João Gilberto, the Brazilian artist who died on July 6 at the age of 88, spent his last decade of life more reclusive than ever. But even holed up in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro — averse to visits, and away from the stages and studios in which he shone for 50 years — he did not abandon music, and he still obsessively sought the perfect beat and song.
In the liner notes of Chega de Saudade (“Enough Longing”), Gilberto’s debut album released in 1959, Antonio Carlos Jobim, another genius from that moment of radical transformation in Brazilian music, had been a visionary: “João Gilberto does not underestimate the sensitivity of the people. He believes there is always room for a new, different and pure thing that — although at first glance does not seem — can become, as they say in the specialized language, highly commercial.”
That gentle irony was a message to many professionals in the recording industry who did not understand the fascination that the obscure singer and acoustic guitar player already enjoyed among the elite of Brazilian musicians. Jobim, the arranger of the first album and author of three of its emblematic songs — “Chega de Saudade,” “Desafinado” (“Out of Tune”) and “Brigas Nunca Mais” (“No More Fights”) — was right. Despite the initial resistance of programmers, as soon as the single “Chega de Saudade” hit the radio it spread like wildfire. João Gilberto went viral. And his new and original way of playing and singing samba, almost like a Buddhist monk, became the standard for Bossa Nova. Soon, this aesthetic that was at once so sophisticated, would conquer Brazil, and from the 1960s on would spread throughout the world after also being adopted by jazz and pop stars, from Miles Davis to Frank Sinatra.
In the early 1950s, while in his early 20s, João Gilberto traded Bahia for Rio de Janeiro, and tried to find a place in the effervescent and competitive music scene in the then-Brazilian capital. His talent was starting to be recognized, but it was obscured by his unstable behavior. He almost always came late to appointments, or simply didn’t show up. He even disappeared for almost two years, when he wandered through the countryside of Brazil, staying at the home of friends or relatives. In 1957, a renewed and confident João Gilberto returned to Rio. With a unique guitar beat and soft and sparse singing voice, without any flourishes, he made his delicate and instantaneous revolution. Brazilian music was never the same, and it started to be mentioned among the best jazz and pop in the world.
After watching the pope of Bossa Nova in November 1962 at the Carnegie Hall concert that introduced the style to the U.S., Miles Davis commented that Gilberto “would sound good reading a phone book.” And João Gilberto sounded very good, whether it was singing the many successful Bossa Nova songs he helped launch, memorable old sambas and boleros, or standards by Gershwin and Cole Porter. Thanks to his records and many recorded concerts, João Gilberto will continue to enchant us.