Sonidos y Mas: Getz/Gilberto Turns 45

2009 marks the 45th anniversary of Getz/Gilberto, the album that established bossa nova in the international market - something that came at the right time, as the popularity of the unapologetically apolitical genre had begun to wean in its native Brazil.

But it was not like Verve Records was excited about it at the time: in early 1964, Verve producer Creed Taylor finally decided to release the product of two days of recording sessions done in September of 1963 with saxophonist Stan Getz, Brazilian singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Essentially, Taylor wasn't sure how to market the tapes. Though Getz's Jazz Samba disc (recorded in 1962 with guitarist Charlie Byrd) had sold respectably, the follow-up Jazz Samba Encore! (with Jobim and guitarist Luis Bonfa) failed to ignite much interest from jazz fans.

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Ana Jobim
Late Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim acted as mediator during the Getz/Gilberto sessions.
Listening to Getz/Gilberto today, one cannot imagine how difficult it was to make it happen. Joao Gilberto wasn't happy about sharing the spotlight with Stan Getz, who he thought played too loud for the standards of quietness of bossa nova that he had established in 1958.

According to biographer Ruy Castro's Bossa Nova: The History of The Brazilian Music That Changed The World (A Capella, 2000), at one point Gilberto instructed Jobim to tell Getz he was "a moron." Ever the diplomat, Jobim translated the sentence as "Stan, Joao said to tell you that he's always dreamed of making a record with you." But Getz did not believe it. "Funny," he replied. "By the tone of his voice, I don't think that's what he's really saying."

The sessions weren't easy either. Gilberto - one of the most temperamental Brazilian musicians alive - would hole himself up in his hotel room, delaying the proceedings. But once the other musicians coaxed him into get to work, the sessions would go without a hitch.

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Getz/Gilberto
went on to become the biggest-selling jazz album of all time after Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and was the last jazz disc to win the Album of the Year Grammy until Herbie Hancock's amazing River: The Joni Letters last year. Such results were of course due to the performers' talents, but credit should also be given to Creed Taylor, who had the smart idea of releasing "The Girl From Ipanema" as an edited single.

On the album, the tune runs for about five minutes, but on the single version, Joao Gilberto's vocals were mostly excised to feature only the English-language lyrics sung by his then-wife, Astrud, whom Getz brought into the sessions at the eleventh hour (he wanted some of the songs on the tapes to be performed in English).

The radio-friendly version, just under four minutes long, was a smash hit that catapulted Getz/Gilberto - released just before the Beatles took over the U.S. airwaves in America - to great commercial heights. He did the same with "Corcovado" (also known as "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars"), which also became a smash.

Astrud's inclusion was almost accidental, though. As Getz himself notes on the liner notes for his collection The Bossa Nova Years, released decades later:

"Gilberto and Jobim didn't want Astrud on it. Astrud wasn't a professional singer, she was a housewife. But when I wanted translations of what was going on, and she sang 'Ipanema' and 'Corcovado,' I thought the words in English were very nice. Astrud sounded good enough to put on the record."

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Astrud Gilberto's Agua de Beber LP.
Listening to the whole record is almost like a magical experience. Joao Gilberto was at the peak of his powers, singing with his trademark softness while accompanying himself on guitar with subtle yet effective chords. Jobim - who wrote or co-wrote most of the tracks on the album - cleverly provided the perfect backdrop for the singer (he knew how to deal with Joao Gilberto, having produced his 1958 debut single), while bassist Tommy Williams and drummer Milton Banana kept a tight, albeit almost inaudible, rhythm section.

The odd man out was Getz, who played his horn without respecting the cardinal rule of bossa nova - play as softly as possible. But somehow, it all came together nicely thanks to session engineer Phil Ramone, who would go on to produce countless albums by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Paul Simon and many others. He mixed the instruments well, not allowing Getz's sax to drown out the other musicians.

Today, Getz/Gilberto is remembered as one of the most important records in the history of contemporary music. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 454 in its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time," while in 1999 Vibe listed it among the 200 essential discs of the 20th century.

Not bad for a record that almost didn't make it to the shelves.


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