At first blush, Bravo seems to have come up with a great idea: Gather a bunch of American and Brazilian musicians together to celebrate the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. But the uneven first half hour or so of "Herbie Hancock's Brazilian Celebration" has a lot more to do with showcasing Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba than it does with applauding the program's designated honoree.
Taped in Sao Paulo in December, 1993--almost exactly a year before Jobim died--the performance unfolds in fits and starts, with Hancock mostly serving as a not especially relaxed host. There are some awkward camera angles and occasionally out-of-sync audio.
Still, the program begins promisingly. Shirley Horn's opening reading of "Once I Loved" is exquisite, yet another example of this superb singer-pianist's ability to reach inside to find the very heart of a song.
But the two long Rubalcaba numbers that follow--improvisatory renderings of Jobim's "Agua de Beber" and "Olha Maria"--are dominated by the pianist's persistent tendency to emphasize his key-pounding technical virtuosity rather than his far more rarely seen lyrical side.
The performance improves with the arrival of Brazilian singer Gal Costa. And when she is joined by Jobim himself on piano, the concert moves up to a higher level, with the added poignancy of our awareness that it is one of his last appearances. Jobim's own deceptively unadorned versions of "Luiza" and "Wave" are classic illustrations of the value of hearing and seeing composers, however idiosyncratic their performances, do their own works.
Appropriately, when the program concludes it is the image of Jobim and the sound of his songs that remain. Although they are subjected, here as elsewhere, to a wide range of styles, attitudes and techniques, Jobim's compositions nonetheless have the kind of staying power that triumphs over almost any treatment.
Like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, he has created a body of work that will be with us for a very long time.
* "Herbie Hancock's Brazilian Celebration" airs today at 5 and 9:30 p.m. on Bravo.