APPRECIATION : Jobim Was More Than the King of Bossa Nova


Frank Sinatra once said of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Brazilian composer often described as the godfather of bossa nova, “Tom must compose. Without him, we have nothing to sing.”

Jobim, who died Thursday in a New York hospital at the age of 67, had a three-decades-long relationship with Sinatra, including albums in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the current recording “Duets II.”

“My music experiences with him,” added Sinatra, upon hearing of Jobim’s death, “were as rewarding and creative as the hours and hours we spent talking and musing through the night. The world has lost one of its most talented and innovative musicians, and I have lost a wonderful friend.”

Affectionately known as “Tom,” Jobim created a body of music that extended well beyond his association with bossa nova. Rare for a South American composer, he influenced American jazz and pop at least as much as anyone else in the second half of the 20th Century. His passing has a special impact upon artists in the jazz and mainstream pop communities, and, unfortunately, has terminated several promising projects, including an upcoming recording with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson.


But Jobim’s historical position is secure. “Chega de saudade” (known in English as “No More Blues”), written with poet/lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, is generally considered--via the 1958 Brazilian recording by Joao Gilberto--to be the first recorded bossa nova song.

In the early ‘60s, Stan Getz’s recording of “Desafinado” and his duet with Astrud Gilberto on “The Girl From Ipanema” hit the top of the U.S. jazz and pop charts, triggering a romance with Brazilian rhythms, harmony and melody that continues to embrace American music. (Seekers of karmic connections will be fascinated by the fact that Jobim and Getz were born on the same day, in the same year, at the same hour.)

Unlike Gilberto, Jobim was not an especially charismatic performer, although the sound of his warm, plaintive voice often resulted in undeniably charming, utterly unique renderings of his own tunes. His last appearance in Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Bowl in the summer of 1992, was characteristically laid-back and somewhat loosely organized. But, as jazz critic Leonard Feather reported, the appeal of Jobim’s readings from his splendid catalogue of songs was irresistible.

His works--to mention only a few (in addition to those noted above) “Triste,” “Corcovado,” “Wave,” “Dindi” and “Samba de una nota so” (“One-Note Samba”)--have become international standards, remarkably so, given their musical sophistication. (There may be no better testimony to their excellence than their capacity to survive the butchering touch of dozens of cocktail lounge performers.) These are wonderfully abundant songs, overflowing with complex harmonies and often intricate melodies encapsulated in rhythms that create an enormously powerful sense of mood.


“Desafinado,” for example, which means off-key in Portuguese, uses unexpected leaps of an augmented fourth on the ends of some phrases--not exactly a common melodic interval in most popular songs. Here and elsewhere--"Chovendo na roseira” (“Raining in the Rose Garden”), a 6/8 tune with oddly disjunct phrases and sudden harmonic changes is another striking example--Jobim reveals skills that reach well beyond simple songwriting and into the arena of minicompositions.

Although he composed many songs with De Moraes and others, one of his most impressive combinations of words and music, “Aguas de Marco” (“Waters of March”) was a solo effort. First recorded in 1972, and only now beginning to be heard in performances by other artists, it is a deceptively playful series of melodic and verbal images dealing with no less than the meaning of life. A duet recording with Jobim and the late Elis Regina, a superb Brazilian singer, is available on the Verve CD “Antonio Carlos Jobim e Convidados.” The sheer joy implicit in this spirited reading of a work described by Feather as one of the best songs ever written perfectly defines Jobim’s singular mix of creative complexity and musical spontaneity.

In their excellent book, “The Brazilian Sound,” authors Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha describe Jobim’s music as a ". . . body of work that rivals, in sophistication and originality, the music of 20th Century composers such as George Gershwin and Jobim’s idol, (Brazilian classical composer) Heitor Villa-Lobos.” High praise, indeed, but praise that is fully justified by the best testimony of all, the music itself.

Jobim’s passing comes at a time when he was still an active and vital creative force. Sadly, there will be no more new songs, but his rich and generous musical legacy will live on. And Jobim’s life and work can perhaps best be remembered in his own lyrics from “Aguas de Marco”: “It’s the promise of life, it’s the joy in your heart.”