Antonio Carlos Jobim
Born nearly a century ago, the man known as “The Little Poet” lived la vie de Bohème and wrote the play Orfeu da Conceição, while bringing the sumptuous sounds of bossa nova to the musical forefront
Saturday, October 19, 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of one of Brazil’s most recognizable and controversial personalities. A talented man of letters, as well as a poet, a composer, musician, performer, and lyricist, Marcus Vinitius [sic] Cruz de Moraes — more widely known as Vinicius de Moraes — was born in Gávea, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He earned a law degree in his native city without having to give up his all-consuming interests in music, philosophy, dance, theater, and cinema (in particular, the silent cinema), along with his love for English literature and language, which he studied at Oxford University (1938-41).
Upon his return to Brazil, Vinicius began writing film criticism for a Rio daily, in addition to answering letters in an “advice to the lovelorn” column. In line with the above, he also worked as a civil servant, had close encounters with maverick filmmaker Orson Welles and social critic Waldo Frank (1942), both of whom made extended visits to Brazil and were instrumental in increasing his awareness of social causes; published several books of verse; spent quality time in Hollywood (1946-50); and participated in film festivals throughout Europe — all while serving in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.
Vinicius had a weakness for the opposite sex, and was rumored to have married a total of nine times. While in Hollywood, he, along with his first wife Beatriz (nicknamed Tati) and their young daughter Susana, practically resided in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills household. They were close friends until Carmen’s unforeseen demise.
In 1954, on the advice of another poet, Vinicius entered a draft of his play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição, in a writing contest. It won one of the top prizes. On leave from his post with the Foreign Service, Vinicius united with a fledgling composer named Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. Together, the Little Poet and the publicity shy Tom brought Orfeu to the stage of the Teatro Municipal, in Rio, on September 25, 1956. It was the beginning of a beautiful songwriting relationship that resulted in a flurry of classic tunes, among them “Chega de saudade” (“No More Blues”), “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Once I Loved,” “How Insensitive,” “One Note Samba,” “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”), and many more.
In 1962, Vinicius, with the presence of Jobim and the young João Gilberto, made his singing debut at the Au Bon Gourmet nightclub in Rio. From there on, the Little Poet followed the performing path, later teaming up with a new partner, Toquinho, from the 1970s up until his death in July 1980.
The release and popularization of the film Black Orpheus (1959), produced by Sacha Gordine and directed by Marcel Camus, and the subsequent worldwide acclaim it garnered (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar™ for Best Foreign Film) brought renewed focus on Brazil — especially on Vinicius’ subsequent work, which numbered some 400 songs, many of them with the top talents of the day: Jobim, Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Carlos Lyra, Ary Barroso, Chico Buarque, and Toquinho.
Orpheus, the Myth and the Man
Notwithstanding these myriad activities, Vinicius’ serious side was reflected in Orfeu da Conceição, in which he expressed outright concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But why did he choose this particular subject to dramatize?
To put it simply, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves rather easily to other media — most opportunely to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.
For starters, such foreign-born dramatists as Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Cocteau, along with their American counterpart, playwright Tennessee Williams, all drew inspiration from his mythological fable, with varying degrees of success. Until Black Orpheus made its initial worldwide impact in 1959-60, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau‘s pairing of Orphée (1949) with his later The Testament of Orpheus (1960) had previously blazed the cinematic trail, while Sidney Lumet‘s The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, in turn took up the slack from the American side; it was supposed to have been the film adaptation of Williams‘ talkie stage play Orpheus Descending (and a not very good one, at that). Next to Cocteau’s classics, it bombed badly.
As one might have guessed, there were scores of lyric versions lying about the opera house, too, beginning with those of early Baroque masters Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In the mid-19th century, the wildly popular Jacques Offenbach, a German-Jewish émigré to Gay Paree, composed the comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the early 1920s, Kokoschka‘s Expressionistic play Orpheus und Eurydice was transformed into a modern opera by the Austrian Ernst Krenek, creator of the Jazz-Age hit Jonny spielf auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”); while in our own time, an offbeat addition to the standard repertoire (by American minimalist Philip Glass) caught moviegoers by surprise with an ingenious musical rewrite of Cocteau‘s art film as an operatic tour de force.
There was even a modern dance version, titled simply Orpheus (1948), commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York, with music by the always-acerbic Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Russian ballet master George Balanchine. These tantalizing tidbits of the Orpheus legend were but the tips of the musical iceberg.
This was all well and good, but what attributes did the Little Poet find in the myth that would eventually lead him to produce such an influential hit? Vinicius expressed interest in the tale as far back as the early forties. His own words will suffice as to where and how his inspiration might have been derived:
“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of my uncle, the architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…
“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”
On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:
“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country — but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”
The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia (who played Serafina in the French film version) as Mira, singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.
Orfeu da Conceição packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30; after which it moved to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long stay. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to São Paulo, however, collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.
Truth be told, Vinicius saw himself as Orfeu. He certainly put much of his own tastes, passion, and outlook into this noble creation. Notwithstanding the fact that Orfeu was black (or what we might describe as Afro-Brazilian) and the playwright was white (of Portuguese descent, with traces of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Argentine blood in his veins), Vinicius commonly referred to himself as “O branco mais preto do Brasil” (“The blackest white man in Brazil”).
Always a heavy drinker, he rarely performed on stage without his trusty bottle of whiskey close at hand. A forerunner and follower of the liberated lifestyle of the swinging 1960s, as the decade began Vinicius had given himself over to the life of a sensualist. Consequently, some things had to go by the wayside. For neglecting his diplomatic duties, he was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1969. After a series of health crises (stroke, heart problems), brought on by his continuing alcoholism, Vinicius finally expired in his bath on July 9, 1980. It is said that he died in the arms of his last song partner, Toquinho.
Despite the controversies that surrounded him in life, Vinicius de Moraes was officially reinstated into the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2006, in recognition of his many contributions to the cultural and literary life of his beloved Brazil. Finally, in February 2011, with President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva present and the surviving members of the Moraes family in attendance, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies elevated him to the posthumous post of Ambassador, with all the requisite honors intact.
Vinicius lived, Vinicius loved — wildly, passionately, without restraints. He went through Hell, much like his forlorn Orfeu. And like Orfeu, he came back from purgatory — cleansed, triumphant, renewed, and absolved of his sins… while searching for his drink.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
“Playing” for Time
The most striking thing about the episodes in Orfeu da Conceição is how little they have in common with Marcel Camus’ rosy-eyed vistas of Rio: no streetcar-conducting lead; no enchanting ferryboat ride; no colorful costume pageant, as such; no return and parting of Orfeu’s lost love; and no voodoo mumbo-jumbo, either, although Dama Negra does get to perform a bit of macumba during portions of the play’s opening act. Oh, and Cerberus, the guardian canine of the realm, puts in a guest howl at the second act dance-club sequence.
