I have fallen in love again with the voice that sang the soundtrack to my life in the 1960s.
I discovered João Gilberto in 1962, when my jazz-fan father brought home the Brazilian singer's first American release. Although I possessed the typical tastes of that era's high school seniors--our idea of a cool vocal was Johnny Mathis, the makeout music of choice--from that moment I was transformed.
When João Gilberto began recording in the late 1950s, he introduced a vocal style as revolutionary as the crooning of the 1920s, with a seamless jazz coolness and unique naturalist phrasing. This was bossa nova.
I fell in love. With that voice, and with a country that swung so gently. My enchantment with bossa nova in general and João Gilberto in particular would last for years in the foreground of my life--I took Portuguese classes in college, I bought travel books and priced freighter passage south. I drove around Southern California in my little MG roadster, a portable tape recorder on the passenger seat playing Corcovado as I looked past the giant HOLLYWOOD letters and imagined instead Rio's concrete Christ. João Gilberto's voice and guitar promised the life I had grown up to expect: gentle and effortless, in which even the longings were pleasant.
My California years and my bossa nova collection ended simultaneously in the mid-1970s when I abruptly headed north toward a new life, leaving behind an old Volkswagen filled with my books and records--which melted in the sun before anyone could rescue them. And then, last summer, João Gilberto's 1987 album Live in Montreux surfaced at my neighborhood used CD store. Here was the music I remembered: the balanço, that calm swing full of shifts and pauses; the living guitar, the weightless voice. I fell in love all over again. A few weeks later I purchased a CD compilation of his first three American albums, and delighted myself by replaying the songs that had driven my life for those endless few years, amused to find I knew with certainty just which song would have come next on the original record, twentysome years later.
Then in the fall I acquired João Gilberto's latest release, Eu Sei que Vou Te Amar, recorded live in São Paulo in April 1994. In contrast to the exuberant primary colors of the art on the Montreux album from seven years earlier, the new disc's cover used deep orange letters against a dark brown background. The only inside illustration was a single misshapen autumn leaf. On this new disc João Gilberto's voice, singing many of the songs from those first magical albums, sometimes seemed tense, his 63- year-old fingers stiff on the strings. And yet, although I continued to enjoy the earlier recordings and added several more from the two lost decades, I kept coming back to that newest recording.
I was drawn to that brown and solemn disc, on which the man of 1994--photographed in sober brown suit and tie, wearing large glasses, the handsome gentle face framed by thinning hair--sang the songs of 1964. If hearing Montreux was like seeing a picture of a lost love in a newspaper from a few years back, the 1994 live album was like meeting reality in the mirror.
Seldom has music so touched me as did the 1994 João Gilberto singing Corcovado to my middle-aged ears. It was like being able to hear time itself, a lovely look, filled with saudade (Brazil's sweet longing that moves on waves of song), at what I was, where I have been, and who I am now. Some music is ageless, and other music is pure nostalgia--but here was magic: music that had grown and aged with me.
My dream of visiting Brazil faded many years ago, as I came to realize the strong connection I felt was not so much with the country itself as with this aloof and precise voice that sang about it. I was never a good candidate for the crowds of carnaval ; I wanted solitude, silence--patently not what one should expect to find in a country beloved for its gaudy annual human chaos. João Gilberto's songs don't make me want to shout oba! ; they make me want to hold my breath. The stillness of his music is how I would live my life. Although I teach my college classes with great enjoyment and enthusiasm, I love best those fragile days on which I have spoken aloud to no one.
And so João Gilberto again accompanies me as I drive around-- though I-95 will never be mistaken for Rio or Bahia. I play his low-tech and human music through the speakers of my computer as I work. I still love that 1987 live album that put him back at the center of my life, and those early songs that were so much a part of my past. Yet sweetest is to listen to his 63-year-old voice reminding me that everything changes, but also that everything lasts.
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