When Elis met Tom ...
In 1974, Brazil’s elegant elder statesman of bossa nova, Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, was cooling his heels in Los Angeles.
Back home, thousands of miles away, the fresh face of musica popular brasileira (Brazilian popular music), a 29-year-old singer named Elis Regina, was making plenty of waves: “Furacao” -- the hurricane -- they called her, because of her sheer force and energy.
To pair the two -- symbols of two dynamic forces in Brazilian music -- what had come, what was coming -- would be a simple exercise in logistics. And an L.A. imprimatur, record executives believed, would lend this historic meeting that much more import.
So in late winter, Elis arrived, with her husband, son and band, in a Los Angeles that was much emptier and simpler than today’s. The album that resulted, “Elis & Tom,” recorded 30 years ago this year, wasn’t released domestically until 1989. The producers’ worry, perhaps, noted Neil Tesser in his ’89 liner notes, was that it wouldn’t find a U.S. audience in 1974 -- the bossa nova wave in the States was receding by then. But in the three decades hence, “Elis & Tom,” a hit in Brazil, would become a “cult classic” in North America and beyond, says guitarist-producer Oscar Castro-Neves, who was summoned by producer Aloysio De Olivieria to sit in for a cut or two.
The album showcases several of Jobim’s masterworks -- “Trieste,” “Corcovado,” embossed by Elis’ singular voice, and the sublime “Aguas de Marco,” with its clipped guitar and strolling piano, Elis and Jobim’s sweet-savory vocals tumbling on top of one another. Jobim’s compositions offer a spare, slowed-down backdrop for Elis’ limber voice -- alternately declarative, languid, sensuous, whimsical.
‘Magical rhythm section’
Castro-NEVES now makes his home in Los Angeles and has become something of an elegant elder statesman in his own right. He remembers the session, the built-in family, the gatherings in those late winter /early spring days, with a soft-focus fondness and pride. “It was a magical rhythm section,” says Castro-Neves. “Her husband, Cesar Camargo Mariano, on piano, Paulo Braga on drums, a bassist from New York, Luizao Maia. Aloysio was really a hands-on producer. Jobim was in charge of arranging, of course, getting the keys and everything.”
Jobim was ensconced at the Sunset Marquis. So were Elis and her entourage. Much of the talk and preparation took place there, recalls Castro-Neves -- they took about a week for work, inside the studio and out. “There was a very fine line between ‘rehearsal’ and ‘hanging out,’ just talking.” Dinners over a long table; noisy discussion out of doors, late into the night. “It was all that seamless.” Thirty years later, that’s what emerges: a certain sense of intimacy, the finishing of each other’s sentences, the punchy hi-jinx that come with hard, close work. “The things you don’t plan.”
Elis passed away at 36, a lethal mix of cocaine and alcohol found in her system. And this year marks the 10th anniversary of Jobim’s death. They leave “Elis & Tom” as an ageless snapshot, a time capsule of that moment: a collection of brightly hued yet haunting songs that float out of time. The sounds, the words seem simple on the surface. But that was Jobim’s signature -- bittersweet optimism. “Jobim wrote songs that have an actual temperature. He was a minimalist, but so complete,” Castro-Neves says.
Word is, there’s a new remix in the works and a release of a documentary of those historic days is due later this year. But what will most endure, Castro-Neves says, is the music itself: “It’s the things you can’t put your finger on. The things you can’t plan. It was not just a piece of history. It was a piece of musical pleasure.”
-- Lynell George