Otherwise, in Camus’ grandiose treatment of Carnival, Orfeu is not torn to shreds by an angry mob of whores but instead falls off a steep cliff holding on to his expired love after being conked on the head with a rock. If Vinicius de Moraes hadn’t left the theater by that point, he most assuredly would have done so here, so dissimilar was his play from the movie — the undeniable irony of which never fails to impress, in that there would be no staged play at all without the insistence of the French for a screen treatment. Vinicius himself admitted as much: “And it was in Paris… that I met the producer Sacha Gordine, who was interested in the story and wanted to make a movie of it. So it was really the movie that made possible the staging of the play…”
On the face of it, though, Diegues’ 1999 re-filming does come closest to actually carrying out, to a limited extent, the poet’s intentions, more than adequately preserving the systemic violence of the hills that was markedly absent from Camus’ freshly scrubbed reading. He even threw in Orfeu’s parents as a good-will gesture to the original.*
That said, neither picture even remotely approaches Orfeu da Conceição’s lyrical foundation, its soul-stirring poetic imagery, or its classical refinement and construct. That the piece intermittently betrays melodramatic overtones, seriously over-playing its hand when it comes to the emotional and physical state of the title character’s suffering and distress (think Milton’s Samson Agonistes) makes it a major liability.
Only Jobim’s perfectly-limned musical responses keep it from wallowing in its own excess. About the worst that could be said of his score was that it was too tasteful and refined for such violent displays of passion.
Factor in a whopping Fat Tuesday celebration and a healthy dollop of Afro-Brazilian dance sequences, choreographed by the debuting Lina de Luca, and voilá: you have the makings of a total work of art, a stunning stage realization (albeit in primitive form) encompassing a veritable periodic table of theatrical elements — drama, music, poetry, dance, setting, and scenic and lighting design — with all the pomp and majesty, as well as the flaws, inherent in that much-bandied-about term “opera,” or, in this case, “drama with music,” which is a more accurate description.
Does everything that has been written about Orfeu da Conceição make it the Brazilian musical to end all musicals? No, not necessarily. Should we continue to hold out hope, then, that Orfeu might one day be restored to his proper place on the world stage? Anything is possible, if the opportunity were ever to arise. (Broadway producers, take note.) But, as we have tirelessly strived to point out to readers, Vinicius de Moraes was incontrovertibly put in the awkward position of having to bear witness to the cinematic “decimation” of his most-prized work.
The record clearly shows that Vinicius walked out on the Brazilian premiere of Camus’ Black Orpheus, the first of two film adaptations. Doesn’t it seem odd, though, that the world-weary poet would have survived such a profound jolt to his system by the palantir-like glimpse he was afforded of the future misdirection of his country — where it was headed and how those in the public trust conspired to keep it off course — only to lash out in the one way an artist of his standing could lash out: by taking the “law” (or his feet) into his own hands, as the situation demanded?
That’s an awfully big “maybe,” when you come right down to it. In support of his own modern view of the ancient Greek fable, director Diegues took care not to disturb the playwright’s easily offended fans (get thee behind me, Dama Negra!). “In the original play,” he argued, “there’s a poem in which Vinicius says that everything in the world dies except for Orpheus’ art, which is forever — and I tried to visualize that.”
The actual lines, which are given to the members of the chorus and form the basis for the play’s ontological outlook and conclusion, vary somewhat from his recollection but are no less inspiring:
Para matar Orfeu não basta a Morte.
Tudo morre que nasce e que viveu
Só não morre no mundo a voz de Orfeu.
To kill Orfeu, Death is not enough.
Everything that is born and lives must die
In the world only Orfeu’s voice survives.
It is incumbent upon us to insist that, even if the country itself were to fall off a cliff — which, in as much as it pained The Little Poet to learn, it very nearly did at key moments in its recent past — Orfeu’s voice (and, by suggestion, Brazil’s music) would live on in the world as well.
* * *
One of Vinicius’ closest contemporaries, writer and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, offered this discerning opinion of his friend: he was “the only Brazilian poet,” Drummond decreed, “who dared to live under the sign of passion. That is, of poetry in its natural state.” Orfeu da Conceição, Moraes’ most ambitious literary and musical creation, was the complete fulfillment of this sign of passion, his poetic and unvarnished imitation of slum life in its natural state. God help the person who came between him and that passion!
Author Lúcia Nagib’s Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia goes into excruciating detail on the “natural state” of writer-director Carlos Diegues’ passion for Orfeu. One scene, in particular, has a special poignancy for her:
“As the film draws to a close, the favela hill returns to its everyday violence after the ‘great illusion of carnival’ [sic] is over, as sung in ‘Felicidade,’ a song by Jobim and Vinicius, delivered with innocent simplicity by Jobim’s adolescent daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, who plays a minor role in the film.”
The opening line of that number, which happens to fit in perfectly with this post’s main heading — and which is also the first one to be heard in the French-made Black Orpheus — is simplicity itself, yet speaks volumes of the illusory effect the annual ritual of Carnival has had on the lives of the poor:
Tristeza não tem fim
A felicidade do pobre parece
A grande ilusão do carnaval
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro
Por um momento de sonho
Pra fazer a fantasia
De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira
Pra tudo se acabar na quarta-feira
Sadness has no end
But happiness does
A poor man’s happiness is like
The great illusion of Carnival
You work all year long
For a brief fulfillment of a dream
To play the part of
A gardener, a pirate or a king
Only to have it all end on Wednesday morn
What cannot be deemed a “great illusion” is Carnival’s restorative power; how its raw, incessant energy seems to electrify every one of the parade participants gathered, in spite of four solid days of nonstop action and fun. After a highly favored samba school falls to a lesser rival; after the drums go silent and the crowds begin to disperse, you’re awakened from “a brief fulfillment of a dream” to the reality at hand.
It’s the same instinctive feeling Vinicius must have sensed when he first realized what had been wrought upon his carioca tragedy. It is not a pretty sight, what with all those drained and disappointed faces. But hey, there’s always next year, which is another way of saying that “happiness” will return to them — in some way, shape or form — se Deus quiser, or “God willing,” an everyday Brazilian expression; along with the other assorted rituals of one’s existence: births, deaths, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and what have you.
Life has a continuous ebb and flow — a beginning and an ending — and “sadness,” as our title implies, is just an orderly part of that flow. In that respect, the melancholy air, “A Felicidade,” could never have been able to bookend Black Orpheus and the much-later Orfeu, much less come to the fore, had it not been for the sublime music of bossa nova. What is more, bossa nova could never have achieved the worldwide fame and recognition it doubtless deserved without the fortuitous teaming of Jobim with Moraes, the irrepressible partnership that started it all.
In Barack Obama’s autobiographical Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, he specifically mentions Black Orpheus by name as “the most beautiful thing” his mother had ever seen. “The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage.
“About halfway through the movie,” he continued, at almost the exact spot that Vinicius had gotten up and left the screening, Obama decided that he had “seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.”
