“Only people without soul cannot understand what there is to be sad about in life. Our music is beautiful because sadness is more beautiful than happiness.”

-- Antônio Carlos Jobim, 1985

BRAZIL'S most beloved songwriter, and the ambassador of the bossa nova, Antônio Carlos Jobim wrote songs that discard almost every rule of traditional pop. Hauntingly melodic, yet unbound to any set meter or structure, they unfold with constant surprise; that is why they fascinate jazz musicians. “By the time you get through playing the melody,” said the late tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, “you could be forty minutes or five minutes into the song, almost as if it were a symphony. And if you look at all the meter signatures in there, it can blow your mind, with a 3/2 bar and then a 2/2 bar and a tempo that defies being captured. The bossa beat gives his songs a feeling of perpetual movement; like a rippling stream, they flow and pulse until they finally subside.”

Bossa nova is a close relative of cool West Coast jazz, which an emerging generation of Brazilian composers, musicians, and singers discovered in the mid-‘50s. The detached singing and trumpet playing of Chet Baker, the featherweight purr of Julie London, the ice-blue tone of saxophonist Stan Getz – these sounds captivated the young João Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Baden Powell, Nara Leão, João Donato, and especially Jobim. All of them had grown up hearing the sobbing star crooners of Brazil and the furious percussive drive of the samba, and they wanted a voice of their own. Merging samba and modern jazz, they created bossa nova, the new sound of cool. The rhythms were subtle, the vocals calm and whispery. The harmonies were so sophisticated that they could only have been born of musical education, which, in turn, required the moneyed upbringing that Jobim and his peers had known from birth.

But for all its blitheness and romance, that music is steeped in a quality Brazilians call
saudade – the bittersweet longing that is so endemic to that troubled country. Jobim and his well-to-do collaborators, particularly the distinguished poet and diplomatic Vinícius de Moraes, wrote some of the saddest songs in pop. For all his success, Jobim had a melancholy soul and drank heavily. He was only 67 when he died of heart failure in Manhattan, his part-time home, on December 8, 1994.

Commonly known as Tom, the composer was a true
Carioca (a native of Rio de Janeiro). As a child he fell in love with American jazz, particularly that of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Woody Herman. Two uncles, both guitarists, taught him that instrument. At 14 he took his first piano lessons. He started playing in clubs and bars in the ‘40s, and in 1950 wrote his first songs. But his composing style took focus only after he heard cool jazz. Jobim wanted to brings its breezy feeling to the samba, which usually follows a strict 2/4 rhythm. The idea wasn’t new. In 1953, three West Coast jazz players – bassist Harry Babasin, drummer Roy Harte, and flutist Bud Shank – had teamed up with Laurindo Almeida, a Brazilian guitarist who had moved to Los Angeles. Almeida returned to Brazil that year, bringing copies of the quartet’s album, Brazilliance (available on World Pacific CD 96339). Singer-guitarist João Gilberto, Jobim’s close friend, was the first Brazilian musician to perfect a sound soon to be tagged bossa nova. The term meant “new beat,” “new thing,” or “new flair.” “Its beauty lies in its subtlety,” Jobim said of the music.

While he and Gilberto were nurturing each other’s art, Jobim collaborated with guitarist-composer Luiz Bonfá on the score of
Black Orpheus (1958). That haunting retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in Rio during Carnaval, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But four years would pass before the bossa craze spread to the States. Jobim’s hits – “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Desafinado,” “One Note Samba,” “Corcovado,” “Quiet Nights” – would reach international prominence. So would his ultra-cool one-finger piano style, featured on a long series of his own albums.

In four decades of composing and occasional lyric writing, Jobim produced about 300 songs, an impressive number of which have endured. Ten appear here in versions by Blue Note artists. Jobim’s work brings out an elegant understatement in all these performers.

WATERS OF MARCH (Cassandra Wilson)
This enigmatic list of images, drawn from the urban landscape, nature, and mythology, tumbles forth dizzyingly, set to a spinning melody based mostly on two notes. There are allusions to birth, destruction, murder, and ultimate rebirth. What does it all mean? For Jobim, who wrote both the words and music, “Waters of March” was a panorama of fast-moving modern life, full of mystery and guided uncontrollably by fate. Written in 1972, the song was recorded most famously two years later as a duet by the queen of latter-day Brazilian singers, Elis Regina, and Jobim. The dark, murky voice of the artist heard here, Cassandra Wilson, suggests the ominous depths in those waters.

