João Gilberto – João Gilberto en México

João Gilberto en México

João GilbertoJoão Gilberto en México Orfeón TCI 10.012 (1970)

João Gilberto seemed to always take unexpected paths.  Following his rise to international fame into the mid-1960s, he did not release any studio recordings for five years.  He moved to the United States, then to Mexico for a couple years, then back to the United States.  During those few years in Mexico he recorded the sometimes overlooked João Gilberto en México.  The music is transitional, and while there are some simple performances rooted in his past work, with a focus on just Gilberto singing with his guitar, this was an album that notably embraced lush American pop in a new way.  That new turn is epitomized by a version of “Trolley Song,” made famous by Judy Garland‘s rendition for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  The album features orchestration, but it seems like that of a minuscule budget, deployed sparingly.  Gilberto would remove all traces of orchestration on his next album, arguably his best.  But orchestration came back even more prominently on the highly successful Amoroso (1977), which has little of the spark and vitality of João Gilberto en México, and the use of an American pop standard even carried over to the artistically rewarding collaborative effort Brasil (1981).  This is an interesting set of music, revealing Gilberto’s willingness to rethink his music in fairly fundamental ways.  Much of the newer (if still retro) ideas he introduced initially here would only come to complete fruition over two decades later on João (1991).

João Gilberto – João


João GilbertoJoão Polydor 848-507 (1991)

More than thirty years into his recording career, João Gilberto released 1991’s João.  The master sounds as cool and relaxed as ever, but here he is backed by orchestration.  It is somewhat hard to understand why Amoroso (1977), with its treacly, Sinatra-aping, cookie-cutter arrangements, gets praised as one of Gilberto’s best while this stunning, superior effort is somewhat overlooked.  While he often was at his best in minimalist settings, with little else but his voice and acoustic guitar (João Gilberto, Chega de saudade), João might be the consummate realization of his music in a more elaborate and ornate setting.  The orchestration (by Clare Fischer) features strings plus wind instruments, sounding mostly like woodwinds.  The recording is detailed enough that the woodiness of the oboes comes through, and the flutes are smoothed over to eliminate sharp angles.  And the arrangements are superb — voicings move independent of one another and add melodic detail, always perfectly complementary to the overall mood (reminiscent, perhaps, of Richard Carpenter in his prime).  The orchestration is not so much underneath Gilberto’s playing as interspersed and traded back and forth against his singing, sometimes augmenting it with crescendo-ed washes of strings.  This is not a return to a style of his earlier career as much as a new facet that retains a connection to all of his strengths while also standing somewhat distinctly apart form other trends and undercurrents of his past career.

From the beginning, everything about Gilberto’s craft was suited to last into his autumn years.  He is singing here at such a slow tempo, maybe that is a sign of age, but it also encapsulates the reclusive, deliberate, insouciant, persevering, and, above all, incorruptible qualities that make his music so appealing.  This was one of the first of his albums in a very long stretch to feature new songs.  Released decades after the bossa nova fad had passed, this is, surprisingly, yet another Gilberto album that is among the best the entire genre has to offer.  Pure class.  Superb.

Josephine Foster – Blood Rushing

Blood Rushing

Josephine FosterBlood Rushing Fire (2012)

After listening to Josephine Foster off and on for years, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t care much for her singing.  It is simply too much.  The affected mannerisms are too imposing, the delivery too forceful, and, in general, the emphasis too heavy on the vocals.  In short, she tries too hard to make her singing out of character for the kind of folky music she makes.  What I do like about Blood Rushing is everything else.  These are wonderful songs, with an effortless blend of shambolic eccentricities and virtuous melodies.  It’s actually a pretty endearing album.