Here’s one simple fantasy we might consider setting by the wayside: if there is anyone out there who winds up in the same, awkward position a temperamental Brazilian poet — or a future U.S. president — once found himself in, let him declare, here and now, he will not slip out of the movie theater… no matter what happens inside. ☼
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The role of Orfeu’s mother — in this version, called simply Conceição — was played by veteran actress Zezé Motta, who in her earliest days as an ingénue played the lead in director Diegues’ first big international screen success, the feature Xica da Silva from 1976.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
Aware of the transitory nature of fame in the artistic universe, “The Master” Tom Jobim gave a shout in his later years to the damage being done to the environment. “They want to destroy the thing they can’t create,” he warned, in Carlos Lacerda’s wide-ranging magazine exposé. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom from his part, not by a long shot.
“When a tree is cut down here on Earth,” Jobim pondered wistfully, “it will grow again somewhere else. When I die, it is to this place that I want to go, where trees live in peace.” Tom was thinking and acting “green” long before it became fashionable for celebrities in the spotlight to do so.
He expressed some of those same concerns to writer-lyricist Gene Lees, the person credited with the English-language versions of “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”), “Desafinado” (“Out of Tune”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), and other Jobim favorites. “We are building a desert, my friend,” Tom told him. Lees never forgot that ecological message, which he repeated verbatim in his liner notes to Jazz Masters 13: Antonio Carlos Jobim, a no-frills edition of excerpts compiled by Verve Records and released in 1994, the year of the composer’s passing.
In 1995, Sony International issued Antonio Brasileiro, Jobim’s commercial swan song. It presented a “killer” lineup of greats, among them Ron Carter and Tião Neto on bass, Marcio Montarroyos on trumpet and flugelhorn, living legend Dorival Caymmi on guest vocals, and Sting, the original Mr. Greenpeace, joining the bashful Brazilian in a breathy rendition of “How Insensitive.” Norman Gimbel, who re-worked “The Girl from Ipanema” for the North American market, provided the idiomatic English text for that one as well.
The track also turned up on Antilles/Verve’s Red, Hot & Rio anthology from 1996. Sinatra he wasn’t, but the front-line rock star-cum-Amnesty International advocate, the Stinger, gave Ol’ Blue Eyes a respectable run for his Vegas buck; it was light years ahead of Frank’s deadly dull reading with Jobim (whose portion was taped in Rio by producer Phil Ramone) of the Bart Howard standard, “Fly Me to the Moon,” on Duets II from Capitol.
Tom’s youngest daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, contributed her own (at the time) slim vocal line to the languidly-paced “Forever Green,” the moving lyrics of which say all that needed to be said about dad’s desire to rescue the planet from man’s self-destructive impulses:
Let there be flowers
Let there be spring
We have few hours
To save our dream
Let there be light
Let the bird sing
Let the forest be forever green
Little blue planet
In great need of care
Crystal clear streams
Lots of clean air
Let’s save the Earth
What a wonderful thing
Let it be forever green
Her famously subdued parent even dedicated a fitting ode to his little girl. He dubbed it “Samba de Maria Luiza.” Likewise, Vinicius, who himself had concocted over 400 songs in toto, was not above tossing a few melodic treats to kit and kin. During the period that he was living in France, and before clinching the deal with his future working partner Tom, the poet composed a lilting waltz tune, “Valsa de Susana,” for his progeny to remember him by.
He later considered placing it into the proposed Orfeu da Conceição project, especially after playing the song for an enthusiastic Jobim. Naturally, the name was changed to protect the innocent. And so it went: from a ravishingly simple melody to a full-fledged orchestral passage with solo-guitar accompaniment, the rechristened “Valsa de Eurídice” (the title by which it is known to this day) can be heard, on an old Odeon recording, as part of the Overture to the poet’s stage hit.
Most of the numbers on the ten-inch long-play were given to a single vocalist — Roberto Paiva, in fact; not what one would expect from an original-cast album, but good enough for the play’s purposes. Because of Orfeu’s obvious musical and lyrical inclinations, the songs were deliberately designed to emanate from his poetic lips only. (For the most part, both movie versions respected and/or maintained the tradition.)
The lone exception was the magical “Monólogo de Orfeu,” beautifully intoned by the Brazilian bard himself, with Luiz Bonfá soloing on acoustic guitar and Tom Jobim leading the studio orchestra. It is the sole, surviving sonic record — an ancient relic from a long-forgotten musical past — of that legendary Rio stage production.
Stop the World, I Want to Get Off
As the eighties and nineties wore on, Tom was anything but worn out. He took up touring again and, for good measure, brought along his Banda Nova (“New Band”), a crack ensemble of veteran players mixed with current Jobim-Caymmi-Morelenbaum family members (as well as the young Maúcha Adnet), to such estimable locales as Brazil, Europe, and the United States. These concerts were particularly well received by a newer generation of listeners, many of who had grown up without samba and bossa nova to kick around but were willing to give the composer’s “romantically tinged” output a second spin.
It was in the summer of 1992 that Jobim finally settled his accounts with his fellow countryman (or maybe it was the other way around) by serving as the “theme” of a parade staged, in his honor, by the Mangueira Samba School of Rio.
We don’t want to belabor the point that everything under the carioca sun ends in Carnival. Rather, let’s look at it as a delayed reaction to all that “the most beautiful man in Brazil” had done for the land that once tried to tune his music out; only two years more, and he was gone from their midst.
Author Ruy Castro accurately pegged the national mood of the time as conciliatory toward Tom: “Brazil, sick and tired of so many mediocrities, saw in his work (and in him, as a man) a reflection of how it needed to have seen itself.”
Jobim’s classic number, “Se todos fossem iguais a você,” translated word-for-word as “If Everyone Were Like You,” helped push this sentiment along, with celebrants singing and playing the tune over and over again in the streets of his hometown. Posthumously adding Tom Jobim’s name to Marvelous City’s Galeão International Airport was another, far less musical means of addressing the issue. It may have been too little, but it was never too late.
In the end a mighty oak had been cut down on Earth, only to grow again somewhere else: Antonio Carlos Jobim found his eternal peace among the trees of Cemitério São João Batista (Cemetery of St. John the Baptist) in Rio de Janeiro, not far from the Botanical Garden of his youth, and near to the tomb of his good friend, Vinicius de Moraes. They were born fourteen years apart.
At his death, Jobim followed the path that Vinicius had earlier laid out for him by the same fourteen-year spread. Let it never be said of either artist that he who had come before — or after — wasn’t fit to tie the other’s bootstraps. (We could be wrong about this, but it’s believed they preferred slippers and loafers to boots.)
For the poet, all was forgiven at last via his posthumous reinstatement, in September 2006, to his former post with the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Those relations were never cordial to begin with, but whatever animosity once existed between him and the Brazilian State Department was cast aside in lieu of services rendered, reinforced by the 2004 publication of the Vinicius de Moraes Songbook – Orfeu, followed in 2007 by part two of his Songbook – Biography and Selected Works.
(End of Part Ten)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Hits Keep on Coming
There are no existing records (at least, none that we are aware of) of Carnival taking over the lives of two of the most naturally gifted songwriting talents Brazil has ever had the good fortune to produce: composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Both hit the ground running with their very first collaboration, and hardly paused to draw breath thereafter.
