To expand upon my previous comments about Brazil’s musical polyglots, I decided to write a sequel devoted exclusively to the American side of this entertaining yet shamefully under-represented subject.
My original piece was prompted by a critique from Scottish-born journalist John Fitzpatrick of Caetano Veloso’s 2004 CD release A Foreign Sound, wherein the veteran pop star from Bahia, one of the co-founders in the late 1960s of the musically eclectic movement known as tropicalismo, performed cover versions of everything from vintage Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies”) to more recent Stevie Wonder fare (“If It’s Magic”).
Garnering mixed reviews for his efforts, Mr. Veloso can rest assured that he had succeeded in producing, at the very least, a fairly respectable stab at American pop standards — filtered, naturally, through his own Northeastern-Brazilian ethos and sensibility. It certainly wasn’t his first crack at this artistically enticing musical genre, nor will it be his last.
Not surprisingly, Caetano was not the only Brazilian performer to have contributed an English-language recording of what amounted to a recycled batch of “oldies but goldies.” Among the multitude of tunes covered over the years by acknowledged native entertainers were those perpetrated by fellow colleagues Milton Nascimento, Ed Motta, Marisa Monte, Roberto Carlos, Ivan Lins, Sandy & Júnior, Gal Costa, and a slew of others — some good, some bad, many only so-so, and leaving much to be desired in the pronunciation department.
Not that these singers’ poor English diction was, whether by design or intent, the deciding factor in their relative lack of success with these hits. Essentially, and in view of the global-wide pervasiveness of MTV, VH1, satellite radio, hip-hop, rap, world-beat, and other so-called cross-cultural influences, it was all a matter of style and mood.
On the other hand, there are an equally representative number of Brazilian-inspired themes tackled by an imposing international assemblage of performers, among them Sarah Vaughan, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Sting, Susannah McCorkle, Roseanna Vitro, Sadao Watanabe, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, and Hendrik Meurkens, that might also fit this same bill.
Looking back at recent music history, however, we note that as the market for bossa nova abounded in ever so plentiful a manner in the U.S. during the early to mid-sixties — and not only among the jazz and pop-music set, either — by the end of the decade, the efficacy of the entire convoluted American obsession with the craze had come in for a well-merited drubbing.
Even Elvis Presley, the self-styled “King of Rock & Roll,” relented at one point in his hip-swaying, rockabilly career and released, in 1963, a 45-rpm quickie of a bogus Brazilian novelty number, “Bossa Nova Baby,” composed by the award-winning songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were earlier credited, among other successful tunes, with Elvis’ 1957 hit “Jailhouse Rock.”
On the disc’s B-side was the cabaret-nightclub staple, “Witchcraft” (Leigh-Coleman), which only goes to show the extremes that some record companies were willing to go to in order to cater to mass audience appeal.
The Carioca Meets the Chairman
To the rescue came what has since been described as the single most underrated, and most outstanding, contribution to the form in the entire popular music catalog.
For better or worse, the award for the top-of-the-list, A-Number-One, best Brazilian covers album ever would be shared (in this writer’s opinion) by two back-to-back releases on the Reprise label, both memorializing the pan-cosmic pairing of the Chairman of the Board, American pop-music idol Frank Sinatra, with Brazilian composer Tom Jobim.
The albums were astutely differentiated by the titles Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, from 1967, and Sinatra & Company, recorded in 1969, but not released until two years later.
These late-in-the-day nods to the core bossa repertoire employed two different arrangers for the ageless Jobim tunes: the Prussian-born Claus Ogerman, for Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos; and the Brazilian Eumir Deodato, for Sinatra & Co. They featured Ole Blue Eyes smartly swinging along, in relaxed cocktail-lounge fashion, to some of the Rio master’s most memorable melodies.
The original LPs proved especially absorbing but were pretty much over before they started, barely clocking in at a miserly 30 minutes. But what a brilliant half hour of music making it was! Particularly revelatory was the duo’s interpretation of “The Girl from Ipanema,” in which Frank’s trademark conversational-style phrasing is effortlessly supported by Tom’s own impeccably conveyed word-painting, in an infuriatingly abbreviated vocal blend more reminiscent of a test run for Sinatra’s much later Duets work on Capitol (1993) than an estimable ensemble display.
