Saturday, July 21, 2012

João Gilberto: João Gilberto (1973)

For a record that's attained a mythic standing in Brazilian music, João Gilberto has peculiar, decidedly un-Brazilian origins.  In 1973 João, accompanied only by a relatively unknown percussionist named Sonny Carr, checked into Polygram's music studio in Englewood Heights, New Jersey, in the midst of a self-imposed exile in the United States and, briefly, Mexico that would last eighteen years.  Hardly anyone remembers this, but the sound engineer for the sessions was Wendy Carlos, a composer who'd made her name off a compilation of electronically synthesized Bach tunes called Switched-On Bach and who, incidentally, had undergone sexual reassignment surgery just months prior to the recording date (she'd been born Walter Carlos).  The product was a record that, for a lot of listeners, stands as the apotheosis of bossa nova: the album that João converts turn to when all else fails by way of baptizing their resistant heathen friends--its clean, bracing sounds washing over them to bring about a clarity of vision, a purified mind.  Never a restless innovator, João is an artist who concocted a wholly new way of playing in the late fifties and has spent the rest of his life simply tweaking it in one way or another: there was the sweet, viscous style of the early masterpieces, object lessons in concision; the collaboration with Stan Getz, which melded bossa nova with west coast jazz (and, arguably, watered down both in the process); the long, sprawling suites of Amoroso/Brasil, complete with synthesizers and English lyrics.  On João Gilberto, colloquially known as his white album, João took that style and sanded it down so assiduously that only the skeletal essentials remained: an acoustic guitar, the sparsest percussion work, and a set of whispered melodies, endlessly repeated, that settle in the brain and gesture towards eternity.

The fascination of the record lies in the way it takes a well-worn apparatus, bossa nova, and revamps it to suggest a fresh way of thinking about music.  Scrapping the familiar blueprint of the song as a gradual, linear unfolding toward an emotional climax and resolution, João offers instead a music of hushed, minimalist repetition--not a horizontal progression but a vertical heaping-up of one iteration after another.  There's remarkable cumulative force in this repetition: by the time you reach the fourth chorus of "Aguas de Março," the opening track, you feel the propulsive power of amassed momentum--the inertia, quiet but inexorable, of lap after lap of downy vocals, lipped like an intimate secret.  The effect is to draw your attention to the capillary differences between each iteration: the little shifts in syncopation, the spontaneously tossed-off embellishment, the way "Eu Quero Um Samba," which starts off evenly, ends up tending wickedly toward swing.  And, of course, to hypnotize you.  "Valsa," along with "Undiú" the only João original on the record, is a lullabye he wrote for his daughter (seven at the time).  But, really, the entirety of João Gilberto has a lulling somnolence about it; it's trance-music of a sort, and in the slightly altered consciousness it induces in you, you'll reach a state of heightened receptivity to its exquisite emotional freight.  It will work its way into you with the lazy determination of sap through an oak tree--slow-traveling, nourishing--and you'll find yourself returning to it almost inexplicably.

Melville guessed in Moby Dick that the mystifying power of whiteness lay in the fact that it was "the concrete of all colors," a "dumb blankness" that was also terrifyingly full of meaning.  João Gilberto is, in a sense, the white whale of Brazilian music, a ghostly specter that countless artists have grappled with obsessively, trying alternately to copy and exorcise themselves of it; and a recording that remains, for all its simplicity, remarkably elusive.  It is also strangely all-encompassing: in a way that only João was capable, it takes all manner of Brazilian musical scraps--the dusty, forgotten tune dredged up from the vaults of decades past, the cutting-edge product of the (then recent) Tropicalia movement--and fuses them into a unified solidity.  There's "Na Baixa do Sapateiro," an old piece by Ary Barroso, the legendary sambista who'd been dead nine years; on this record it gets transmuted into a small miracle of near-telepathic communication, with João firing off brisk, unpredictable salvos of chords while Carr, amazingly, keeps apace on a high-hat.  There's Caetano Veloso's "Avarandado," a highlight among highlights, which is not so much bossa nova as a set of languid arpeggios strung together by singing that's almost shockingly intimate.  Brazilian Portuguese finds its fullest embodiment in the vocals of tracks like this one; and something fundamental about the people who speak it--their sweetness, gentleness, and easy, relaxed corporeality--gets distilled in the syllables.  You'll develop your own favorites, of course--the zen riddle that is "Undiú," maybe, or the addictive "Eu Quero Um Samba," or the irrepressibly happy duet "Izaura," in which a second, female voice (belonging to Miucha, Chico Buarque's younger sister) joins João's to end the record.  I think mine will always be "É Preciso Perdoar," an aubade so starkly and relentlessly beautiful--and, in its understated way, so desperate--you'll be torn between needing to hear it perpetually and being overwhelmed by its cutting intensity, its concentration.  Like the album itself, it seems to materialize from the ether, shuffling along like a locomotive overheard at a great distance at night, and then disappearing just as imperceptibly--quick, determined, and a little devastating.

João Gilberto (1973)

1. Aguas de Março (5:23)
2. Undiú (6:37)
3. Na Baixa Do Sapateiro (4:43)
4. Avarandado (4:29)
5. Falsa Baiana (3:45)
6. Eu Quero Um Samba (4:46)
7. Eu Vim Da Bahia (5:52)
8. Valsa (Como São Lindos os Youguis) (3:19)
9. É Preciso Perdoar (5:08)
10. Izaura (5:28)


  1. Amazing review!
    Joao is a genius.

  2. ..Forgot to comment on this ages ago. Nice write-up for a wonderful recording, still my favorite after years of repeated listens.

  3. Great analysis. Have you tried the Japanese 2011 SACD? Very well done remastering: the sound is freshier than ever.