With the conclusion in November 1956 of their Orfeu da Conceição, both took on further challenges by throwing themselves into new work, the result of which led to an enviable (and nearly unbroken) string of song hits. “Between the years 1958 and 1965,” by writer Ruy Castro’s reckoning, “Vinicius produced close to 50 titles with Tom [alone], 40 with Baden Powell, and 30 with Ary Barroso, Moacyr Santos and others,” to include such promising newcomers as Carlos Lyra, Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, and Toquinho.
Researcher Sérgio Ximenes put the total for Tom at “over 250 works, with 29 albums recorded under his own name,” and as a guest artist or participant in approximately 37 more.
Even more impressive, musicologist Jairo Severiano, in his Uma História da Música Popular Brasileira, records that, “In the period 1963-1994, Jobim composed a hundred some-odd pieces of music that, taking into account those he had completed earlier, reached 230 recorded compositions. Besides sambas, sambas-canções, and other characteristic constructions…there were songs dedicated to ecological themes, expressed in his usual good-natured style and tinged with a degree of romanticism.”
Severiano cites such supreme examples of his art as “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), “Matita perê” (“Song of the Thrush”), “Passarim,” Borzeguim,” “Chansong” — a play on chanson, the French word for “song” — “Anos dourados” (“Looks Like December”), “Sabià,” “Retrato em branco e preto” (“Portrait in Black and White”), and those pretty little ditties with ladies in their titles (“Ana Luiza,” “Bebel,” “Lígia,” and “Luiza”).
The more songs the tunesmith turned out, it would seem, the more accomplished he became at it. The only thing that Jobim had failed at evolving was an appropriately thick skin to go with his compositional flair, something not even his most frequent working partner Vinicius had bothered to grow over a lifetime of living large in the public eye.
According to the composer’s self-analysis, timidity is the word that best described his reticent comportment around others. But be not deceived: Tom was no pushover when it came to defending his artistic turf; neither did he find it necessary to berate the opposition in the same demonstrative mien The Little Poet loved to exhibit. Audacity, intuition, curiosity, duality, obstinacy, unconventionality, and universality were the other key attributes of Jobim’s personal makeup, and they undoubtedly showed.
Still lionized as “the most beautiful man in Brazil” (which he was), he had grown increasingly discomfited over reports in the national press of his becoming too Americanized — journalistic shorthand for “going native” — for his introduction of jazz and bebop elements into the corpus of his work. (Actually, jazz owed more to bossa nova than bossa nova owed to jazz, but that made little difference to the naysayers of his day.)
These were the same baseless accusations that had dogged the footsteps of the late Carmen Miranda in her prime, the kind that forced the popular entertainer to pull up stakes in her home country and go seek her fortune elsewhere (in the United States, to be exact). Now they were winding their insidious way into Jobim’s world as well. He was even accused at one point of adopting the American form of “Tom,” a nickname younger sister Helena had tagged him with as a boy, as proof of his outside aspirations.
For a man whose middle name also happened to be Brasileiro (Portuguese for “Brazilian”), this was a savage blow indeed to his integrity and self-worth. Overcoming his own well-documented reserve, Jobim seriously contemplated putting out some sort of riposte while maintaining his vaunted coolness under fire, even in the face of mounting critical concerns.
His much-publicized 1970 interview with left-wing journalist and ex-politician Carlos Lacerda, for the Brazilian magazine Manchete (“the only serious piece that explains who I am,” Jobim announced to all), is a fair indication of how he conducted himself in hand-to-hand combat with the press. In it, Tom simply took on the same E daí? (“What of it?”) attitude the equally good natured Heitor Villa-Lobos once opted for when confronted with a similar situation in his past:
“I am Brazilian, and I write Brazilian music not because of nationalism, but because I don’t know how to do any other kind. If I were to do jazz, I’d be an idiot, since any black musician from their Lapa [the poor bohemian district of Rio] could play better than I.”
That’s telling them, Tom! Lacerda gave the composer free rein to air his pent-up feelings and frustrations to a nationwide audience. Before the dust had time to settle, though, the wily reporter and would-be shrink made the following annotations about them:
“It seems to me that [Jobim’s] worries were not about criticism of his music. His songs get better over time. His critics only get worse. He’s accused of being Americanized? Nonsense! The Americans speak of French influences. The French know, after Black Orpheus, that he’s very much Brazilian. The most Brazilian there is, since Heitor Vila-Lôbos [sic]. What he’s incapable of hiding is his musical education.”
In the decades that passed since this piece first saw the light, many a “black musician from their Lapa” would unhesitatingly step up to the stage and pay tribute to Tom’s “musical education.” In Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Illuminado (“An Enlightened Man”), an unusually intimate portrait of her dearly departed older sibling, novelist and poet Helena Jobim remembers what one of them, the reclusive pianist Thelonius Monk, had to say about Brazil’s lasting contribution to his particular style of music making: “Bossa nova gave to New York’s intellectual jazz community what it lacked, that is, rhythm, balance, and a Latin heat.”
Tom was quite beside himself to hear how Americans had taken to the harmonically advanced chord progressions he and Vinicius hammered out for their chart-busting single, “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1963,* thanks ever so much to saxophone great Stan Getz and the sensuous come-hither sounds (speaking of Latin heat) of Astrud Gilberto. Their recording came in at Number Five on the Billboard Top Pop of 1964, while reaching Number One on the Adult Contemporary scene. It was kept under wraps for a solid year before being released into a market dominated by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and other formidable folk.
And the World Goes ‘Round
For now, there was no jumping off the bossa-nova bandwagon. On the contrary, Jobim was more anxious than ever to hold on for dear life and keep the mutual admiration society going. “More and more,” his little sister acknowledged, “Tom respected the U.S. as a country that received, with open arms and without prejudices, artists from all over. He felt himself a citizen of the world there,” and with good reason.
From 1963 until his death, in December 1994, of heart failure following surgery for bladder cancer — another uncanny reference to his hero, Villa-Lobos — Jobim divided his time between the American East and West Coasts, and the southeastern tip of Brazil. While in the States, he recorded many of his most fondly remembered works (including two classic sessions with Sinatra) for Warner-Reprise, as well as for the strictly jazz label Verve and the R & B-based A&M Records. His two pet projects, the albums Matita perê (1973) and Urubu (“Vulture,” 1976), were roundly rejected in Rio but eventually picked up here by MCA and Warner, in that order.
Having gone their own way since the middle of the 1960s onward — the motive behind the amicable split being Moraes’ need to share his poetic insights with other, lesser-known adherents — the once inseparable duo reunited as a quartet in September 1977 for a now-historic series of concerts. Backed by Toquinho, Vinicius’ then-current touring partner, and Chico Buarque’s sister, Miúcha (recently wed to the equally hermetic João Gilberto), the group played Rio’s Canecão nightclub for seven straight months, then took their show on the road to such places as São Paulo, London, and Paris.
