The Sound of Fifty Summers

Getz:Gilberto coverFifty years ago, while the Beatles stormed America, an altogether cooler, more laidback craze breezed across the world. The summery, sultry, gently swaying sound of bossa nova, which had blown in from Brazil and captured the imagination of American jazz musicians, was showcased in a landmark collaboration between tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and a Brazilian quartet led by guitarist/singer Joao Gilberto and featuring music written by the great composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Getz/Gilberto was the album and it’s a landmark LP in jazz and pop history. It put bossa nova on the map, produced a chart-topping single, and made household names of both Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, the singer whose beguilingly unfussy, airy vocals helped make a hit of the album’s opening track, The Girl From Ipanema – which is now the second most recorded pop song in history (after the Beatles’ Yesterday). Getz/Gilberto was the first jazz album to win a Grammy for Album of the Year. And now, to mark its 50th anniversary – and just in time for a Brazil-themed summer – it has been re-issued in a special edition CD.

It’s an album which has become so familiar and is so accessible, and its tunes – Corcovado, Desafinado and The Girl From Ipanema, especially – so readily associated with bossa and so often now reduced to what’s tantamount to elevator music, that it’s easy to forget that this was all brand new and trendsetting back in 1964. Also, as the American tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says, “not only is it the best that Stan ever played – and that’s saying something – but it’s also one of those rare albums that is just perfect.”

Edinburgh-based alto saxophonist and Getz admirer Martin Kershaw agrees, and points out that it is a peerless example of “crossover” music. “We’ve all heard collaborations where we’ve thought ‘mm, that sounds like a slightly half-baked version of the two kinds of music that have been fused’, but that’s certainly not the case here. It feels like a finished article in that it just works so well. Getz himself sounds so comfortable in it .You don’t feel for a second that there’s anything forced or contrived about it; it sounds very natural. It’s an amazing collaboration.”

Whereas many jazz recordings of the period showcased a soloist or two with a rhythm section, Getz/Gilberto comes over as much more of a group effort; The Girl From Ipanema flows from Joao Gilberto’s soft Portuguese vocals – first hummed then quietly sung – into his wife’s breezy English vocals then Getz’s wistful tenor sax and Jobim’s gentle piano chords ….  The whole thing is soothing, undulating, languid, dreamy, romantic and a sort of comforting musical tonic for Americans living through turbulent times. This was a nation still reeling from the Kennedy assassination just a few months earlier. And not everybody was finding musical solace or distraction in the noisy invaders from Liverpool.

Stan Getz’s daughter, Bev, was ten years old when the album came out in 1964 and was present at many of the rehearsals and get-togethers before it was recorded the year before. Her impression of the atmosphere and personalities is exactly what anyone who loves the record would hope and expect. She says: “I found the Brazilians to be just such lovely, friendly, warm people; really gracious and fun-loving and kind. They were definitely not Americans, you could tell! They came to our house and we went to Joao and Astrud’s apartment, where they were staying in Manhattan, to rehearse – I remember being there a couple of times with my parents.

“And that’s when my dad heard Astrud singing – while she was doing the dishes. He said: ‘Let’s have Astrud sing the English lyrics’ – because they needed somebody to sing the English lyrics and I guess that’s how that came about.”

And the music? “I remember thinking how pretty it was – and how different to what I’d heard before. And my dad was quite taken with it – on so many levels. He referred to it as folk music; he said it’s beautiful music. He always loved folk music from all different countries, because it expressed who the people were from that country.”

Jobim, who was just one week older than Getz, told the saxophonist that he had written the songs on Getz/Gilberto while listening to and being influenced by the West Coast “cool school” jazz of the 1950s, a scene which Getz belonged to. So it really was a meeting of like minds on many levels, and a very organic music-making process. For Getz, who had recorded Brazilian music on his earlier Verve album, Jazz Samba, with the guitarist Charlie Byrd, this was the next step: recording it with the leading Brazilian musicians of the day.

The impact and success of the album – and The Girl From Ipanema, especially – took everyone by surprise. Bev Getz was oblivious to her father’s newfound pop star status -until, that is, he took the family to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium (“It was awful, I was completely unimpressed – you couldn’t hear a thing for all the screaming!”) and they were invited to go back to meet the Fab Four at their New York hotel after what turned out to be a historic concert.

Bev recalls: “We were in the lobby of, I think it was the Plaza, waiting to be escorted up and of course I was on tenterhooks. But then we heard that some fan had gotten up on to the roof and was threatening to throw herself off if she didn’t get to meet the Beatles. And that was it: we had to leave, because that became a whole big thing. And that was a huge disappointment in my life!”

Although he appreciated the opportunities and the fame which came with the success of The Girl From Ipanema and Getz/Gilberto, for Getz the musician, the association with bossa nova soon became a bit of a burden, and a bit of a bore. Bev explains: “He went with whatever he was feeling and hearing at the time. He did it, and then he moved on. And that’s what he did with the whole bossa nova thing – as a matter of fact he got pretty sick of it. Musically, he never stood still, he never stayed in one place. He was a creator so he wanted to create, he wanted to continue – and he was always being pulled back to the bossa.

“He didn’t resent it; he was just like “aaarrrggghhh!”. And in later years he would rarely play The Girl From Ipanema; he would play one of the ones that he really loved more, O Grande Amor. I think he threw that one into just about every set. It’s my favourite – and it was his too.”Getz, Gilberto & co

* Getz/Gilberto: Expanded Edition (Verve) is out now. Martin Kershaw plays every Thursday at the Playtime evening he co-founded at the Outhouse, Edinburgh (www.playtime-music.com)

* First published in The Scotsman, Saturday June 7th 

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