Elis Regina & Antônio Carlos Jobim – Elis & Tom

Elis & Tom

Elis Regina & Antônio Carlos JobimElis & Tom Philips 6349 112 (1974)

Tom Jobim was the songwriter of the bossa nova movement.  If the genre was always the bourgie version of samba, then Elis & Tom might be the very finest example of those tendencies.  This is the album that the mediocre Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim should have been.  Elis Regina’s vocals exhibit many of the qualities valued by traditional pop.  So her voice is perfectly suited to these treatments of classic Jobim songs set to decadent, refined and classy orchestration and warm electric keyboards.  She is especially effective on the slower songs with string arrangements (“Modinha” etc.).  And while Jobim’s keyboard playing still has some of the heavy-handed lounge jazz affectations of his past work (Wave, Stone Flower), those qualities are mostly held in check here.  Anyone who doubts the range of the genre should listen to this alongside Dez anos depois, João Gilberto, and any of the slightly, lounge-y bossa nova records of the mid-1960s.  Even as the same songs are re-worked again and again, there are new perspectives offered.  Hardly the stuff of rigid formulas.

Recorded in Los Angeles, this album looks back a bit.  Regina saw working with Jobim on the album as a question of confronting a “sacred cow” of Brazilian music.  This was a period in which Regina, nicknamed “furacão” (“hurricane”) for her mood swings and one of the the most popular Brazilian singers of all time (nearly as well-known as Carmen Miranda), shifted her music to be more political and critical of the Brazilian military junta.  While recording the album, a Brazilian diplomat in L.A. screened Saul Landau & Haskell Wexler‘s documentary (with staged re-enactments) Brazil: A Report on Torture for Regina and Jobim.  Screening the film lead to persecution of the diplomat, Jom Tob Azulay, by the junta.  While nothing about these old songs is overtly political, the way the album looks back and celebrates the music of the pre-military dictatorship period is tacitly political in a very subtle way.

João Gilberto – Chega de saudade

Chega de saudade

João GilbertoChega de saudade Odeon MOFB 3073 (1959)

Chega de saudade was an album credited as the being the very first in an entirely new genre: bossa nova.  João Gilberto was the genre’s true master, the epitome of its cool, detached, laid-back qualities, with a voice perfectly suited to the music and an often-imitated but never duplicated style on the guitar.  He is supported by some jazzy accompaniment.  It is complementary.  Yes, this is music of the well-off, but it is music of the most aware and sympathetic among them.  In an era before the LP format really came into its own, this is one of the early milestones.  It still sounds great more than a half-century later.  His next few albums, though still good, lacked the utterly effortless cool achieved here.  Then came international success with the excellent collaboration Getz / Gilberto.  Also check out Gilberto’s arguably best album, the eponymous 1973 effort  João Gilberto.

Juçara Marçal – Encarnado


Juçara MarçalEncarnado (self-released) (2014)

Comes across vaguely like a low-budget version of Tom Zé‘s Vira Lata na Via Láctea (2014), with more conventionally pretty vocals.  Marçal is an excellent vocalist.  The album’s major limitation is the “math rock” guitar style of Kiko Dinucci and Rodrigo Campos (Dinucci appeared as a guest on the Zé album), which more often than not uses the raw repetition of riffs as a way to cover up a general lack of ideas.  The experimentalism of the music also falls prey to self-indulgence at times.  Yet Marçal has a way of making just about anything she sings captivating, which often counteracts the overbearing (and mostly boring) guitar.  The album improves somewhat in the second half, with shorter songs that have less guitar (and sometimes when it appears, it is more as a novelty and a contrast or change-of-pace, rather than with a serious “rock” sound, which works better).  There are a few promising aspects to this album (especially the songs “João Carranca” and “Canção Pra Ninar Oxum”), but for the most part it seems insufficiently thought-through and burdened by the very mediocre guitar playing.