Ruy Castro recounts, in his fact-filled tome Ela é Carioca: Uma Enciclopédia de Ipanema (“She’s a Carioca: An Encyclopedia of Ipanema”), one of the high points of their encounter: the nostalgic “Carta ao Tom,” followed immediately by its parody, “Carta do Tom” (“Letter from Tom”), in which the composer and his lyricist Chico bemoaned the loss of innocence once associated with Ipanema’s tranquil, middle-class neighborhood.
“Their music,” Castro informs us, “woke audiences up” to the shocking realization that “a marvelous world was about to pass on,” to be replaced by “another, more somber and alarming one.” He concluded his musings with a painful reminder of what was to come: “At the end of 1978, when the show finally closed due to the members’ complete exhaustion, no one could imagine that Vinicius had less than two years to live.”
(End of Part Nine)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* From F-sharp major at the words “Oh, but I watch her so sadly” and on “How can I tell her I love her?” to G minor at “Yes, I would give my heart gladly,” back down to A major with “But each day when she walks to the sea,” ending on D major, then G major for “She looks straight ahead,” and finally returning to F-sharp major on “not at me,” in Norman Gimbel’s sultry English-language verses.
When Forms Cease to Follow Function: The Passing of a Brazilian Legend — Architect Oscar Niemeyer, Dead at 104
On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, the world mourned the passing of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer at age 104. The way that Niemeyer seemed to talk about himself and his achievements, one would think that he planned to live forever – and in a way, he will. Let me explain.
An architect is, generally speaking, not the sort of individual that inspires people to great passions. No, they tend to be plain old, “down to earth” folk, although in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, her lead character Howard Roark (an architect) is anything but down to earth. As interpreted by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version, Roark works up a steamy head of lather and a fair amount of sweat, and not just over some old buildings (I believe his co-star, the lovely Patricia Neal, had something to do with that).
Nevertheless, Niemeyer’s place in forging a modern Brazilian nation is firmly secured, what with his imaginative contributions to the country’s futuristic capital city of Brasília. He also designed her Our Lady of Aparecida Cathedral, which resembles an upside-down crown of thorns – unusual, in that Niemeyer was an avowed atheist as well as a die-hard communist sympathizer. No matter. The old saying, “Do as I do, not as I say,” comes to mind here in properly assessing his life and work.
Niemeyer did bring life back to staid forms. You can say that he saw the benefit that curves possessed over straight lines; in addition, he gave form to what was arguably the tired and the formless — see his Rio Sambadrome if you have any doubts of his abilities. Indeed, he took a well-worn architectural turn of phrase, “form follows function,” and twisted it around to read “form follows feminine,” which tells you more about Niemeyer the man than you may have wanted to know.
He lived so long that he buried both his first wife and his one and only daughter. You can read about his range of accomplishments in any of this past week’s obituaries. Still, I would like to draw your attention to the superb one written by one of my favorite print journalists and television commentators, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-oscar-niemeyer-soared-as-an-architect).
What went unstated in all these glowing postmortems, however – and what most of the architect’s many admirers may not even have known about him – is Niemeyer’s impact on Brazilian theater, vis-à-vis his revolutionary set designs for the musical play, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), written by two of Brazil’s leading artists, poet Vinicius de Moraes and composer-musician Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.
The work premiered on September 25, 1956, at Rio’s Teatro Municipal. Here is what I had to say about Niemeyer’s participation in the venture:
“Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes and her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic new capital city — by filling its ‘vast empty space’ with ‘sensuous white curves in glass and concrete’ — were the visible manifestations of what Tom and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.”
Now here is what Niemeyer himself said about his involvement:
“Invited by Vinicius to design the sets for Orfeu da Conceição, my first reaction was to decline, for I had never worked for the theater before and the subject seemed rather complicated to me. But my friend insisted, so I accepted the challenge which, fortunately for me, became more of a pleasure.
“When I began the design of the sets…, I decided not to make any preconceived notions, considering instead the blocking of each scene and the poetic gist of the text. Hence the absence of realistic elements and the sketchiness of the scenery, the idea being to preserve the climate of lyricism and drama, at once so fantastic, that Vinicius created and that leaves the characters hovering in space, entirely at the mercy of their passions.” (From the Songbook Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu, published by Jobim Music, 2003)
The play inspired the passions of French filmmaker Marcel Camus, who went to Brazil to direct the Academy-Award winning Black Orpheus, his own cinematic paean to the beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the music for the film was provided by Jobim (along with Luiz Bonfá). What fans of Vinicius and Jobim’s song output may not have realized is that Jobim first took up architecture as a profession, only to drop it in favor of music. He toured the site for the proposed Brasília project with his songwriting partner Vinicius and Niemeyer in tow. This later bore fruit in a major new composition, the Sinfonia da Alvorada, from 1961.
Barely a year later, as poet and musician were comfortably ensconced outside the Veloso Bar in Rio, a teenager by the name of Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (later Pinheiro) crossed their path. She became the inspiration for the entranced pair to write their most wittily sensuous and widely recorded song hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.”
If “form follows feminine,” as Oscar Niemeyer so claimed, then let the above incidents serve as “concrete” proof of that sentiment. And as far as inspiring passion goes, Niemeyer had plenty of it to spare. May he be granted eternal rest from his labors… †
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Poor Michael Franks. He gets no respect, no respect at all from jazz purists. Although most critics have grievously placed him in the same New Adult Contemporary, bush-league music category as that of L.A. keyboardist David Benoit — that is, of artists who’ve been plying their trade for years without either public acclaim or mass countenance — Franks doesn’t look like a Rodney Dangerfield, nor does he act or sound anything like the late stand-up comedian.
Despite decades of slaving away in the pop-music business — in itself, nothing to laugh about, that’s for sure — his biggest obstacle to lasting success has always been his inability to please those same critics, if indeed that’s anything to lose sleep over.
As Rolling Stone staff writer Paul Evans so astutely concluded about him, “The attitude his music is intended to provoke is invariably: ‘Dim the lights, get out the Chardonnay, cuddle up.’ ” But for the many Brazilian musicians and performers who’ve worked closely with Franks over the years, it’s another story entirely.
Still, the oddest aspect of Michael’s 33-plus-year singing and composing career is the West Coast native’s apparent lack of hits (his “Popsicle Toes” from 1976’s The Art of Tea the only exception) or multi-platinum-selling albums to crown off his consistently earnest achievements.
In a nutshell, the main difficulty for most people remains his unattainability as a crossover specialist, a singer secure enough in his song-filled art at closing the ever-expanding gulf between the jazz and pop spheres so prevalent in the U.S. during his performance heyday.
Not that Franks worries one bit about his nondescript status among his peers. It’s just that the low-key method he’s brought to his words and music, manifested in the refined manner with which he’s formulated his spare yet insightful lyrics — abetted, to no end, by that Comparative English Literature degree he earned at UCLA in the seventies — hasn’t exactly bowled over what’s left of the uncommitted. And likely never will.
Surely Michael’s laid-back vocal temperament could be the hindrance, being that his basic singing style, which closely resembles that of American pop crooner Kenny Rankin, has been allied more to sophisticated Brazilian-jazz contexts than to pop-music puffoonery.