SAMBA DO AVIÃO (Song of the Jet) (Bud Shank)
Before he wrote this song in 1963, Jobim had been terrified of flying. But one day, while returning by plane to his beloved hometown of Rio, he felt such giddy joy as the city drew near that he spun the moment into a song, “Samba do Avião.” Three years later, the West Coast flutist and alto player Bud Shank – a master of the cool jazz Jobim loved – recorded “Samba do Avião” on his album
Brazil! Brazil! Brazil! The pianist is João Donato, a bossa nova pioneer who had relocated to Los Angeles.

Bossa nova reached its commercial peak in 1964 with “The Girl from Ipanema,” Jobim’s all-time trademark. The song brought Stan Getz a number-five hit; it also created a worldwide career for João Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who sang on the record. The song tells a true story, as Jobim explained: “Vinícius de Moraes and I used to drink at a bar in Rio that, like a French bar, had chairs on the sidewalk. It was one block from the beach. A green-eyed girl, very beautiful, would go to school and to the beach and we would see her. She was blonde and dark, a mixture that is so beautiful. She was a creature of God.” He and de Moraes set the image to music. Only years later did he meet the Girl: Helô Pinheiro, who grew up to become an actress and talk-show host in São Paulo.

Pianist Eliane Elias, a native
paulista who moved to New York in 1981, builds her arrangement of “The Girl from Ipanema” on a series of modulations that keep the girl’s carefree stroll slightly off balance.

LAMENTO (Duke Pearson & Flora Purim)
“Lamento no Morro” (Lament on the Hill) is one of several pieces that Jobim and de Moraes wrote in the late ‘50s in the small Ipanema apartment where they smoked, drank, and worked. Those songs would form the score for
Black Orpheus. Duke Pearson, an Atlanta-born bop pianist and Blue Note mainstay of the ‘60s, recorded “Lamento” with Flora Purim, a jazz-influenced Brazilian singer who joined the American fusion movement in the ‘70s.

HOW INSENSITIVE (Bireli Lagrene)
This heartbreaker first appeared instrumentally in the U.S. under its Portuguese title “Insensatez” on a Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá album,
Jazz Samba Encore (1963). It’s played here by guitar prodigy Bireli Lagrene, born in 1966 in Alsace, near the French-German border. Lagrene started out as a disciple of the great Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. He had found his own style by 1992, when he made the album Standards. It includes this track. Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen takes a rich-toned, lyrical chorus.

O AMOR EM PAZ (ONCE I LOVED) (Duke Pearson with Airto Moreira and Stella
João Gilberto introduced this torch song in 1961. Duke Pearson’s 1968 version went unreleased for years. His brisk arrangement strips this ballad of much of its sentiment. So does the matter-of-fact singing of Stella Mars and percussionist Airto Moreira, who in true bossa-nova fashion make the pivotal line, “love is the saddest thing when it goes away,” sound like an afterthought.

TRISTE (Earl Klugh)
“There are musicians who aren’t afraid to use fewer notes and just play pretty,” wrote a
High Fidelity reviewer of guitarist Earl Klugh in 1981. After working with Yusef Lateef, George Shearing, and George Benson, Klugh settled into commercial pop-jazz with such albums as Late Night Guitar, a set of standard ballads. One of them, Triste, is about sadness, but Klugh’s breezy tempo gives it a lift.

WAVE (Stanley Turrentine)
The luxuriously extended lines and broad intervals of “Wave” have attracted many singers, although only a few – Sarah Vaughan, say, or Rebecca Parris – have a bottom register rich enough for the repeated low note in the chorus. As for horn players, few can handle the song with the ease of the late Stanley Turrentine, who recorded it in 1969. He and his trio play it briskly in five choruses. One is pianist McCoy Tyner; the rest belong to Turrentine, who swaggers through the melody with his fat, virile tone.

CORCOVADO (Cassandra Wilson)
Corcovado is the hill in Rio de Janeiro where the country’s ultimate symbol, the towering Christ statue, resides. The song of the same name, with music and lyrics by Jobim, is almost as renowned. Stan Getz and João Gilberto introduced “Corcovado” to America in their 1963 album
Getz/Gilberto. As “Quiet Nights,” it has been recorded by countless pop and jazz singers, including Cassandra Wilson.

DESAFINADO (Eliane Elias)
“Desafinado” is the tune that made a star out of João Gilberto in 1958. More than any other song, it launched the bossa nova. The melody consists largely of offbeats, giving an off-kilter feeling to a song whose lyric tells of a man whose vow of love is out of tune but from the heart. Eliane Elias, who has devoted a lot of her career to exploring her country’s music, included “Desafinado” on her 1989 album
Eliane Elias Plays Jobim.