Carmen Cuesta & Chuck Loeb: Classic Bossa Nova Revisited

Christopher Loudon on Spanish singer and actress Carmen Cuesta and guitarist Chuck Loeb

Though America caught bossa fever in 1964, thanks in large part to the mammoth popularity of the Stan Getz and João Gilberto union Getz/Gilberto, the Brazilian birth of the bossa nova dates to 1958. Three years ago, to salute its 50th birthday, Spanish actress/singer Carmen Cuesta teamed with her husband, celebrated guitarist Chuck Loeb, for a series of bossa-fueled concerts. Now Cuesta and Loeb have assembled nine bossa classics, plus two original compositions, for Mi Bossa Nova. It’s tempting to suggest that Cuesta’s clear, pure sound recalls Astrid Gilberto. There are, on certain tracks, hints of Gilberto’s delicacy and introspection. But Cuesta’s voice is far more authoritative and more widely emotive. Where Gilberto colored solely with pastels, Cuesta employs a far wider, richly hued palette.

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Unlike so many of the bossa tributes that poured forth around the time of that golden anniversary, Mi Bossa Nova truly captures the essence of Getz/Gilberto, fully reflecting its tranquil, self-possessed magnificence. The similarity of spirit is understandable. Yes, back in the day, Getz/Gilberto made Cuesta fall in love with the bossa nova, as it did millions of other listeners. But Cuesta got closer than most to both the music and its master. In 1979, Loeb was appearing In Madrid with Getz, and Cuesta insisted on carving out time from her frantic performance schedule to hear the legendary saxophonist. After the show, she met Loeb and there was an immediate attraction. As their relationship deepened, her propinquity to Getz increased, as did her appreciation of his musicianship. Six months later, Cuesta and Loeb were married in New York. Getz served as best man.

Intriguingly, not a single selection from Getz/Gilberto is replicated on Mi Bossa Nova. Cuesta and Loeb instead use another bossa classic, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina’s Elis and Tom from 1974, as their principal source for material. Five songs from Elis and Tom number among Mi Bossa Nova’s 11 tracks, all written or co-written by Jobim: the breezily sensuous “Triste,” dense, romantic “Modinha,” sweetly wistful “Fotografia” and two lesser-known Jobim compositions, the shimmering “Retrato em Branco e Petro” (a remarkably complex piece that Cuesta handles with the integral elegance of Regina) and shadow-filled “Pois É.”

Cuesta rounds out her selection of bossa covers with two more Jobim gems — the vibrant “Chega de Saudade,” nicely tempered and shaded, effectively dimming the sunniness inherent to so many treatments, and the magnificent “Meditaçao,” gorgeously infused with soul-deep longing — plus the dreamily infectious “O Barquinho” and the haunting “Manha de Carnaval,” freshly, fragilely interpreted with befogged yearning.

Loeb, who coproduced the album with Cuesta, appears – alternating between guitars, keyboards and bass — on six tracks, including two Cuesta originals. One, the tender “Tormenta,” suggesting budding hope in the wake of sorrow, is truly a family affair, with Loeb and Cuesta’s daughters, Christina and Lizzy, paired on flutes. The second is simply titled “Jobim.” Both are sung in Spanish, but Cuesta provides English translations of the lyrics in the liner notes. Its heartfelt sentiments include such cleverly honorific observations as “You opened a window to Corcovado and Redentor, to that Brazil that give you life and inspiration” and “Like the waters of March, looking for summer and warmth, you are the promise of life in my heart.”

Cuesta dedicates the album to Jobim. She calls it a labor of love. That it certainly, superbly is.

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