One could even say his voice is a warmed-over version of folk-rock’s best friend James Taylor, but without the singer-songwriter’s deviated-septum vocal production. Incidentally, before Taylor moved on to Columbia (now part of Sony) Records, both he and Franks were Warner Brothers label-mates in the mid- to late seventies, as was smooth-jazz pioneer Al Jarreau, another under-appreciated denizen of the Redwood State.
In actuality, though, Michael Franks is the nearest Americans have ever come to having that old Bahian bossa-nova stylist, the famously cantankerous maestro João Gilberto, in their midst — minus that eccentric singer’s onstage peculiarities, of course.
It would not be an exaggeration, then, to admit that Franks, in his inimitable fashion, is a continuation of the romantic spirit exemplified by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — considered by Michael to be one of his prime movers ‘n’ shakers — alongside the still-imposing frames of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the great George and Ira Gershwin.
But whatever issues he has pending with reviewers, they have had no ill-effects with the many steadfast fans who happen to be in the musical “know.” Take, for instance, former Steely Dan band member-turned-record producer Walter Becker, who paid the ultimate tribute to Franks’ compositional skills in the September 1990 issue of Jazziz:
“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire. His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort.”
“At the same time, there’s a lot there,” Becker added. “They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does that I really admire.”
That directness and simplicity was amply illustrated from the get-go with his trend-setting Art of Tea offering, particularly with such song titles as “Eggplant,” “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do,” “Mr. Blue,” “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad,” and “Sometimes I Just Forget To Smile.”
Even better still, and an early career milestone in the catalog of his cumulative works, was the Tommy LiPuma-produced 1977 outing Sleeping Gypsy, the first in a series of studio efforts to enlist the aid of Brazilian session players; in this case, Hélio Delmiro on guitar, João Donato on piano, and João Palma on drums — all of them associated at one time or another with Rio-born music-master, Tom Jobim.
Along with the now-classic “The Lady Wants to Know,” a modern-day jazz standard if ever there was one (“Daddy’s just like Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / The Lady’s just like heaven… when she smiles”), were two numbers originally conceived in red-hot Rio de Janeiro: “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” a moving evocation of Jobim himself, and “Down in Brazil.”
“I wrote [these] in my room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel,” claimed Michael. “I went to Rio to record at the suggestion of Jobim, who had been very kind in his praise for The Art of Tea. It’s no secret he was one of my major heroes and influences.”
With that in mind, “Antonio’s Song” starts out in nearly the same tempo and rhythm-pattern as “The Lady Wants to Know” — it must have been a deliberate choice on Michael’s part to begin in this mode — but for the gentle-on-the-mind string accompaniment arranged by veteran Claus Ogerman, who worked on many of Jobim’s albums for Warner and Verve, including the timeless Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing on Reprise a decade prior.
The image of a decadent Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvelous City”), contrasted with that of Rio’s sunniest songwriting native-son — so peerlessly captured by Michael in the first few bars — set the prevailing tone and mood:
Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die
That opening phrase (“Antonio lives life’s frevo”) is a masterstroke of understated lyricism. Upon first hearing, it will ever-so-slightly pass by the untrained ear, unless one is intimately aware of the inner meaning of this uniquely Brazilian-Portuguese term: an exceedingly agitated Northeastern dance-rhythm, native to both Bahia and Recife, frevo is typically played during the pre-Lenten season. As a partial metaphor for the composer, moreover, it shrewdly encompasses Jobim’s hectic artistic lifestyle in a brief, eight-syllable sentiment.
While not the bold social statement often associated with the best of Bono and U2 (or early Sting, for that matter), the song nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of tension amid the tropical froth; as if Franks instinctively sensed the adoration his newfound friend felt for his seaside abode, despite all the harshness and strife he may have encountered there from time to time.
As well, the singer’s laconic, almost vibrato-less delivery of his lines, as matter-of-fact as only he was capable of producing back then — an American smooth-jazz offshoot of German Sprechgesang (“Song speech”) — adds to the objective formality of the piece. More so than the actual words, Michael’s aloof, non-judgmental approach leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the foibles of “Sin City” Rio:
We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.
The last line, “Like Light into the Rainbow,” echoes the essential English text (supplied by American jazz essayist Gene Lees) to one of Jobim’s bounciest Brazilian melodies, “Double Rainbow” (“Chovendo na Roseira”), also known by the less-familiar title “Children’s Games,” recorded by Tom with Elis Regina, in Los Angeles, in 1974:
Look at the double rainbow
The rain is silver in the sunlight
“Down in Brazil,” the closing track on Gypsy, is dedicated (for one) to the beauteous charms of Brazilian women, and is relayed high-up in Michael’s reediest tonal range:
Down in Brazil They never heard of win or lose If you can't feel That all those café olé girls In high-heel shoes Will really cure your blues It seems they all just aim to please Those women sway like wind In the banana trees When you know you're Down in old Brazil
At the fadeout, the oft-repeated verses of “Down in old Brazil” reminds one, too, of music legend Frank Sinatra’s sly sendoff on the time-worn Ary Barroso-Bob Russell theme, “Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil”), found in the first — and best — of Ole Blue Eyes’ various Billy May collaborations, namely Come Fly With Me (1957) for Capitol.
Yet what are we to make of the Franks brand of music making? Is it less-than-mainstream jazz, or plain old middle-of-the-road pop styling?
“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” comments Becker.
“Part of the problem has been that traditionally, in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the ‘moon-June-spoon,’ Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”
In light of this estimation, and Franks’ positive working relationship with Brazil’s native-born performers, his unabated love for the country’s music conveniently spilled over into his subsequent long-play output, significantly in the 1978 Burchfield Nines release, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato (see 1971’s Sinatra & Company on Reprise); in Tiger in the Rain (1979), with the cut “Jardim Botânico” (“Botanical Garden”), featuring jazz artist Flora Purim and trumpeter Claudio Roditi; in Passionfruit (1983), with Astrud Gilberto and Naná Vasconcelos, on “Amazon”; and in Dragonfly Summer (1993), with key contributions by percussionist Paulinho da Costa and guitarist Toninho Horta.
But the work to end all works — the sine qua non of Brazilian tribute albums — was the career-defining Abandoned Garden project from 1995, recorded in loving memory of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim. Described as the “jazziest” of Michael’s subtropical jaunts, the CD features rhythm tracks laid down for him by paulistana pianist Eliane Elias — a current, and past, Jobim acolyte — along with a contemporary all-star lineup of acknowledged light- and smooth-jazz favorites, among them Michael and Randy Brecker (Eliane’s husband), Mark Egan, Art Farmer, Russell Ferrante, Bob James, Bashiri Johnson, Chuck Loeb, Bob Mintzer, Joshua Redman, and David Sanborn.
Two of the disc’s many highlights, “Cinema” (co-written with Jobim) and “Bird of Paradise” (music by Alagoan singer Djavan/English lyrics by Michael Franks), reveal a thoroughly evolved mastery of the lyrical style, as infectiously and flavorfully literate as anything in the Jobim-Moraes canon.
