Bossa nova combines the textures and rhythms of samba, jazz,
20th century classical music, and even Hollywood film music, to
form a distinctly Brazilian style. It is melodically and harmonically
complex, drawing from the chord progressions of jazz and from
the harmonic language of composers
like Debussy and Ravel.
One of things I love about my grandmother’s house is her CD collection. Most of her CDs are reissues of older LPs:
classic recordings of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, a few Nat King Cole albums,
The Best of George Shearing, and four or
five Sinatra albums. She let me borrow any album I wanted when I was younger, and some I liked so much I sort of forgot to
bring them back.
Frank Sinatra was my favorite of allno one could sing like that man. He awoke in me a passion for music and
made me aware of its power. It was through him, of all people, that I discovered Brazilian music.
In high school I bought a Sinatra album every time I went to the record store. My collection was already triple the
size of my grandmother’s and still growing. During one trip to the store, as I picked through the shelves of CDs, I found an
album hiding near the back called Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.
In all my years as a Sinatra fan I had never
heard of it.
I turned it over in my hands and looked skeptically at the back cover. "But it must be of some value," I thought. "It
is Sinatra." For curiosity’s sake I went to the front counter and bought it. I read the liner notes in the parking lot on the
way to the car. "So Antônio Carlos Jobim is Brazilian. What does Brazilian music even sound like?"
I had heard salsa, so I figured it was similar to that. What a surprise when I put the album on at home: no blaring
trumpets, no timbales, but guitars and pensive lyrics. Sinatra didn’t sound himself. His usual flare was now a whisper, yet he fit
the mood perfectly. The strings swayed in and out between the rhythm of the drums, and the piano answered in the
background. When the album ended, I started it over. I was enchanted by this beautiful, foreign music, and I had to hear more of it.
After being introduced to Brazilian music through the
Sinatra & Jobim album, I felt ready to explore on my own. I
bought Jobim’s Wave and began to learn about Brazilian
If you lived in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of the
20th century, you would probably have listened to the music
popular with your social class. The rich gathered in parlors and halls to hear music by European composers; in the streets the
middle-class performed choroa fusion of waltz, polka, popular Portuguese music, and African music; restricted to the hills
outside the city, the poor danced in
batuque circles, following in the tradition brought to Brazil by African slaves in the
16th century. But samba would change all this.
In the 1930s samba became a national sensation, cutting through class boundaries, replacing
choro as the music played during Carnaval. Many forms of samba developed: among the most prominent were Carnaval samba or
samba baiano, theme samba, and song samba or
samba canção. Song samba, the first blend of Brazilian percussion and European song,
appealed especially to the middle class, and from this samba form,
bossa nova would evolve two decades later.
After dictator Getúlio Vargas’s suicide, Juscelino Kubitschek was elected President of Brazil in 1955. The nation
saw a period of industrial development and economic prosperity. In wealthy areas of Rio de Janeiro, people spent mellow
days at the beach, romantic evenings in nightclubs; this lifestyle begged for new music, a style that would represent a thriving Brazil.
Such music was already in the making. Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Luis Bonfá and other musicians
were experimenting with radical variations on the samba, and soon
bossa nova was born. Bossa, in Rio slang, means "special
ability" or "astuteness"so together with
nova we get "new ability," or as some say, "new beat."
Bossa nova combines the textures and rhythms of samba, jazz,
20th century classical music, and even Hollywood
film music, to form a distinctly Brazilian style. In this new style the traditional samba rhythm is relaxed to a breezy
syncopated feel, as seen in the "stuttering guitar" sound Gilberto invented.
It is melodically and harmonically complex, drawing from the chord progressions of jazz and from the harmonic
language of modern composers like Debussy and Ravel. The vocals have a quiet tone, a conversational quality about them.
Bossa nova officially began with Gilberto and Jobim’s album,
Chega de Saudade, released in August 1958. The
music was a hit, and many more recordings followed. It became popular internationally when it appeared in the soundtrack for
the Brazilian film, Black Orpheus.
On a visit to Brazil, American jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd took an interest in the music and brought it back to the
United States to share with other jazz musicians. Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz recorded the famous
Jazz Samba, infecting the American public with
bossa nova fever.
But the most famous album by far was Getz &
Gilberto, a collaboration between Getz, Gilberto and Jobim, released
in 1964. It spent 96 weeks on the charts and won four Grammies. Perhaps you have heard that album’s rendition of
Jobim’s song "The Girl from Ipanema" playing in an elevator or poolside at the MGM Grand.
From Jobim’s Wave I went to the Getz/Gilberto
album. After hearing Gilberto’s voice, I certainly wanted more of
him. I bought some of his solo albums on my next trip to the store. By learning musician’s names and buying their albums I
developed a life-long enthusiasm for Brazilian music. I discovered luminaries, Luis Bonfá and Flora Purim, and contemporary
musicians, like Milton Nascimento, Elaine Elias, and Bebel Gilberto.
It is strange now to think that it all started with Frank Sinatra. The
Sinatra & Jobim album will always be important
for me, because it formed the bridge to the world of Brazilian music.
I recommend the album to anyone looking to discover Brazilian music: it captures the essence of
bossa nova, but Sinatra’s voice keeps the music familiar. Maybe someday you can say with me, "It took an Italian to introduce me to Brazil."
1. Frank Sinatra-Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim
2. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto-Getz/Gilberto
3. Antonio Carlos Jobim-Wave
4. Milton Nascimento-Milton’s
5. Chick Corea and Return to Forever-Light as a
Joshua Reinhold is a student at Biola University in La Mirada, California, but wishes he lived in Brazil. Contact him
by email at email@example.com
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