July 27th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Fixing Australia: Can we trust the Morrison Government?

ENERGY Yallourn early closure more than a mere challenge, Mr Premier

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Labor learn a lesson or is it unredeemable?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS High power prices lead to more deaths of elderly

GENDER POLITICS Catholic Ed's document strong on doctrine, weak on protocols

ENERGY Renewables do push up power price: Chicago economists

OBITUARY The eminence of Dr Joe Santamaria

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 6: Medieval Christendom sparks a revolution

ENVIRONMENT As many Pacific islands are rising as are sinking

ASIAN AFFAIRS Uyghurs lose in ethnic power play

POETRY AND HISTORY The epic of the White Horse

HUMOUR On patrol with Father Bruce

MUSIC Joao Gilberto: Carrier of melodies

CINEMA Crawl: Toothful entertainment

BOOK REVIEW America's postwar boom and its end

BOOK REVIEW The story of the drafting of a great document

BOOK REVIEW The facts behind an undying distortion



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris Johnson and the EU: Crash through or just crash

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Joao Gilberto: Carrier of melodies

by David James

News Weekly, July 27, 2019

When Brazilian singer guitarist João Gilberto died on July 6 at the age of 88, it represented the passing of perhaps the most distinctive popular music performer of the second half of the 20th century.

Adjectives such as “enigmatic” and “elusive” are not commonly used to des­cribe musical phrasing: the way that the words and melody are placed in time. But they suit Gilberto, whose method of confecting a melodic line was one of the great mysteries of jazz-influenced music.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who was himself a brilliant and distinctive phraser, famously commented that Gilberto would sound good “reading a newspaper”. Miles was right. He would have, because it would not have sounded like words from a newspaper, it would have sounded like a sensuous, lyrical pronouncement coming from above the clouds.

Gilberto’s phrasing was so remarkable because it was achieved with only voice and guitar. When pianist Thelonious Monk developed his distinctive way of turning the rhythms upside down and inside out, he did so against a rhythm section that was providing the metronomic backdrop. That allows listeners to hear how he was deviating, in his peripatetic manner.

But, for the most part, Gilberto’s rhythmic craft, at least in live performance, was evident without any backdrop. It was just him, meandering around the basic beat and formal structure of the songs (mostly the great compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim).

To appreciate just how subtle it is, it is worth listening to any of his live performances and trying to sing the melodic line along with him, especially in songs such as Desafinado or Chega de Saudade.

What will quickly emerge is that Gilberto is singing very differently from the composed melody. The way they are sung “normally” and the way Gilberto is singing them are far apart, although he invariably returns to the right beat at selective points.

Distinctive anticipation of bossa nova

Usually, Gilberto comes in ahead of the beat, sometimes a long way ahead. A difference between Brazilian jazz, bossa nova, and North American blues or jazz is that the former tends to anticipate the beat and the latter tends to come in behind the beat. Gilberto developed that to a far greater extent than others, using it to create extreme tension between what the listener expected and what was heard.

Yet it was not just coming in ahead of the beat that marked him out. Often, Gilberto would jettison the structure of the song, going off on explorations of his own. This did not merely create tension; it turned his performance into something like a musical dream in which he imagined things that really should have been impossible. There is really nothing else like it in jazz music, let alone among singer-guitarists.

Gilberto is being praised for his emotional intensity and intimate power, but his true genius was in the way he approached rhythm and structure.

The accolades for Gilberto often describe him as a person who changed popular music. Many refer to the album he did with the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, Getz/Gilberto, that won them the album of the year trophy. It is perhaps the best of all the bossa nova albums, combining Getz’s smooth, yet booming, lyricism with Gilberto’s semi-whispered investigations. The result is a quiet, understated sensuality that has influenced many musicians.

No emulators

But Gilberto did not change popular music, because no subsequent performers have been able to emulate what he did (just as there have been no true imitators of Thelonious Monk). His style is likely to remain unique.

It was principally a triumph of musical imagination. Gilberto did not have a particularly compelling voice; at times he almost seems to engage in the equi­valent of melodic mumbling.

There is always a high degree of intimacy and a powerful pulse, but he almost never tries to show off his tone or vocal prowess (which is perhaps why he combined so well with Getz, whose saxophone tone was peerless). In this respect, he was not really a singer at all; he was a carrier of melodies.

The pulse, which is evident in his singing, was enhanced by powerful guitar playing, based on the samba style of finger plucking of the chords. That voice and guitar danced around each other in delightful variations. It is unlikely to be heard again.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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