Some of the other songs on the set, including “This Must Be Paradise,” “Like Water, Like Wind,” “A Fool’s Errand,” “Hourglass,” “Eighteen Aprils,” “Without Your Love,” and “Somehow Our Love Survives” — originally on ex-Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s album Spellbound (Warner, 1989), where it was performed by Al Jarreau — revolve around the themes of love-found, love-lost, and love-regained.
Interestingly, the main title-tune comes at the end of the nearly hour-long endeavor. With its slow, dirge-like musings, this mildly morose homage to Tom more than compensates for any rhythmic shortcomings by becoming a fitting formal close to the storied Jobim-Franks joint venture:
Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound of your voice,
your piano, your flute, you are found,
and the music within you continues to flow
sadly, lost Antonio.
You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;
on the highway of time will I meet you again?
If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show
for the lost Antonio?
For the lost Antonio?
High hopes tinged with sadness: that was the message Michael Franks tried to make clear and convey in all his best work. And along those same lines, everyone from Shirley Bassey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ana Caram, Natalie Cole, and Laura Fygi, to Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Melissa Manchester, The Yellowjackets, and Ringo Starr has happily complied in covering his highly sought-after song material.
Shut out of FM-radio due to rapidly diminished airplay, Michael’s only-other completely original release thereafter,* the 2003 Christmas-themed Watching the Snow — with seasoned talents Romero Lubambo and Edson Aparecido (Café) da Silva among the artists present — was sold privately to fans on his personal Website via the Sleeping Gypsy label, an obvious (and sentimental) allusion to the first of his many Brazilian-inspired productions.
If, as they say, you can never go home again, Michael can now feel at ease, rest assured of having earned the love and respect of his infinitely loyal fan-base, not the least of which can be counted one deeply devoted admirer: Brazil’s dearly-departed and best-loved composer, a certain Mr. Jobim.
Take that, jazz purists, if you can! ☼
* His 1999 album, Barefoot on the Beach, for the New Age label Windham Hill, while consistent overall with Michael’s basic songwriting philosophy (“Heart Like an Open Book,” “Now Love Has No End”), was not entirely representative of the best of his earlier works. Consequently, it was not a big-seller either, nor did it do well in the record charts.
As regular readers of my pieces know, I have a profound interest in, and deep admiration for, music of all kinds and from every conceivable category, as evidenced by the number of articles I’ve written on the subject over the past few years alone.
This fondly felt appreciation for the performing arts was instilled in me at an early age, and which my Brazilian wife in turn has cultivated to an even greater degree in the years we’ve been together.
I’m glad to report that this passion for all matters musical has now been handed off to my two daughters, who as luck would have it have been blessed with beautiful voices, have sung in the school choir, have learned to play the keyboard, and can boast of innate artistic abilities we hope will serve them well in the years to come.
Having been born myself in a high-rise district of São Paulo, I’ve often wondered if other musically inclined Brazilian families have experienced the same phenomenon of passing this gift of a previous generation’s genetically entwined talents on down to their descendants.
That thought gave rise as Maria Rita, the daughter of celebrated MPB star Elis Regina, mounted the dais to accept the Fifth Annual 2004 Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist and Best Música Popular Brasileira Album. Her late mother would have been pleased, I’m sure, had she lived to see young Maria Rita’s triumph as she won these well-deserved honors.
But what of the fate of other children of great Brazilian artists? Who are they, and what has become of their fleeting chances at putting a personal stamp on their own individual accomplishments?
Nowadays, the endless possibilities for “fame,” in general, have greatly multiplied, given the proliferation of the Worldwide Web, digital photography, desktop publishing, instant messaging, chat-lines, iPods, iPhones, PDAs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, you name it.
These and other so-called modern conveniences, not to mention the latest rounds of so-called “talent” shows and reality-TV programming, have conspired to make it a lot easier for simple folk, like us, to “make it” as well in the entertainment business.
But being the possessor of a well-known moniker, however, or a relative with an estimable lineage, just might get that window of opportunity lifted a bit higher for you than it normally would for your average Joe — at least, that’s the public perception of things.
In any case, it’s talent that counts — or so they say — and it’s worth paying a return visit to some of the major and minor ones out there, born to fabulously wealthy (in ability) musical families, so as to prove this simple hypothesis correct.
Beginning with the tropicalismo movement of the late 1960s, there’s no better sampling of sedate professional rivalry among Brazilian relations than the love and affection shown by pop singer Caetano Emanuel Viana Teles Veloso (born August 7, 1942) for his younger sister, Maria Bethânia Viana Teles Veloso (née June 18, 1946), both of who come from the Northeastern town of Santo Amaro da Purificação, in the state of Bahia.
They have shared the musical spotlight on numerous occasions, and, to their mutual benefit, have kept up a reasonably amicable working relationship on and off the world stage for nearly 40 years. If anyone knows of an incident where this has not regularly been the case, please let me know.
Factually, there is some historical precedence for this behavior in the effervescent nightclub routines of the great Carmen Miranda and her younger sister Aurora, who at one time appeared together at the Cassino da Urca in Rio de Janeiro during the early 1930s.
While Carmen later hit it big in Hollywood wartime musicals, little Aurora Miranda managed to sustain her own, not-insignificant solo career; some condescending old-timers even insisted she had a lovelier singing voice than her more vivacious blood relative, but no matter.
For those interested in making the comparison, Aurora sings and sambas her way, along with Walt Disney characters Donald Duck and Zé Carioca, in the colorful cartoon epic The Three Caballeros from 1945. Its stunning visual design and zany, surreal presentation predates the Beatles’ own animated foray, Yellow Submarine (1968), by a full generation. She also appeared in a handful of forties crime dramas, most memorably in Phantom Lady (1944), with Franchot Tone and Ella Raines, and directed by Robert Siodmak. It’s considered a minor classic.
From Tinsel Town we journey further eastward, to the core of the Big Apple — New York City, to be precise — the rather incongruous birthplace of Brazilian pop stylist Bebel Gilberto (Isabel Gilberto de Oliveira).
Bebel has carved out an impressive niche as a sophisticated re-interpreter and original composer of bossa nova, a style of music mastered long ago by her curmudgeon of a paterfamilias, vocalist-guitarist João Gilberto. One of the few living legends still active in the field today, Joãozinho is an artist who has spent considerable time in the States as a former resident of the borough of Manhattan.
Bebel’s entertainer mother, carioca artist Miúcha (real name: Heloísa Maria), is the Bahian musician’s second wife and the sister of another famous celebrity, lyricist, author, and singer-composer Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda — so much for impeccable pop credentials!
A bold proponent of the current trends in Brazilian popular music, Bebel is considered by fans to be an influential part of the contemporary “new wave” of performers to have made a market splash here, as her marvelous compact disc debut, Tanto Tempo from 2000, pleasantly proved.
For this inaugural effort she was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2001, and — talk about déjà vu — in the same artistic categories that Maria Rita later competed in. Her follow-up album, the self-titled Bebel Gilberto (Six Degrees, 2004), continued to push the musical envelope in newer and ever more dynamic directions, with a bit of “electronica” thrown in for good measure.
