Monday, January 28, 2008

Get to Know a Brazilian: Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim (also commonly known by his nickname “Tom”) isn’t exactly an unknown in the States, given his centrality to the establishment of Bossa Nova. Still, as this past Friday would have been his 81st birthday, he seems an appropriate guy to talk about.

Jobim was born in the neighborhood of Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro in 1927, and had planned on being an architect before he became a musician in his 20s. Well versed in the jazz music that he heard from the United States, Jobim tried to bring the sound of American jazz together with Brazilian samba, African rhythms, and lush orchestrations, leading to the central components of what became known as Bossa Nova. By the 1950s, Jobim was already gaining fame as a composer in Brazil after getting a great opportunity when he co-scored the play Black Orpheus (later made into a film) with Vinícius de Moraes.

Jobim’s international big break came in 1962 when the (then) also-unknown João Gilbert sang Jobim’s “Desafinado,” both men became global successes. Bossa Nova was particularly well received in the U.S. as artists such as Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd made Jobim’s pieces household tunes, leading to Jobim’s coming to be known as “the Gershwin of Brazil.” Soon, many less-accomplished jazz artists were offering their own rehashes of “Desafinado” or “The Girl from Ipanema.” It is almost impossible to find a well-known Brazilian artist (and many lesser-known singers) who haven’t tried to do their own Bossa Nova albums, some (Nara Leão) far more successful than others (Caetano Veloso). Likewise, in Europe and in the United States, it was almost impossible to escape some cultural reference to Jobim (indeed, in one Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode, Graham Chapman and John Cleese, dressed as British working-class housewives, start humming “The Girl from Ipanema”). By the mid-1960s, the songs had become overplayed and, as is too often the case, bossa nova was overplayed and cheapened. Musically, the jazz scene was fundamentally shifting by this time, and it may be that, in the socially divided atmosphere that saw the rise of rock’n’roll, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights, there wasn’t as much interest or room for the simple beauty of bossa nova. Although bossa nova’s popularity lived on in Brazil, coming and going up to the present, in the northern hemisphere, it did not fare as well. After the mid-1960s, it fell out of favor in the U.S. and Europe, coming to be equated in latter years with retirees living in Florida or Muzak soundtracks.

None of this ever stopped Jobim, though. Throughout the 1970s he worked on refining and changing his sound in small but significant steps. On Elis & Tom, he joined with one of Brazil’s most heartbreaking singers, Elis Regina, putting his music and lyrics with her mournful, soft voice. The sound didn’t change much, but the sadness he always expressed in his lyrics seemed to be getting even more personal and more concentrated. After that album, Jobim even began to alienate his Brazilian fans, deciding to try new instruments, sound, and structures on the albums Matita Pere and Urubu, the latter of which starts off with the berimbau, a Brazilian (but not at all bossa nova) instrument made of one string and used to keep rhythm in capoeira contests. Jobim’s music lost much of the “traditional” bossa nova sound on these albums while simultaneously expanding its “Brazilianness” and maintaining the soft, haunting, heartbreaking emotion Jobim had always used. Because he wasn’t making “The Girl From Ipanema II,” these albums didn’t sell the way his old material had in Brazil or in the international community, and Jobim’s output slowed down without ever stopping. This is a shame, because Matita Pere and especially Urubu are two remarkable and wonderful records, floating in and out sonically but with an emotional intensity that is lacking in most other bossa nova.

For whatever reason, his music again became popular in the international community in the mid- to late-1980s, as his music once again filled the living rooms of young and middle-aged bourgeois homes as yuppies tried to show how “cultured” they were, which again was a shame, because the music was far better than many of its “fans” probably realized. Still, the revival was enough that Jobim started hitting the road to tour, and playing and recording music (live and in the studio) both in Brazil and the U.S. It was on one such tour, in 1994, that Jobim died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 67.
Nowadays, Jobim’s music is really only known in the states by people who may have heard “Girl from Ipanema” or in the above-55-years-old demographic. The cheap commercialization of his early production still abounds (just go to your local Borders and take a gander at the jazz section). All of this is an enormous shame, because, despite its apparent simplicity, Jobim’s music revealed subtle complexities in the versions he himself recorded, with strings quietly swelling to add depth, subtle changes in tone and timber, and, later in his career, increasing instrumental experimentation. His bossa nova material is still top notch – just listen to the albums Wave or Stone Flowers, both with just instrumental songs, and the true beauty of bossa nova becomes crystal clear. It’s not hard to see why so many artists both thought they could also do that and failed so miserably.