After an interminable pause, far beyond the Beckettian and well ahead of the Pinteresque, here is Blog #5 from Pete Sounds. This time I have decided to get my musical muscles working again by reflecting on a song (and a musical form) which suggests pure relaxation. Which we could all do with just now. So come and sit down and we’ll discuss Bossa Nova in general and ‘Corcovado’ in particular.
You really can’t talk about Bossa Nova without talking about Brazil. Rarely has a musical style so profoundly influenced the way a nation sees itself or is seen by those outside it. The closest thing I can think of to it is the Viennese waltz, with Strauss’s paean to being ‘An der schönen, blauen Donau’ being the equivalent of Bossa Nova’s Greatest Hit, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. The style of Bossa Nova, translating from the Portuguese as ‘new wave’, was born in Rio de Janiero in the late 1950’s out of a sublimation of the rhythms and melodic possibilities offered by samba and jazz. North and South America mingling together in a way which might explain the style’s tremendous and enduring international success. Gorgeously exotic, it is both realistic and dreamy, simple and sophisticated; hearing it somehow instantly suggests the kiss of a cool breeze from the sea, or glass of a smooth, warming and highly intoxicating liquor. Gimme!
As you can see from this quickly produced UK compilation album from 1964, the connection between place and rhythm, sight and sound was there from the very beginning once the secret was out and in the marketplace.
Yet despite the exoticism and glamorous images, it’s very definitely a simple and entirely acoustic music – the guitar is always fitted with nylon strings and amplified only (if at all) with an external mike. Percussion is light but essential, adding that feeling of sensual buoyancy to the song. Maybe some airy flute dancing around the melody, a little simple piano tinkling too…as for the voice, well, we must knock on the door of the Gilberto house for that.
Joao and Astrud Gilberto absolutely set the tone in every sense for the way Bossa Nova vocals should sound; the disarmingly ‘unperformed’ vocal, technically possibly even occasionally flat, intimate, close miked breathiness but without a hint of force to its sensuality. Joao had been recording for over ten years before the fateful trip to New York in March 1963 to record with Stan Getz, while Astrud, according to legend, was only there to accompany her husband and got roped in to sing what was intended as a guide vocal on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ as she was the only member of the Brazilian party who could speak English fluently. Despite the fact that she only took two short vocals on the album as a whole, the instant global success of the album was in many ways actually Astrud’s success and within months she had eclipsed her husband’s career – and it proved to be the beginning of the end of their marriage.
But don’t get me started on the greatness and perfection of Astrud Gilberto. Back to our subject!
There’s a missing ingredient here though; and his name was Antonio Carlos Jobim. He was a writer and arranger in Rio, employed by Odeon Records but busy everywhere and linked up with very popular poet Vinicius de Moraes on a musical adaptation of the Orpheus legend for Brazilian TV and film in the late 50’s.
Living la dolce vita in a bar adjacent to the beach at Ipanema in Rio the pair noticed a young woman walking past the cafe every morning to swim and sunbathe. This girl – Heloísa Pinheiro, a real person, who is still alive and still beautiful – provided the inspiration for a tune the pair lightly concocted between swooning and drooling and going ‘ahhhh‘. ‘Garôta de Ipanema’ was first recorded in 1962 but, with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, made it on to Getz-Gilberto in 1963 as ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ sung by Astrud and that was that.
But today we are thinking about another of Jobim’s tunes which the Gilbertos took to the world. ‘Corcovado’ actually predates that Girl from Ipanema by a couple of years and sprang early from the well of Bossa Nova, in 1960. The title refers to the mountain above Rio which is crowned by the city’s most famous man-made landmark, the statue known as Christ The Redeemer. The word ‘corcovado’ actually means ‘humped back’ and the shape of the mountain shows this to be a good name for it: see the beautiful image at the top of the page. The song is also sometimes known by the first line of its anglophone translation (by Gene Lees), ‘Quiet Nights Of Quiet Stars’. Joao Gilberto was the first to record the song, in 1960, and since it arrived in the world at large in 1963 via Getz-Gilberto there have been scores of versions.
Here is Joao Gilberto’s 1960 original recording of Jobim’s song.
You want Bossa Nova? You got it right here.
It was a huge hit in Brazil and no Bossa player could afford to not know it. After ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ this is the song that lit the touchpaper of the Bossa craze that went worldwide in the era of Beatlemania. For that elevation, Jobim had Astrud to thank. Here is the Getz-Gilberto version recorded in New York in March 1963, very cannily leading with Astrud in English and then following it with Joao singing the original Portuguese lyric, followed up with Stan Getz’s typically smoky sax variations on the melody. Jobim on piano, perfectly complimenting Astrud at the opening.
Selling zillions might be good news financially but not always so good for a marriage – ask ABBA or Fleetwood Mac – and Joao and Astrud split very soon after the album took off. Astrud even had a brief fling with Getz himself, something of a mismatch given Stan’s appetite for narcotics. How did those old jazz guys do it? Incredible. Anyway she went on to build her own career but ‘Corcovado’ was always part of the deal.
Here she is on Dutch TV in 1966 with the Pim Jacobs Quintet.
The songs of Bossa Nova were easily nudged into MOR if the touch wasn’t deft, or maybe just not Brazilian, and so the multiple covers have often leaned that way. Sinatra did a whole album with Jobim, trying to shoehorn some of that charm and style into his performances but he didn’t quite make it: he was always ‘just visiting’ the feeling.
Here’s Frank’s go at climbing the mountain…unusual to hear him struggling to get on point…see what you think.
Actually we could go on listening to versions of the song all day but my favourite is distinctive in its own way – it was the very last recording ever made by Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn as Everything But The Girl, issued on Red Hot & Rio, an AIDS awareness charity album in 1996. It was track two on the album and rather splendidly track three was a remake of another Jobim tune made famous by Getz-Gilberto, ‘Desifinado’, performed as a duet between Astrud and George Michael.
I think of the EBTG version as the ‘Omega’ to the ‘Alpha’ of their first recording together, a Bossa’d guitar/vocal take on Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ issued on a Cherry Red 45 in 1983 when they were still undergraduates at Hull. In fact I asked Ben about whether there was a ‘full circle’ thing here, going back to a Bossa tune for their final recording as EBTG and he said that that was precisely the idea. It is in their late style of course – the twanging, poinging electro beats mixing with their fidelity to the art of song – but the song swims beautifully. As does Tracey’s Portuguese, as she finally gets to sing one of Astrud’s signature songs. Early EBTG resonated with Getz-Gilberto a lot so the circle is indeed unbroken.
‘And a window that looks out on Corcovado, oh how lovely…’