From a casual distance, the music of João Gilberto sounds like it might belong to that ancient realm known as "easy listening."
Everything's calm, for starters. Even at fast tempos, Gilberto's voice demands nothing — hushed, thin, confession-booth quiet. His rhythm guitar anchors the music with accompaniment that can seem almost hypnotically repetitive. The melodies rarely beg for attention, instead basking in that sublime mix of contentedness and yearning common throughout Brazilian music. There are strings rising up in wave-like swells from time to time, and lamenting love calls from the low brass.
Beneath that smooth and pleasant veneer, Gilberto built a quiet (and still misunderstood) aesthetic revolution – a lithe, strikingly modern approach to rhythm and melody that became the blueprint for bossa nova.
Gilberto, who died at home in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday, was best known for his contributions to Getz/Gilberto, the 1964 album that, through its single "The Girl From Ipanema," made bossa nova a worldwide sensation (and won the Grammy for album of the year). But Gilberto deserves to be remembered more broadly, as a kind of patron saint of understatement, whose early recordings transformed the boisterous celebration of samba parades into music of arresting intimacy.
The rare instrumentalist (i.e., not a composer) to define and shape a musical genre, Gilberto developed an austere, steady-handed revolution that opened up lanes of exploration for subsequent generations. And it swept like wildfire, becoming pervasive before he could even be properly acknowledged as its spark plug. ("Eventually the culture caught up to him, and despite his reputation as a recluse, he became a revered figure in Brazil — referred to as "O Mito/The Master" and "O Rei da Bossa/The King of Bossa" and "Ill Mastro Supremo," and, perhaps most fittingly, "O Zen-Baiano/The Zen Master of Bahia.")
Those early recordings, particularly his 1958 take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chega de Saudade/No More Blues," had a meteor-like impact on the musicians of Brazil; Gilberto's blend of whispering vocals and exactingly precise guitar accompaniment represented a radical break from the schmaltzy pop balladry (Nelson Gonçalves, for example) on the radio at the time. Guitarist Oscar Castro-Nieves recalled hearing that single for the first time as a teenager: "It changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil ... all I can say is that it was like the first time I heard Charlie Parker."
The singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, another legendary Brazilian singer and songwriter whose discography elaborates on Gilberto's basic themes, was even more effusive in an L.A. Times interview: "I owe João Gilberto everything I am today. Even if I were something else and not a musician, I would say that I owe him everything."
Gilberto's stealth approach was born after several unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as a musician for hire in Rio, where, according to legend (as relayed in Ruy Castro's authoritative history of bossa nova, Chega de Saudade), he overstayed his welcome on the couches of friends. He fled to his sister's house, in a town called Diamantina, where, in a tile bathroom with favorable acoustics, he began to experiment with a sound built around brooding, vibrato-free and leisurely, long-toned vocals.
In a rare interview with the New York Times in 1968, Gilberto explained that his process involved editing out all but the most essential information. "It has to be very quiet for me to produce the sounds I'm thinking of."
Gilberto's central innovation, overall, was in the guitar accompaniment. Gilberto took the massive rhythm of the samba schools he heard growing up in Bahia – a thrilling sensory experience involving hundreds of drums, superloud shakers and clanging metal bells locked together in endlessly propulsive polyrhythm – and distilled it down to stark human scale. Music centered around one voice and one acoustic guitar.
Typically, such a reduction of forces diminishes — but Gilberto's reduction had the opposite effect, opening up a new resonance for samba, using the form's rhythmic intensity to uncover hidden directions and nuances. First, Gilberto caught the whomp of the samba bass drum with his thumb. Then, with his other fingers moving independently, he'd stab against the time with crisply articulated chords, forming an artful, unpredictable syncopation. These patterns can sound like recurring loops (Gilberto's time is astonishingly steady) but as you listen more closely, they register as constantly evolving codes. You can hear him varying the cadences, the length of the patterns, the voicings. The result: An ever-changing, mosaic-style backdrop, a guitar-powered perpetual motion machine. ("Rosa Morena" is a good example of this.)
Over this, Gilberto sang in a placid, straightforward style that sometimes masked the turbulence underneath (as on "Brigas, Nunca Mais"), and sometimes sharpened it (as on "Doralice"). Having turned the extroversion of samba inward, he went about exploring distinct shades of emotion, adding dimension and richness to beloved early samba classics by subtracting the pageantry.
In performances and recordings from the 1970s, Gilberto began stretching out melodic phrases in whimsical, sometimes radical ways; it could be disarming to hear such a languid, vapor-like voice creating tension just by reconfiguring the commonly understood shape of a familiar melody.
Those explorations align Gilberto with artists like Bob Dylan, whose ad-libbing confounded expectations in the quest for newly resonant interpretations. More broadly, Gilberto's austere, modernist approach connects to artistic movements outside of Brazil, most notably jazz. In both his guitar work and his singing, Gilberto was a master improviser, and his less-is-more philosophy mirrors those of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. As they did, Gilberto pared excess language and stylistic flourishes to the bare minimum, on a quest to uncover nuances by subtraction.
As the "new" trend of bossa nova rose in the early '60s, Gilberto became popular with a rising generation of songwriters. He introduced hundreds of songs that drew from samba while adding richly literary perspective on romance and devotion. These form the core of an extraordinary multi-generational Brazilian songbook that begins with the work of the prolific Antonio Carlos Jobim in the 1950s and '60s, along with tunes by Veloso, Edu Lobo and others active in the late '60s as well as stars of the '70s like Milton Nascimento and Djavan. All of these share a common thread — the neatly syncopated performance style of Joao Gilberto. His crystalline renditions of "Corcovado" and "Caminhos Cruzados" (and countless other Jobim gems) taught subsequent generations of singers and instrumentalists how to approach the composer's sophisticated harmonies, how to convey meaning with the slightest of gestures, how to create the kind of openness that draws the listener into the deep poignance of a tune.
The remarkable thing about João Gilberto is how often he managed this sublime art, under all kinds of musical conditions. His discography includes quietly transfixing recordings across a range of hues, from the upbeat to the meditative. And whether he's working with a lush studio orchestra or playing alongside a lone percussionist, he rarely sounds like he's exerting himself. Everything flows, effortlessly. He approaches the music as though sneaking or sliding into it. He's coy, and wily, sculpting drop-dead gorgeous melodies out of shallow breath, dispensing intricate staccato samba codes with the grace of a dancer.
It is, from a distance, easy listening – the sound of serenity and calm, as steady as the sea. Let it get under your skin for a while, and the nuances blossom into complexities, the complexities breed more levels of nuance... and, pretty soon, it's like being flattened by a feather.