Discover more from EchoLocator
The Audience with Joao Gilberto
Meditating (again!) on the limits of perfection
For most of Relicario, a previously unreleasead 1998 performance at the theater of Sao Paulo’s Sesc Vila Mariana, Joao Gilberto does his best to reconfigure classics of the bossa nova songbook to suit his capricious-seeming rhythmic whims.
That is to say Gilberto, who died in 2019, messes with expectations — by fracturing and randomizing melodic pathways that are well-worn in the hearts of his listeners. The singer and guitarist, a solo performer, did this often in the later years of his career; as soon as he’d land on the satisfying resolution at the end of a song’s form, he’d lurch ahead, skipping over whole measures to alter how the chords landed, shifting the essential harmonic rhythm. And then he’d sing in impossibly loose synchronization, adjusting to or fighting against the new setting. Sometimes the reinventions landed like the work of an astute rhythmatist, in jagged assymetrical bursts of polyrhythm. Every now and then, he painted himself into a crooked corner, and the only escape was to return to the original texts.
Even then, at their messiest, Gilberto’s solo improvisations are expressions of radical subtlety — examples of how tiny inflections and curious little syllabic shifts of emphasis can open up a song and uncover profound newness within the comfortable trappings of repertory. They are the kind of high art that’s so free and open as to be almost indetectable. Ignorable. A shorthand that’s easily lost in the modern cacophony of artists demanding attention.
Maybe Gilberto got tired that night, maybe after so much impromptu restructuring he needed to relax. For some reason near the end of this deep concert, he begins to leave space, encouraging his listeners to sing. He strums the chord pattern of “Chega de Saudade” in steady time and voices suddenly materialize, outlining the intricate theme. When his serene voice returns, it sounds like he’s smiling.
The last track on the program is another early bossa gem by Tom Jobim — “Este Seu Olhar,” first recorded in 1959 by Dick Farney. As soon as Gilberto delivers the opening line we hear gasps in the theater — one woman’s voice travels up a full half-octave in a wordless rapture that trails off just before Gilberto’s second line. (It’s another of the countless beautifully human responses to live performance that New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about this past Sunday).
Then the singalong starts. What’s striking about it is how his audience follows the phrasing of Gilberto’s famous recording from 1961; moved by the chance to hear this master undertake a wholesale inversion of his songbook, they return him to contours he made long ago, a mass of voices echoing a performance so indelible it has traveled with them, sighs and pauses and all, for decades.
Alongside Dowd’s piece in the Sunday Opinion section was a trenchant essay from author and singer/songwriter Warren Zanes about the limits of perfection in audio recordings. “In most recording situations today, engineers can see music as waveforms, there on a screen,” Zanes writes. Digital technology allows producers and performers to do the inverse of Gilberto’s process — preening note by fussed-over note, correcting “errors” of pitch and timing. This is the manufacture of a questionable ideal of perfection, Zanes suggests. He cites Bruce Springsteen’s homemade gem Nebraska to lament that “When music gets cleaned up too much, listeners lose opportunities to connect their imperfections with those in the music.”
That’s something Joao Gilberto understood. It was part of his telegraphic art, which, as I wrote years ago, I believe is an undervalued contribution to world culture. When he transforms a Brazilian standard like “Carinhoso” into a meta word-jumble, as he does on Relicario, he seems to be daring the fates, creating an oddly placed torrent of imperfections that quietly mocks gazillions of earnest (considerably more timid?) interpretations of the song. He dwells fully in the possibility of failure. Wants it. At times, he appears to be creating lavish bouquets of flambouyant mistakes — maybe he prefers them over the numbing straightjacket of a form fastidiously observed. His art happens in a place beyond the reassuring gloss of post-production, where the airbrush doesn’t work and Auto-Tune is utterly useless.
Thanks for reading! Reach out! Tap into our digital suggestion box: email@example.com.