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Life of myth and music

Special to The Times

His name is Joao Gilberto. And he is, simultaneously, a man and a myth. Mention bossa nova and it is his name, along with that of Antonio Carlos Jobim, that immediately comes to mind.

His pairing with jazz great Stan Getz in the 1964 album “Getz/Gilberto” burst onto the pop music scene, winning seven Grammys, remaining on the charts for more than a year and richly coloring subsequent decades. But as familiar as his sun-dappled description of the girl from Ipanema strolling down to the beach in Rio may be, Gilberto himself has remained an enigma -- determined to allow his music to speak for itself.

And there’s no question that it does so, eloquently: the soft, gentle quality of his singing -- whispery yet connecting; his subtle guitar playing -- its quiet rhythmic chording splashed with unexpected harmonies.

It is a combination of elements that caress and connect, with passion simmering beneath the seemingly unruffled surface.

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Think of a night at Carnaval in Rio, with dozens of samba schools and thousands of drummers pounding out fiery rhythms as dancers move and sway to the irrepressible beat of the samba. That is the starting point for Gilberto (who in fact prefers the term “samba” over “bossa nova”). As his low notes replicate the big, booming surdu bass drums, his middle strings become harmonized versions of the timbal, the snare-drum-sounding caixa and the tambourine-like pandeiro, and his top strings take on the twangy sound of the cavaquino. With just a guitar and his voice, he transforms the erotic exuberance of samba into the subtle insistence of bossa nova, delivering it in a fashion so intimate that every listener feels he or she must know Gilberto well.

Gilberto, though, has remained famously removed, avoiding any contact with the press, famously eccentric, utterly uninterested in the blandishments of the celebrity life.

All of which makes his performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday -- his first public appearance in Los Angeles in decades -- such an extraordinary event. Gilberto’s concerts have become so rare that with the first news of this appearance, it instantly assumed a potentially legendary cachet.

How will this reticent artist communicate the intimacy that is essential to his art in a venue that seats 18,000 people?

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Gilberto offers no explanations. But a close friend is willing -- on condition of anonymity, respecting Gilberto’s privacy -- to offer insight.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he says with a smile, “Joao has the power to hypnotize 18,000 people. The most essential aspect of Joao’s art is his silence. He brings the silence from his life to the stage, respecting the sound of each note, each chord. He loves the silence, loves to listen to it, and it is from the silence itself that he draws his music.”

Pieces to the puzzle

The myth that’s grown around Gilberto is a somewhat different story. His refusal to do interviews has undoubtedly helped spawn the dozens of anecdotal stories -- some apocryphal, some true -- that have circulated for decades.

Author Ruy Castro, whose book “Bossa Nova” (A Capella) is a compelling, moment-by-moment description of the music’s emergence in the steaming artistic caldron of ‘50s Rio, offers a series of revealing glimpses of Gilberto’s single-minded focus upon his music. He describes how Gilberto’s parents, concerned for his state of mind, once sent him to a clinic for psychological evaluation.

According to Castro, Gilberto looked out of the window and noted the “wind tearing out the trees’ hair.” Told by the psychologist that “trees don’t have hair,” Gilberto replied, “And some people have no poetry in their souls.”

There are dozens of similar stories, many, no doubt, with more symbol than substance (including a darkly humorous tale of a cat who allegedly committed suicide by jumping out of a window after hearing Gilberto repeatedly practice the same song for many hours). But they all reveal a personality utterly centered on music, completely dedicated to a communion with his own inner muse.

In the mid-'70s, Tommy LiPuma, now chairman of the Verve Music Group, produced “Amoroso,” a Warner Bros. album in which Gilberto’s guitar and voice were surrounded by the lush orchestrations of Claus Ogerman. LiPuma recalls a performance at the Roxy that was set up for Gilberto around the time of the album’s recording.

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“He just wasn’t there at the time he was supposed to go on,” LiPuma says. “So I drove over to the Beverly Wilshire and went up to his room. As I’m banging on the door, I can hear the shower running. He finally came to the door and opened it a crack. Steam came pouring out -- he’d been taking a very hot shower -- and he looked at me as though I was nuts. I said, ‘Joao, you’re supposed to be on stage.’

“We finally got back to the club, maybe an hour and half after he was supposed to start. And the amazing thing was that not one person had moved from the audience. And when he finally got up on stage, they loved every minute.”

What is it about Gilberto that inspires such fascination? Why is it that pop artists such as Beck and David Byrne have acknowledged Gilberto’s influence? Why is it that Miles Davis once said, “He could read a newspaper and sound good”? Or that Caetano Veloso -- one of the most internationally visible Brazilian artists -- noted, “I owe Joao Gilberto everything I am today. Even if I were something else and not a musician, I would say that I owe him everything.”