Its success in the jazz and pop arenas has aided immeasurably in increasing the exposure and vitality of modern bossa nova at a time of decreasing public awareness and sagging record sales.
Another in a long line of inspired native-sons of Salvador da Bahia is the incomparable Dorival Caymmi, whose prolific song output has served as the melodic equivalent to the literary works of Bahian novelist Jorge Amado.
Dorival has sired several exceptionally gifted offspring of his own that include singer-guitarist Dori Caymmi, songstress Nana Caymmi, and flutist Danilo Caymmi. While most jazz buffs may only be familiar with the first of these three performers, each has contributed his or her own fair share of talent toward keeping their father’s surname alive in the minds of music lovers on both hemispheres.
In fact, Dori (Dorival Tostes Caymmi) has often been featured as a guest artist, instrumentalist, arranger, composer, performer, and producer on an incredible variety of studio releases over the past three decades alone.
Apropos of his versatility, Caymmi enjoys a formidable reputation among smooth jazz colleagues David Benoit, Larry Coryell, Don and Dave Grusin, and many others, as a highly competent and in-demand session player as well as a premier vocalist.
His distinctively deep and mellow baritone voice, so reminiscent of his father’s unique timbre, can be heard on the soundtrack to the 1990 Sydney Pollack-Robert Redford film Havana, issued by GRP Records. Dori also shows up, in the flesh, on CTI’s Larry Coryell: Live from Bahia (1991) outing, singing his own delectable mid-seventies composition, “Gabriela’s Song.”
Older sister Nana (Dinahir Tostes Caymmi) is no slouch, either, in the song department, as demonstrated by her lyrical partnership with Chico Buarque on the sensitively intoned “Até pensei,” written by Chico, to be found on her EMI album Nana Caymmi — Resposta ao Tempo (1998).
The ballad is a highlight, too, of Mr. Buarque’s compilation of cuts (from 2002) entitled Duetos, on the RCA/BMG label, and produced by longtime associate Vinicius França. Included on the disc with Chico is the Jobim/Moraes work, “Sem você” (“Without You”), taken from the songbook Vinicius de Moraes (1993), with the ever-popular Rio-born composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim, at the piano.
Papai Sabe Tudo (“Father Knows Best”)
As one of Brazil’s most widely respected and best-loved bossa nova practitioners, Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida “Tom” Jobim was himself the proud parent of similarly endowed children — namely his son, Paulo, and daughter Elizabeth Jobim, an established artisan and painter in her own right.
All of them, including second wife Ana Beatriz Lontra, were prominently displayed, along with Danilo Caymmi and his spouse Simone, on the CD/Video program Rio Revisited, in the JazzVisions series of concerts put out by Verve-PolyGram in 1989.
Filmed at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in 1987, this remarkable live event captured the still expressive Jobim — many pounds heavier than what we remember from his youthful, carefree visage — basking in the familial atmosphere, with these two tuneful clans providing the harmonious backdrop to his most enticing creations.
Presciently, Tom’s broad musical influence would reach far beyond his homegrown Brazilian brood. Indeed, three of the more “junior” members of this elite gathering — guitarist Paulo Jobim; cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, whose claim to fame was as Caetano Veloso’s musical director, in addition to having been a frequent collaborator with Jobim Sr. on several of his recording projects; and his vocalist wife, Paula Morelenbaum — went on to form the Quarteto Jobim-Morelenbaum after the composer’s untimely passing.
It consisted as well of Paulo’s own son and Jobim’s musical heir apparent, pianist and singer Daniel Cannetti Jobim. One could say that this latter-day, jazz-chamber ensemble had taken up the late and much-lamented carioca’s performance mantle where he had literally left off.
Their year 2000 recording debut, Quarteto Jobim-Morelenbaum (Velas Records), and an ensuing American and European tour, were both a popular and critical success. The album’s exceedingly erudite liner comments by Veloso, however, were not very idiomatically translated from the original Portuguese and struck the sole sour note.
And speaking of Caetano, his son, Moreno, has also turned up of late in a musically eclectic group format of his own — called Moreno Veloso +2 — on the Ryko-Palm release Music Typewriter from 2001. The other key players associated with the concept were multi-talented instrumentalists Domenico Lancelloti and Alexandre Kassin, with Moreno himself on guitar, percussion, and cello.
In his youth, the now thirty-something Veloso the Younger had toured frequently with his dad, and served as musical accompanist to such illustrious pop names as Gilberto Gil and Carlinhos Brown.
With this kind of background, then, it should come as no surprise that the most offbeat item to issue forth from his Typewriter is straight out of left field and reads like some esoteric producer’s worst nightmare: Moreno launches into a duet, at one point, with guest artist Daniel Jobim, on the Churchill-Morley tune, “I’m Wishing,” from the 1937 Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the lines sung alternately in English and Portuguese.
Exactly what kind of statement Moreno wanted to make with this rather oddball number escapes me. It could, among other things, represent a personal thumbing of his proboscis at the poor state of Brazilian and American pop music per se, or whatever else his fertile mind might have conjured up at the moment. But who’s to say?
Either way, it was a decisive move on his part to have taken this more idiosyncratic song route, much as his own father had done decades before him.
And we’re not done yet, as the ubiquitous Daniel crops up once again on jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli’s newest recorded entry, Bossa Nova on Telarc (2004), the latest stateside contribution to an already crowded platform.
In a salute to João Gilberto, the genre’s trailblazing pioneer and acknowledged path breaker, the American-born Pizzarelli (himself the son of famed guitar-picker Bucky Pizzarelli) has his Brazilian counterpart, Daniel Jobim, perform the background vocals and Portuguese lyrics to his grandfather’s most popular tune, the classic “The Girl from Ipanema” — now that’s entertainment nepotism!
Another welcome guest on several of the album’s tracks is none other than pianist, composer, and producer Cesar Camargo Mariano, the talented former-husband of singer Elis Regina, which brings this genealogical survey full circle.*
All of these diverse musical examples seem to share a common enough thread: they’re not just empty coincidences, but illustrate instead the vast interconnectedness of the Brazilian artistic experience.
Taken as a whole, they proclaim, to one and all, the sheer joy gregarious Brazilians get out of participating in life’s continuous songfest — with its firm and steady grounding in the sounds and rhythms of that most captivating of Latin American countries, the always musically-exhilarating Brazil. ☼
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Other famously talented family members include the sons of composer-guitarist Baden Powell (guitarist Marcelo and pianist Philippe); the children of sixties pop singer Jair Rodrigues (Jair Oliveira and Luciana Melo); the performing daughters of sambista Martinho da Vila (Mart’nália Mendonça Ferreira) and tropicalismo co-founder/ex-Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil (singer Preta Gil); the sire of country-music sensation Xororó (the popular sister-brother act of Sandy Leah Lima and Durval de Lima Júnior, known collectively as Sandy & Júnior); and the guitar-playing virtuosos, the Assad family, headed by brothers Sérgio and Odair, and younger sister Badi Assad.