In his native Brazil, where bossa nova is respectfully dismissed as passe, Joao Gilberto is considered an icon of a bygone era. In North America, he's acknowledged as a living legend, still as vital a performer and as important an influence as he was when he turned first his homeland then the rest of the world onto the bossa beat in the late 1950s. In Japan, he is a god. How remarkable, then, in a career that spans nearly a half-century and has included extensive tours of Europe and the Americas, it took until September 2003 for Gilberto to play his first Japanese concert dates. According to the extensive liner notes for the Japanese pressing of the resultant Live in Tokyo, he performed three times at Tokyo's International Forum Hall A and once at the Pacifico Yokohama, each night averaging more than 25 songs. Of those, 15 from the September 12 Tokyo date were culled for the disc, since reissued by Verve in its entirety in North America.
Oddly, the song that put Gilberto and bossa nova on the world map, "Chega de Saudade," though performed every evening, isn't included. Instead, a scattering of familiar Jobim gems-"Corcovado," "Wave," "Meditacao"-are augmented with equally landmark compositions that are likely less familiar to American ears. At age 72, Gilberto sounds understandably a little less energized than when he and Stan Getz made music history with Getz/Gilberto in 1963, and there are a couple of noticeable stumbles. Still, when you're assessing a septuagenarian master still able to enthrall thousands with just voice and guitar, discussion of any shortcomings is frivolous. Instead, Live at Tokyo should be recognized as the gorgeously polished bookend to Gilberto's Live in Montreux from 17 years ago. Here's hoping, though, that Verve will someday augment this sparse assortment of 15 tracks with a multidisc Complete Live in Tokyo set. I promise to be the first in line, whatever the price.