John Pizzarelli, the Boy from Ipanema

    John PizzarelliJust before Christmas, I was surfing the local TV stations and had a pleasant surprise—a program which was actually worth watching.  Amidst the usual imbecilic soap operas and moronic chat shows appeared an arts program called “Metropolis” on TV Cultura which featured an American musician called John Pizzarelli.

    It was a refreshing change from the standard video package the studios issue to publicize a singer latest album. Unoriginal and dishonest TV stations all over the world then present the material as a genuine program although it is just free advertising.


    Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist, was interviewed about the great influence Brazilian music has had on his career and excerpts were shown from a concert he gave in São Paulo recently.


    Pizzarelli’s enthusiasm was engaging but at times he was rather inarticulate and we were treated to an awful lot of “ohs”, “ahs” and “wows” to describe the effect particular pieces of music had had on him. Despite this, he came over as an impressive professional with a genuine interest in Brazilian music.


    Over the years, Pizzarelli has recorded quite a lot of bossa nova material and appeared on a CD called “Brazil” made by veteran songstress Rosemary Clooney a couple of years back.


    He has now taken the plunge and released a CD called “Bossa Nova” which is almost entirely made up of Brazilian classics, such as “The Girl from Ipanema,” “One Note Samba” and “Águas de Março,” in English and Portuguese. 


    It also contains two songs, “Soares Samba” and “Francesca,” which he wrote himself, plus other material by James Taylor, Stephen Sondheim and George Gershwin.


    In the sleeve notes, Pizzarelli reveals that his interest in bossa nova was stirred back in 1981 when he heard João Gilberto singing “Besame Mucho” from an album called “Amoroso” on his car radio.


    Pizzarelli said his father, also a jazz guitarist, kept turning up the volume with every change of chord and told him to buy the album the next day. Pizzarelli concludes the sleeve notes as follows:


    “I learned all the songs on that CD and paid particular attention to the remarkable guitar-playing and “forward” singing of Mr. Gilberto. That record is a gift to the world. It remains an inspiration to all who hear it; and I always thought it to be the centerpiece of everything that Bossa Nova is and has become.”


    Flattery Will Get You Anywhere


    Brazilians are flattered when foreigners speak well of them and treat their culture with respect and Pizzarelli has been given wide coverage here. A few more “ambassadors” like Pizzarelli might help tackle the anti-Americanism which is rife here, thanks to the unpopularity of President George W. Bush.   


    It is a pity though that Pizzarelli speaks no Portuguese other than (in his own words) “obrigado” and “três caipirinhas por favor”. If so, then his versions of the Brazilian songs might have been more interesting.


    His performance in Portuguese of Garota de Ipanema, for example, was just too similar to João Gilberto’s to bring any originality to a song which has become over-familiar and needs a fresh treatment.


    His bossa nova arrangements of James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” and George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” must have been wasted on a Brazilian audience. However, maybe I am being a bit unfair to Pizzarelli here.


    My fellow Brazzil columnist and music expert, Joe Lopes, who mentions Pizzarelli in one of his articles , says that Pizzarelli is better known as a guitarist than singer. “He did not earn many superlatives for his Brazilian album, but he is still quite a remarkable artist,” Joe said. (1)


    Brazilian music has always provided rich pickings for foreign musicians but it’s a little sad that so few of them have really mined it to its potential. It does not look as though Pizzarelli will be any different but, at least, he has shown that there are still some enlightened people out there.


    Incidentally, if you enter Pizzarelli’s web site – http://www.johnpizzarelli.com/ –  you can listen to two of the songs – “One Note Samba” and “Águas de Março” (Waters of March).  


    Finally, I felt a great empathy with Pizzarelli at one point when he described how a Brazilian friend had once given him a tape containing a selection of singers and he had been astonished by the variety and quality of the material.


    The same thing happened to me almost 20 years ago when a girl gave me a tape she had made, containing music by people like Gal Costa, Hermeto Pascoal, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Elis Regina, Rita Lee, Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Maria Bethânia, Milton Nascimento and  Neguinho da Beija Flor, amongst others.


    Apart from João Gilberto I had never heard of any of them and could not believe that this richness had gone virtually unnoticed outside Brazil. An introduction to Brazilian music is an introduction to Brazil itself and once you are hooked, you are hooked for life.  


    Still Waiting for the New Girl from Ipanema


    In a recent article I said it was time for a new English version of the lyrics of “The Girl from Ipanema.” So far no-one has taken up the challenge. In theory there should be no problem since the best-known lyrics by Norman Gimbel bear only the slightest connection to the original Portuguese lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes.


    Gimbel did not speak Portuguese and used poetic license to the maximum. A version which is more faithful to the Portuguese lyrics was produced by Jason Brazile but has come nowhere near replacing the Gimbel version, which is now a standard. Are there really no bilingual brazzil readers out there who can take on this challenge?


    A number of readers have contacted me about this article. Michael Lahue, who is a musician and composer, referred me to “Ela é Carioca: uma enciclopédia de Ipanema”, by Ruy Castro, which gives the background to the famous Stan Getz album.


    According to this book, Gimbel wrote his completely different English version in defiance of the suggestions made to him.  The album was released only with great reluctance. 


    Before its release, the Portuguese version of “The Girl from Ipanema”, sung by João Gilberto, was cut from the track, leaving behind only the first half of the recording, sung in English by Astrud Gilberto. 


    Michael believes the song became successful in the US because of its catchy rhythm and melody and not so much because of the lyric. My thanks to Michael, Joe and other correspondents for their interest in this subject.


    (1) “Musical Brazil: Relatively Speaking, It’s All in the Family” – Brazzil Magazine, October 2, 2004. – www.brazzil.com/content/view/6832/2/
     
    John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—www.celt.com.br—which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br.


    © John Fitzpatrick 2004

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