João Gilberto: In Tokyo

JoÃo Gilberto
In Tokyo

Lights dim throughout the cavernous auditorium. A capacity crowd of 5,000 fills the Tokyo International Forum Hall on September 12, 2003. They have been waiting quite a while for this show, and they sit in rapt attention. 2003 marks João Gilberto’s first visit to the island nation of Japan. The four sold-out dates that comprise this tour, comprising a total of 20,000 tickets sold, is an indicator of just how much feverish anticipation accompanies these performances.

A lone figure walks onto the stage, carrying his guitar and wearing a dark suit. His arrival is met with rapturous applause. The man sits at a chair and leans into the microphone, saying but one word — “Kon-ban-wa” — before beginning the first song of the show. “Kon-ban-wa” is Japanese for “good evening”.

João Gilberto is 70 minutes late.

Peripatetic in the extreme, Gilberto’s nomadic life and career remain among the most unique and influential in the annals of 20th century music. The fact that it took him some four decades to make it to Japan should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his long and storied career. The Japanese are patient, and in any event the long absence does not seem to have dimmed the audience’s enthusiasm.

Music critics are given to hyperbole: it comes in the job description. Sometimes, perhaps, just maybe, it gets a bit difficult to gain traction on that ever-elusive concept of perspective. How many times have you heard this or that album hailed as a “masterpiece”, only to have it disappear off the radar in six months time? How many times have you heard a jaded music reporter hail some punk kid with too many tattoos as a “genius”, only to have said “genius” disappear from the industry after his latest opus fails to meet industry expectations? One man sitting alone with his guitar and using nothing but the power of unadorned songcraft to communicate with an adoring audience seems the most pleasant colonic possible.

Listening to João Gilberto is the perfect antidote to this necessary cynicism. The fact is, Gilberto is one of the greatest musicians alive. This is something that I think I can say without any fear of contradiction. As a rootless musical prodigy shuffling around South America in the fifties, no one could have predicted the groundbreaking influence Gilberto would one day exert. The fact is, the intimately minimal sound that would become his signature was regarded as weird and unprofessional, if not downright crazy. Next to the elaborate samba that held sway over Brazil at the time, his sly and elegantly simple songwriting was definitely a shock to the system.

And yet, somehow it worked. In 1958, along with the composer and arranger Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, Gilberto was finally able to take the new musical style he had developed in private over the previous decade and let it loose upon an unsuspecting world. The result, bossa nova — literally the “new beat” — is history, in the realms of western jazz and pop, as well as the political sphere, where the invention of bossa nova was seen as a precursor to political unrest in South America in the 1960s.

Forty-six years on, Gilberto remains true to the original conception of his brainchild. The guiding concept of bossa nova is the simplification of samba’s complex rhythmical structure. Gilberto’s guitar playing still celebrates this graceful simplicity, with his unadorned guitar serving as both rhythmical and melodic counterpoint to his soft, almost whispery voice.

I can’t understand a word he’s saying, as all the tracks are in Portugese. But that hardly matters: his voice remains as expressive and sympathetic as ever. Without being able to understand him, an English-speaking listener can still follow the general tenor of his stories. There’s a depth of feeling here that most contemporary vocalists could never hope to match, despite the fact that they may have a better range or more raw technique at their command. There’s a wistful, almost mischievous longing at the corner of every sad note, and every happy moment is tinted by incipient meloncholy. There’s nothing very difficult to comprehend, but there are endless shades of gray for those who care to listen.

At 73, Gilberto is becoming old man, undoubtedly a victim already to many of the universal weaknesses and infirmities of the aging. But as he sings and strums softly into the darkness of an amphitheater he becomes once again a young man, and we become young with him.