned the nickname “o mito (the legend)” in the early 1950s, despite the fact that he rarely played. But though the freshness of “Desafinado” could be pinned on Jobim’s reconfiguration of samba rhythms and the song’s cleverly complex melody, it could just as easily be attributed to Gilberto’s soothing, whispery vocals and delicately propulsive guitar style. If Gilberto had an obsession, it was pre-bebop jazz, and it was he who added the inextricable swing element to the new genre, an element that was intrinsic in the performance, not the composition.
Gilberto influenced a vast range of musicians. His collaboration with Stan Getz in 1963 resulted in the biggest-selling jazz album ever at the time, though it was his then-wife Astrud who earned most of the attention with her one-off English version of “Girl From Ipanema.” He also had a profound effect on the revolutionary “musica popular brasileira” (MPB) movement that reached critical mass in his native country in the late ’60s with the emergence of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
Despite the enduring popularity of bossa nova in Japan, Gilberto has never played here, which makes his four concerts next month in Tokyo and Yokohama worth their hefty ticket price. One wonders how the quiet vocals of the still-willful 72-year-old will fare in these large halls. The audience will have to pay unusually close attention to catch the details. Then again, a true legend deserves nothing less.
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