The other Jobim tracks, spaced out evenly between the two recordings, included “Dindi,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”), “Meditation,” “How Insensitive,” “Drinking Water” (“Água de beber”), “Someone to Light Up My Life” (“Se todos fossem iguais a você”), “Triste,” “Don’t Ever Go Away” (“Por causa de você”), “This Happy Madness” (“Estrada branca”), “Wave,” and “One Note Samba.”
Sinatra even managed some peculiarly authentic-sounding Brazilian Portuguese on “Drinking Water,” although a momentary croak had somehow crept into that once unassailable throat of his, evidence no doubt of too many late nights spent with the infamous Rat Pack; Jobim provided the sensitive guitar accompaniment (he was particularly miffed, the legend goes, that he was not asked to play his usual instrument, the piano).*
On Sinatra & Company, the carioca’s enduring classics collided with more mundane material from the period, in particular the contemporary “Close to You,” written by Hal David-Burt Bacharach and popularized at the time by Karen Carpenter; “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “My Sweet Lady,” both the work of the bespectacled John Denver; and “Bein’ Green” (Joe Raposo), originally introduced by Sesame Street’s favorite Muppet character, Kermit the Frog. It was not, I venture to say, the sort of thing Sinatra fans were looking for from the great Francis Albert back then.
In retrospect, though, his restrained, almost laid-back approach to Jobim’s music was, in many ways, a triumph of art and attitude (reverential and respectful) over the prevailing pop styles (rock and psychedelia) of the time.
Pay close attention to the way Frank lingers over the phrase, “Oh, what was I to do, what can one do, when a love affair is over,” from the song “How Insensitive” on Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos; how he invests it with just the right measure of longing and regret — what in Portuguese is commonly known as saudade — as he shares his bittersweet thoughts of a lost love and life lived on the edge with the gentle, soothing tones of the composer, ruminating as well in his native tongue, “Ah, por quê você foi falso assim, assim tão desalmado?” (“Why were you so false to me and so heartless, too?”).
The linguistic nuances both artists draw from these few lines suffuse the song with psychological underpinnings. In addition, the sheer level of mutual understanding present, indicated by the simultaneous outpouring of their romantic plight — voiced, of course, in each artist’s respective lyrical language — gives the number an added layer of intellectual sophistication and weight evidently undetected until now.
With stylistic fluency and complete mastery of the musical idiom, Frank Sinatra accomplished more than a generation ago what Caetano Veloso intrinsically tried to do today, but had ultimately failed to put over.
Even so, Sinatra and Veloso’s bucking of the official pop trends could easily have had dire career consequences even for such established vocal talents as themselves. The end result, however, will be that one’s committed efforts are oftentimes misunderstood, so that they can either be lovingly praised well after the fact, as in Frank’s case, or critically panned, as in Caetano’s. It’s all in how and when one’s work is perceived, and by who — sometimes by reviewers, but always by your (hopefully) forgiving record-purchasing peers.
What a pity, then, that the Hoboken-born singer/actor had to wait so long for his recorded salute to Brazil’s lone Chopin-esque songwriter, the supremely gifted Antonio Carlos Jobim. It was, by most accounts, that “once-in-a-lifetime” linking of like, transcontinental mind-sets.
All in all, Sinatra’s break-through bossa nova projects hold the deserved distinction of being the only two albums the Chairman ever devoted to a single composer’s body of work.
Along Came Ella…
After this long-departed high-water mark, whatever covers album anyone else subsequently tried to disseminate was, to these ears, disappointingly (and quite justifiably) met with less than halfhearted enthusiasm. Many of these sincere but otherwise fatuous attempts at recapturing the essence of the Brazilian musical soul have all suffered ungraciously by comparison.
One of the more curious examples of the genre was the titillatingly titled, double-long play album Ella Abraça Jobim: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Carlos Jobim Song Book, compiled between the years 1980 and 1981, and originally put out by Pablo Records.
A natural, one would think, for this sort of extended overview, what with her acclaimed series launched several decades earlier for producer Norman Granz (on the Verve label) of the songbooks of such popular American composers as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mercer, the sublime Ella was already long in the tooth, and long past her prime, when she stepped into the Group IV Studios in Hollywood, California, for her turn at the bashful Brazilian’s best-known oeuvre.
