[28 January 2002]
The American Bossa craze started in 1962, prior to the arrival of the Beatles in the US and the eternal transformation of pop music that resulted. It was seen by many as a last-ditch effort by jazz to remain within the commercial framework of American popular music, from which it had been receding since the end of World War II. Bossa Nova is remembered by most, if at all, as an urban, sophisticated sound that was not quite jazz and not quite pop music, the sound of bachelor pads with expensive hi-fi equipment and bars where jet-set bachelors and bachelorettes drank martinis against an op-art background. In short, boss nova music has been resigned to the dustbin of retro kitsch otherwise known as lounge music.
To Brazilians, the bossa nova has a very different meaning and place in the country’s history. The late ‘60s and early ‘50s were a time of great optimism in Brazil. The country had a democratically elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, whose motto was “50 years of development in five”. The architecturally futuristic city of Brasilia was being built, the arts were flourishing, and the nation had entered the world auto industry. Brazilians saw that their country was well on the way to becoming a developed nation and were ready for the fresh sounds that boss provided. Unfortunately, neither bossa nor democracy lasted; by the time Americans were snapping up copies of the single “Girl from Ipanema”, the Brazilians had moved on.
Thievery Corporation’s Rob Garza and Eric Hilton are admirers of Brazilian music as well as sounds that most listeners would only consider for their kitsch value. The two met (and DJ at) the Eighteenth Street Lounge in Washington DC, and the music on Sounds from the Verve Hi-Fi (the title is a play on their own album Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi) is just the type of thing you might hear in this laid-back venue. To be fair, not everything here is Brazilian or bossa—Verve’s considerable back-catalog includes other Latin jazz styles, hard bop, and some psychedelic pseudo-Indian tracks.
The disc opens with “Menina Flor” from Luis Bonfa and Stan Getz’s Jazz Samba Encore! album. This venture into merging the rhythms of Brazilian music with the muted sound and improvisations of cool jazz was recorded and released more than a year before Getz’s better known (and better selling) collaboration with Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Astrud Gilberto on Getz/Gilberto, yet it sounds quite similar. The oft-underrated Sergio Mendes & Brazil ‘66 weigh in with “Chove Chuve”, a song that Rob often includes in his DJ sets. It demonstrates the classic Mendes formula as well as any track could, with its muted but infectious rhythm, exotic touches (courtesy of some harpsichord-cum-sitar keyboards) and soulful female vocals.
Speaking of female vocalists, the royalty of Brazilian singers is represented here, with contributions from Mary Toledo, Elis Regina, and the darling of the bossa craze, Astrud Gilberto. Astrud’s contribution is the startlingly weird “Light My Fire” from her album September 17, 1969. The album is hard to find and has yet to be issued on CD, so this is a rare opportunity to hear her singing something other than the bossa tracks she is best known for. It’s pretty clear that this version was designed to appeal not to the scores of kids now listening to The Doors, but rather to their beleaguered parents. The “Spinning Wheel”-style horn arrangements are corny in the extreme, and Astrud comes across a bit like Shonen Knife on this, but the drums, which are pretty far forward in the mix, save it from being total kitsch. The end result is a little sad. Cut adrift from her composer husband (who she divorced not too long after the release of the “Girl from Ipanema” single) and her roots in the Brazilian music world, what could she do but perform the American hits of the day? Still, it’s hard to resist listening to this track again and again.
Other standout tracks include Elis Regina’s “Bala Com Bala”, organist Walter Wanderley’s “Batucada”, Latin bandleader Cal Tjader’s “Cuchy Frito Man” as well as his collaboration with Lalo Schifrin on “The Fakir”. My only real complaint is that the collection ends on a weak note with The Jazz Renegades’ rendition of “Do It the Hard Way”. The group was led by Steve White, who is probably best remembered as the drummer from Paul Weller’s Style Council. The song is lame white-guy jazz and points up the fact that the previous selections were all done by extremely talented musicians, arrangers, and composers who were able to incorporate many new sounds and influences into their music. Unlike the bachelor-pad and ultra-lounge compilations making the rounds these days, this collection is one you’ll want to listen to long after the novelty of some of its tracks have worn off.