There was something oddly appropriate about Astrud Gilberto's modest entrance on stage at Catalina Bar and Grill on Wednesday night. She slipped between the members of her quintet, waiflike as ever, still looking as though she were not quite sure if she belonged there at all.
It's been more than two decades since Gilberto became a virtually accidental star of the then-new bossa nova via her understated vocals on the recordings of former husband Joao Gilberto. Her wispy, almost expressionless voice drifted across the music's sensual, samba-based rhythms with the innocence of a child's balloon floating on a summer zephyr.
Not much has changed in the intervening years. Gilberto's opening set included most of her early bossa-nova repertoire--"One Note Samba," "The Girl From Ipanema," "Desafinado." Some newer material by Gilberto herself and Paulho Jobim were clearly products of the same style.
She sang with perhaps more focus and strength than was present in her early years. But the vulnerability and sense of naivete were the same. Like Chet Baker's vocals, Gilberto's interpretations were affecting less for their musicality than for their sense of one-on-one intimacy--the feeling of hearing a lover whisper a soft and tender song.
Wisely, Gilberto surrounded herself with a musical setting perfectly tailored to display her best qualities. Many of her vocal lines were fortified with unison instrumental lines, usually from Jay Ashby's excellent trombone playing. And the arrangements always made the most of Gilberto's fragile voice, occasionally framing it with brisk riffs, at other times supporting it with warm, softly sounded harmonies.
Gilberto will never be a major-league jazz singer; nor, in fact, can she really compete with such second-generation Brazilian performers as, say, Gal Costa or Flora Purim. But there's no denying the appeal of her musically ingenuous but emotionally moving style.
Gilberto continues at Catalina Bar and Grill through Sunday.