Unfortunately for the diva, even the presence of such experienced sidemen as Joe Pass on electric guitar, Oscar Castro-Neves on acoustic guitar, Clark Terry on trumpet, Zoot Sims on sax, and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, could not turn back the proverbial time-clock on her obviously declining vocal powers. Sadly enough, it was insufficient to reclaim Ella’s glory years before the mikes.
Number after number seamlessly whiz by, whilst Ella wobbles and scats her heart away on “Dreamer” (“Vivo sonhando”), “Triste,” “He’s a Carioca” (“Ela é carioca”), “One Note Samba,” and more; but they only make one pine for the intelligence and grace she once brought to such pop standards as George and Ira Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good,” Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “There’s a Small Hotel,” and Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love.”
While not totally wasteful of her well-documented resources, it was still a poorly rendered testimonial to the glorious American singer’s previous recorded output, and far from her best work, when contrasted with her stellar achievements for Verve.
The reissued and digitally re-mastered 1991 compact disc version, now on one CD, lacked two of the original double-album’s numbers, “Don’t Ever Go Away” and “Song of the Jet” (“Samba do avião”), due to maximum playing-time limits. It was deserving of a failing grade for that miscalculation alone.
… As Dionne Loses Her Way
Another case in point, and a valiant but unfulfilling affair to boot, came about in 1994 from noted pop stylist Dionne Warwick.
As one of her generation’s most illustrious musical performers, with scores of top ten hits scattered all over the entertainment charts throughout the entire length of the sixties, the divinely inspired Dionne practically defined the terms “adult contemporary” and “middle-of-the-road” — words we too often associate with New Age, soft rock, smooth jazz, and the like — long before they ever came into regular usage.
She was fondly remembered, too, for having had what could genuinely be described as several quasi-Brazilian-based successes in the elegant and classy work of tunesmiths Hal David and Burt Bacharach (“Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Do You Know the Way to San José?”).
But the years had not been kind to her, either, so much so that by the time she got around to laying down an actual track of bossa nova and samba-tinged songs an uncharacteristic throatiness had developed, and became the main distraction of her Aquarela do Brasil on Arista Records.
The opening medley of Jobim hits, which included umpteenth versions of “How Insensitive,” “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars,” “Wave,” and “The Waters of March,” began promisingly enough, with the preceding “Retrato em preto e branco” (“Portrait in Black and White”) setting the right romantic mood.
But again, the recently acquired dryness to the Warwick sound, as well as a pronounced and disturbing rasp did little to compensate for the almost total absence of her former lushness and warmth.
Dionne’s own composition, “Virou areia” (“Back to Sand”), with Portuguese lyrics by songwriters Lenine and Braulia Tavares, and the Dori Caymmi number “Flower of Bahia,” are only two of the fistful of standouts, as is the smooth jazz favorite, “Captives of the Heart,” newly composed for her by ex-mentor and musical guiding light, Mr. Burt Bacharach.
Regrettably, no amount of digital wizardry could possibly have overcome, or even disguise, the glaring realization that, by the middle of the 1990s, Dionne Warwick had lost most of her lovely singing voice.
This is not to say that advanced age in the entertainment industry can be a major deterrent in the planning of an all-Brazilian covers album — or any other record, for that matter. Certainly, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, and many other important older artists have proven to be the notable exceptions to that rule.
However, given the fact that plain old insight and artistry can sometimes help to patch over growing vocal deficiencies, it must not be overlooked that subtlety and timing, as demonstrated by Mr. Sinatra, can be just as important as a rich and powerful vocal presentation, if not more so.
In any event, less is decidedly more, especially where it concerns Música Popular Brasileira. It’s a valuable and much-needed lesson that many of today’s manufactured “pop stars” — and, by implication, their money-grubbing managers and producers — could most assuredly profit from. ☼
* There is an especially amusing story, told in Jobim’s sister Helena’s biography Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Iluminado (“An Enlightened Man”) about a late afternoon telephone call received at the composer’s home. The unknown caller was told to try again at Jobim’s favorite hangout, the Veloso Bar, where the attending barkeeper passed the call along to a clueless Tom. Upon hanging up, he informed his fellow club members that the “gringo” on the line was none other than Frank Sinatra, wanting to hook up with him in Los Angeles for a future album date. No one believed him, of course, no matter how hard Jobim tried to convince his friends otherwise. He did get the last laugh, though, when Tom came back from sunny California with ample photographs from the now-famous Sinatra/Jobim recording sessions.