Nara Leão – Dez anos depois

Dez anos depois

Nara LeãoDez anos depois Polydor 2.388.004/5 (1971)

The history of bossa nova runs through Nara Leão, to the point that some claim the original bossa nova scene coalesced in her parents’ living room.  She became a star in her native Brazil, and was one of the more popular bossa nova singers.  But with the military coup, she first turned toward protest music, then left the country in 1969.  She lived in Paris, and in August of 1969 announced in an interview that she had retired from professional singing.  Her retirement proved short-lived.  Soon enough she was back to recording and in 1971 released the double LP Dez anos depois, which featured new recordings of older bossa nova songs.  The first LP was minimalist, and recorded in Paris.  The second LP, only slightly less minimalist, featured some backing arrangements (by Roberto Menescal mostly, plus Luis Eça and Rogério Duprat for two tracks each), and was recorded in Rio.

Dez anos depois (translation: “ten years later”) is sort of a sister album to Françoise Hardy‘s La question (1971). Both have an intimate, melancholy feel, and expatriate Brazilian guitarist Tuca (Valeniza Zagni da Silva) appears on both.  It might even be said that both put forward musical personas that were unique to the heyday second-wave feminism — not in terms of overt feminist militancy but instead (and somewhat paradoxically) by being unassuming thinking-woman’s music of a kind that simply wasn’t given much of an airing in prior times.

Tuca’s guitar is wonderful.  Unlike the pure sublime gracefulness of João Gilberto or the sentimentality of Baden Powell, she leavens the angelic melodies with a hint of punky, plucky impertinence.  “Fotographia” illustrates that point in its hypnotic strummed line unsettled by a dissonant, sour note lingering in the chords but never brought to the forefront.  Across much of the first LP (seemingly the only disc on which Tuca appears) the melodic statements on guitar often seem rushed, almost, to emphasize the rhythmic aspects.  This is both the essence of bossa nova, and a contrarian act of defiance.

Of course, Nara’s vocals are a big part of the album’s appeal.  There is an insouciance to her delivery.  The “ten years after” of the album title seems to refer to beginning her (then amateur) singing career that many years before.  This is an album that looks back to a musical genre that she had left behind.  But it looks back from a place and time in which Nara was living in Paris not long after the May 1968 student uprising came and went, and, in her own career, after a period of protest singing and retirement.  So, rather than the cynical (anti-)flashiness of bossa nova in its early-/mid-1960s commercial peak, full of brash hope and revolutionary optimism thinly veiled behind leisurely tempos and sunny harmonies, Dez anos depois has a more deeply restrained and somber attitude, aware of the limitations of the first wave of bossa nova but still ready to draw on core elements that had weathered the intervening few years.  That is to say that Nara’s renditions of these songs draw on the elements of bossa nova that precisely were not what garnered the music international success in the prior decade.  This album makes attempts to find new meanings in the genre’s history.  In that respect this album also does what any good “comeback” does: find something that was there before but overshadowed and emphasize it anew.

If much Brazilian music of the 1960s and 70s has maintained a cultish appeal internationally, thanks partly to limited geographic distribution of reissues in the CD era (and even the digital distribution era), Dez anos depois is somewhat doubly a dark horse given the timing of its original release and the superficial appearance as a mere recapitulation of the past.  This is really an album that tries to right the wrongs of commercial bossa nova, giving the genre a new life of sorts.  Even if the recording fidelity of the Paris sessions is only mediocre, this is an excellent collection of chamber-style bossa nova recordings from a surprisingly fertile period after the international commercial spotlight moved on to other genres, up there with Gilberto’s self-titled João Gilberto (1973) and Elis Regina and Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s Elis & Tom (1974).

João Gilberto – João Gilberto

João Gilberto

João GilbertoJoão Gilberto Polydor 2451 037 (1973)

