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Joao Gilberto: Joao Voz e Violao

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Joao Gilberto’s first collection in nearly a decade lasts only half an hour, but it has more value than bins full of 74-minute CDs. His mastery of samba and song is a modern equivalent of German Lieder performance at its highest level with an extraordinary difference: Gilberto combines the roles of singer and accompanist.

Antonio Carlos Jobim, who largely shaped bossa nova, praised Gilberto for the rhythmic strength he gave the form and said, “He was pulling the guitar in one way, and singing the other way. It created a third thing that was profound.” No other performer, neither Jobim nor Caetano Veloso nor any other Brazilian master of bossa nova, has approached Gilberto’s profundity and subtlety. He is the world’s quietest great singer-in fact, the CD sound leans towards low frequencies and I found it helpful to manipulate the treble and bass controls for increased clarity. On this album he is in his ideal setting, accompanied only by the insistent, ingenious chording of his guitar. The glorious rhythmic tension that Jobim identified, the irresistible swing growing out of the contrast between the quiet singing and the soft urgency of the guitar, characterizes even the slowest pieces. Gilberto’s harmonies emphasize the meaning of the lyrics with the clarity of an etching. The chromatic chords in “Eu Vim da Bahia” are a perfect example, underlining the singer’s longing for home even as the words express joyful memories.

Gilberto revisits “Desafinado,” “Eclipse” and “Chega de Saudade,” the song that, along with “Bim Bom,” made him and Jobim famous in Brazil in the ’50s and ignited the sweeping popularity of bossa nova. Seven less familiar pieces include Jobim’s heartbreaking “Voce Vai Ver (You Will See),” two songs by Veloso, and Almeida and Roberti’s “Nao Vou pra Casa (Not Coming Home),” in which Gilberto pulls off rhythmic displacements it is hard to imagine any other musician negotiating with such ease.

Long ago, Miles Davis said of Gilberto, “He could read a newspaper and make it sound good.” As he approaches his 70s, Gilberto does not have to resort to the day’s news for material, but if he ever does, he’ll make it swing.