Getz/Gilberto Week: Day 1 – Nothing Like The First Time

This month we’re bringing you two new books in the Brazilian strand of our 33 1/3 Global series! The first is on João Gilberto and Stan Getz’s Getz/Gilberto with its hit single “The Girl From Ipanema”: a game-changing album, as author Bryan McCann explains…

The first time I really listened to João Gilberto, as opposed to hearing him in an anodyne background setting, was as a DJ at WPRB FM in the spring of 1987. I had wangled my way into a slot early on Sunday mornings by pretending to know something about that jazz. The truth was that I was ignorant but curious, and relied heavily on randomly selecting vinyl from the stacks, reading the capsule reviews and suggested tracks scrawled on stickers on the back of each album cover by my predecessors, and giving anything that looked promising a brief preview before spinning it on the air.

Bossa nova seemed like a good way to balance the squawks and growls of the Henry Threadgill and Eric Dolphy records we had in heavy rotation for jazz shows that semester, and I found myself programming lots of Antonio Carlos Jobim. (I did not realize until later that he was neither a brother nor cousin of Tom, but actually the same person.) Then João Gilberto’s Live in Montreux arrived in the studio. The album was recorded in 1985 but only released early in 1987. WPRB’s jazz director gave every track multiple check marks in his review—the ultimate endorsement. Side one, track one was “Sem Compromisso”, a samba composed by Geraldo Pereira. I only learned years later about the way Geraldo Pereira had transformed samba, and the subtle defiance and invention of his lyrics. In 1987, I did not understand a single word. But I was hooked immediately, drawn ineluctably by Gilberto’s solo voice and guitar rendition.

Live in Montreux became my go-to late-night crash album. And it was on heavy rotation in my car as I drove around the New Jersey suburbs that summer, hoping in vain that the music would deliver on its implicit promise of serving the purpose of seduction. I remember one sultry midnight in particular, as I pulled to the side of a darkened cul-de-sac scented with the fragrance of blooming native sweetshrub and prepared to make my bumbling pitch to the comely lass seated, as if by some divine providence, in the passenger seat. First, we smoked a joint. Then I put on Live in Montreux. And before I could even reach an arm across the great divide separating our bucket seats, she was laughing uproariously. She was reduced to giggling incoherence by the combination of the powerful herb and João Gilberto’s magic. All she could say was, “No way. That is not a real language!”

No single experience was more pivotal in setting me on the road to becoming a Brazilianist. After that, I had to know what he was singing. And I realized more gradually that I had to understand how what he was singing could be language and music simultaneously, a message drawing on the deep matrix of Brazilian culture that also distilled the sound of samba to its sibilant essence.

It is a path that brought me full circle as I wrote this book, as I listened repeatedly to João Gilberto while driving around a different set of suburbs, finding the music no longer strange but even more powerfully seductive. At this point, it is a well that I know I will draw upon many times as the decades pile upon one another. And the path for each visit was already marked, in some way, by the groove of that first LP. It is the music that turned my head towards more distant shores and that continues to get me through the night.

Bryan McCann will be guest-blogging for us all week around the publication of his book, João Gilberto and Stan Getz’s Getz/Gilberto, on Thursday. Tune in tomorrow as he explores the relationship between bossa nova and politics…

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