Gilberto is considered the father of bossa nova.  The style evolved out of samba, but with a minimalist aspect that used musical gestures to imply elements beyond the explicit content.  There was less emphasis on rhythm and more on harmony and melody, drawing influence from jazz in some respects.  His singing is almost a whisper, slightly nasal, and is free of vibrato.  Bossa nova emerged in the 1950s (some claim the scene coalesced in the living room of Nara Leão‘s parents’ home).  It was music of the bourgeoisie, popular among the college-educated, with an emphasis on introverted, existential and personal obstacles.  It became an international craze in the 1960s.  Yet by the early 1970s, bossa nova had ceded popularity in Brazil and the rest of the world to other styles.  The Brazilian junta was in power, and under President Médici the economically polarizing “Brazilian Miracle” was underway, punctuated by the 1973 oil shock.  In the United States, the Powell Memo had recently been published and the neoliberal era was finding its feet.  The Gang of Four was still leading China’s Cultural Revolution, but President Richard Nixon had met with Premier Zhou Enlai the year before — Nixon had already a few years earlier met with Elvis and gave him a a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.  It was chaos everywhere.  The timing was perfect for a resurgent Gilberto.

The album comes across as Gilberto performing solo.  Nonetheless, Sonny Carr appears regularly on light and gentle percussion, and Miúcha (Gilberto’s wife or girlfriend at the time) provides vocals on one song.  Like many Brazilian musicians, Gilberto had multiple self-titled releases.  This one is sometimes dubbed the “white album”.  The oft reclusive Gilberto had lived in the United States through much of the 1960s, then moved to Mexico for about two years, and then moved back to the United States where he lived at the time this album was recorded, supposedly in New Jersey; he returned to Brazil in 1980.

In many ways, this is a flawless album, as much as such a thing is possible.  Gilberto has a lightness to his voice and guitar playing that speaks to the resilience of inner resolve.  The recording fidelity is excellent (Wendy Carlos served as the recording engineer and Rachel Elkind the producer).  If the sunny existentialism of bossa nova was always one of its defining and most appealing features, this is an album that confirms relevance beyond its faddish commercial peak.

The opener is Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s “Águas de Março” (“The Waters of March”), one of the most highly acclaimed Brazilian songs of its time, performed with a placid, self-content attitude toward the meaningless cycles of nature and the seasons and fully embracing the arbitrary, stream-of-consciousness wordplay of the lyrics.  It is followed by Gilberto’s own “Undiú,” with mostly wordless vocalizations and singing that approaches guttural-sounding throat singing.  This leans toward a Zen-like attitude, contemplating the universe and offering statements outside language.  “Eu quero um samba” opens side two of the original LP, and has some of the most insistent guitar playing on the whole album, bolstered by Carr’s lightly tapped percussion.  Despite the minimalist instrumentation, there is much happening on this album, which is tinged with nostalgia and sentimentality (a song about Gilberto’s young daughter, “Valsa (Como são Lindos os Youguis) (Bebel),” and a version of Gilberto Gil‘s “Eu Vim da Bahia” [“I Came From Bahia”]), yet also dry and aloof as well, with the vibrato-less vocals and a sometimes cloistered attitude.

If one word describes Gilberto’s musical approach, it would perhaps be “nuanced.”  This is part and parcel with the leisure class undertones of the entire bossa nova genre.  And yet, this music is an ideal expression of a relaxed, peaceful attitude toward a stressful and even harrowing urban bourgeois existence.  This is just one of the irreducible knots at the heart of bossa nova.  These knots lend the tension that is evident in the rhythmic construction of João Gilberto’s music.  As one writer put it, “The voice pulled in one direction, the beat in another. The combination was mesmerizing and highly addictive, refreshing and modern.”

If all of Gilberto’s music lends itself to a kind of cultural nationalism, the artist’s reclusive tendencies and withdrawal from the trappings of celebrity suggest something else altogether.  Is it a false sense of purity?  No, not at all.  In a paradoxical way, Gilberto’s dogged pursuit of his own muse while disengaging from a world taking disastrous turns for the worse is actually about making in a crucial statement in the face of cruelly empty formal options.  This position lingers:

“the danger today is not passivity but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ in order to mask the vacuity of what goes on. People intervene all the time. People ‘do something.’ Academics participate in meaningless debates, and so on. The truly difficult thing is to step back, to withdraw.” (On Clinton, Trump and the Left’s Dilemma).