Perhaps because, like the Beatles, he transformed the music that came before him into something completely different. Perhaps because, like Elvis Presley, his interpretive skills skim effortlessly across prior musical genres.

“Instead of composing music and lyrics,” his friend says, “Joao has the capacity to ‘find’ a composition and reharmonize it. By playing it night and day, he totally places himself within the song, becoming one with it. So much so that people often think he has composed it. Which, in a certain way, is not wrong. Joao deserves to have his name included as one of the composers of all the songs he sings.”

LiPuma agrees. “Joao probably single-handedly did more for Antonio Carlos Jobim than any other artist could have done,” he says. “It was like Glenn Gould and Johann Sebastian Bach. Nobody knew what to do with those songs like he knew what to do with them. I’ve never heard anybody do them as well or interpret them in the manner he has.”

Making a legend

Gilberto, who turned 72 in June, was born in Juazeiro, in Brazil’s northeast province of Bahia.

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By the time he was 15, he was captivated by the guitar, which -- surprisingly -- was not a popular instrument at a time when Brazilian pop music was dominated by ballad singers, vocal groups and the accordion.

His early influences ranged from a pair of then-popular Brazilian singers -- Lucio Alves and Dick Farney (a Brazilian who elected to have an Anglicized name) -- to Frank Sinatra, the whispery vocals of the Page Cavanaugh trio, the harmonies of West Coast jazz and the trumpet sounds of Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Most of those elements are still present, to a greater or lesser degree, in his music.

The release of his version of Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” almost instantly established what would soon be called bossa nova as the hip sound of the younger generation.

Guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, still a teenager when he first heard the 78 rpm record, recalls his initial astonishment.

“All I can say is that it was like the first time I heard Charlie Parker,” Castro-Neves says. “It changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil. Once we heard what Joao was doing with the guitar and the voice, we all had to find a way to figure out how he did it.”

At that point, the legend and the mystery began -- as fundamentally unexplainable today as they were in the ‘50s. Like Parker, like Mozart, like Gould, Gilberto inhabits a rich inner world. And though his listeners are denied access to that world, they are nonetheless the beneficiaries of his lifelong quest to find the music in the silence.

More than a generation removed from Gilberto and the wellsprings of bossa nova, singer-composer Luciana Souza, who will be the opening act in Wednesday’s Bowl concert, believes strongly in their continuing vitality.

“They’re both still very much with us,” she says. “The ‘Getz/Gilberto’ album is like Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ for some people. And even Joao’s daughter Bebel -- with her lounge kind of techno bossa -- even though her versions are kind of different, they’re still paying homage to that experience. There was a lot of talk when Norah Jones won all those Grammys that people were craving some quiet, medium-tempo music. Maybe Joao and bossa nova -- with their quiet, beautiful contemplative sounds -- fulfill that desire as well.”

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Four decades of Gilberto

Gilberto has released a relatively modest number of recordings. But the quality level of his work is so high that virtually everything he’s done is worth having. Here’s a group of five that includes the must-have items over the course of five decades.

“The Legendary Joao Gilberto” (Capitol/World Pacific)

This is the fountainhead -- bossa nova in the process of being invented. Three LPs are included in the single CD: Gilberto’s first release, “Chega de Saudade,” from 1959, as well as “O Amor, E Sorriso E A Flor” from 1960 and “Joao Gilberto” from 1961. It may be hard to find, but it’s worth whatever it takes to locate a copy.

“Getz/Gilberto” (Polygram)

Stan Getz had already had a bossa nova breakthrough via 1962’s “Jazz Samba.” But in this 1964 album, the lineup was incomparable: Gilberto’s stunning guitar; some of Getz’s most lyrical tenor saxophone work; Antonio Carlos Jobim’s perfectly placed piano lines; and Astrud Gilberto (Joao’s wife at the time) singing the English lyrics for “The Girl From Ipanema.”

“Amoroso/Brasil” (Warner Bros.)

This is actually a pair of LPs combined into a single CD. “Amoroso,” from 1977, features Gilberto in lush string settings provided by Claus Ogerman. On “Brasil,” from 1981, Johnny Mandel arranges for a Brazilian ensemble that includes Gilberto as well as tropicalia stars Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania.

“Joao Gilberto: Live in Montreux”

(Elektra Musician)

A gorgeous, live performance from 1985, beautifully defining the utter musical intimacy Gilberto can create, regardless of the setting. This single-CD American album, however, includes only half the material present on the initial two-CD WEA Brasil release.

“Joao Voz E Violao” (Verve/Polygram)

Recorded in 2000, Gilberto performs in the most pristine musical setting -- thus the title, “Joao Voice and Guitar.” The material is familiar -- “Desafinado,” “Chega de Saudade,” etc. But the additional appeal is the tinge of maturity in the performances, the work of a great master still in his prime.


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