Stated in another and more general way, this sort of passivity can really be a form of action:

“the very passive ‘withdrawal’ by means of which [a] thought ‘secedes’, ‘splits off’ from its object, acquires a distance, violently tears itself off ‘the flow of things’, assuming the stance of an ‘external observer’; this non-act is its highest act, the infinite Power which introduces a gap into the self-enclosed Whole of Substance.”  (The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Center of Political Ontology)

If the Brazilian tropicalistas sought a new internationalism in the late 1960s and early 70s, João Gilberto’s music here was substantively taking another tack, and yet making João Gilberto in the United States with electronic music pioneers hardly seems lacking in internationalism…  The key to it all is the reaffirmation of everything that Gilberto’s music promised in the late 1950s, that not in spite of but because of everything that happened in the interim, the original vision of bossa nova was a vital and radically new historical event, proven through its repetition and a look back that shows its truly original worldview to have gone beyond its causes and influences, an achievement and social rupture that was somehow also impossible in its time.

João Gilberto is an album that deserves a listen, or many.

Leonard Cohen – Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979

Leonard CohenField Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 Columbia CK 66210 (2001)

Leonard Cohen was first a poet then, perhaps, a musician. His monotone voice is something you love or hate. This album features recordings from four dates of a 1979 tour in the U.K.  While not exactly a live greatest hits collection, Field Commander Cohen does end with his classics “Bird On the Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” The recordings are very good, only adding as much music as necessary.

The sheer genius of Cohen’s lyrics dominates everything he has done. His music is best described as an acquired taste. The durable ideas and complex emotions unfold slowly. It takes at least two or three listens to grasp Cohen’s purpose. The liner notes are particularly helpful with full listings of all lyrics, which are sometimes understood easiest when read. Vocals add another layer of meaning to Cohen’s words, which can be confusing to new listeners.

Songs portray likable losers and bare insecurity.  The faux doo-wop of “Memories” is a sweet story of longing, complete with innocent rejection. “The Stranger Song” captures the appeal of a singer/songwriter’s isolation, recalling the best of Cohen’s early work.  “Lover Lover Lover” pauses for a long instrumental passage, while a duet on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” highlights the song’s sappy wit. “The Guests” is a twisted vision of desire. These songs are deep and profound. Cohen can take you where few other artists can, and offer a glimpse deep into his personal experience.

The band plays well. Overall the sound is mellow, even bland, but this seems like a calculated plan to showcase the lyrics.  At times the spark of live performance breathes new life into the songs.  Guest appearances by Raffi Hakopian and John Bilezikjian spice up the arrangements. Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson sing backup, adding refreshing vocal depth. The album ends with arguably the best performances.

Leonard Cohen was about as strange a “rock star” as there ever was. He came to popularity near the end of the big 60s folk movement.  His unique blend of poetry and music would never catch on in another era, and is still unbelievable as it actually happened.  Leonard Cohen could be a great bluesman (though his voice would defy that genre).  Rather than the blues, he fashioned his own blend of comedy and tragedy.  This album is a good example those talents.

Field Commander Cohen is a nice album for long-time Cohen fans wanting more live material, and is still a good introduction for new listeners (it strikes a good balance between accessibility and potency), though there are many better live Cohen albums, like Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and Live in London.

Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty

Pancho & Lefty

Merle Haggard & Willie NelsonPancho & Lefty Epic FE 37958 (1983)

Here’s an album that occupies a strange place between “urban cowboy” country and easy listening pop.  Hag and Willie both sing really nicely, even if most of the material is pretty fluffy.  The synthesizer, electric bass, trebly electric guitar and other little orchestrated touches bestow on it a dated, faddish sound that is unmistakably of its era, but, for what it is, it delivers fairly consistently.  The slickness isn’t too much of a distraction.  There aren’t any obvious stinkers here.  As a long as expectations aren’t too high, this is a nice light outing.  The best song is probably “Opportunity to Cry,” which has no discernible input from Haggard.