João Gilberto’s Pioneering Records In a Legal Limbo

“The Legendary João Gilberto” (João Gilberto)

This is really a shame, I’ve often wanted to hear these albums, and have hoped eventually the copyright issue would get settled.

A NUMBER of notable concerts of Brazilian music around the world this year, including one by João Gilberto next Sunday at Carnegie Hall as part of the JVC Jazz Festival, are being advertised with the line “50 Years of Bossa Nova.” Mr. Gilberto is considered by many to have defined the musical form, which was embraced internationally and has never really gone away in Brazil. Yet Mr. Gilberto’s first three albums, some of the best music of the 20th century, have largely been unavailable.

For 10 years or so they haven’t been in record stores, nor on (unless you’re willing to pay $100 or more for used copies) nor on iTunes. The only way you may have found them was through illegal file sharing, or, if you were lucky enough, to know someone who had copies. This is a weird turn of events in an age that keeps valuable cultural artifacts at close reach.

After 1997, when Mr. Gilberto sued EMI, his former record label, the company ceased manufacturing the albums. Mr. Gilberto and his manager declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but according to Ana Trajan, a lawyer at EMI Brazil, the music is still caught in a long legal process. There are no plans for its reissue, despite a 50th anniversary being the obvious moment.

Bossa nova, a subtle, rustling music with jazz harmony, chamber-music dynamics, samba rhythm and close-miked emphasis on voice and guitar, began when the Brazilian recording industry, and the Brazilian economy, was at a high. It may have gestated in 1957 in clubs around Rio’s borough of Copacabana, or even a year earlier in the state of Minas Geraes, in the confines Mr. Gilberto’s sister’s tiled bathroom, where Mr. Gilberto played in isolation for eight months, forming his intimate voice-and-guitar sound.

And then came Mr. Gilberto’s album, “Chega de Saudade,” recorded in 1958 and 1959. The songs on that record, and on his next two — “O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor” and “João Gilberto” — were very nearly the first examples of a new musical style. More important, they permanently defined that style. Bossa nova is the rare example of a music whose lines of history and influence keep tracing, more or less, to one person — something you can’t say for blues or jazz or country or rock ’n’ roll. It’s rarer still that the person is still alive and performing.

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Glancing at my iTunes library, I only have one João Gilberto album, a extremely listenable collaboration with saxophonist Stan Getz, that you’ve probably heard snippets from in various films:

“Getz/Gilberto” (Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto, Astrud Gilberto)

Originally released in March 1964, this collaboration between saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist João Gilberto came at seemingly the end of the bossa nova craze Getz himself had sparked in 1962 with Jazz Samba, his release with American guitarist Charlie Byrd. Jazz Samba remains the only jazz album to reach number one in the pop charts. In fact, the story goes that Getz had to push for the release of Getz/Gilberto since the company did not want to compete with its own hit; it was a good thing he did.Getz/Gilberto, which featured composer Antonio Carlos Jobim on piano, not only yielded the hit “Girl from Ipanema” (sung by Astrud Gilberto, the guitarist’s wife, who had no professional experience) but also “Corcovado” (“Quiet Night”)–an instant standard, and the definitive version of “Desafinado.” Getz/Gilberto spent 96 weeks in the charts and won four Grammys. It remains one of those rare cases in popular music where commercial success matches artistic merit. Bossa nova’s “cool” aesthetic–with its understated rhythms, rich harmonies, and slightly detached delivery–had been influenced, in part, by cool jazz. Gilberto in particular was a Stan Getz fan. Getz, with his lyricism, the bittersweet longing in his sound, and his restrained but strong swing, was the perfect fit. His lines, at once decisive and evanescent, focus the rest of the group’s performance without overpowering. A classic.

“Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World” (Ruy Castro)

Oh, and I’ll have to look out for this book:

Ruy Castro’s authoritative history of bossa nova was published here in 2000 as “Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World.” Naturally, its Brazilian title was “Chega de Saudade,” and naturally, a portrait of Mr. Gilberto was its centerpiece

When I make my long-awaited sojourn to Brazil, I’ll have to look for this version, remastered or not:

The three original LPs were collected together on a remastered, three-album vinyl version, called “O Mito” (“The Myth”), released by EMI Brazil in 1988 (a CD version was released in Brazil in 1992). In 1990 the collection was released in the English-language market by EMI’s World Pacific imprint, as “The Legendary João Gilberto.”

Mr. Gilberto sued EMI in 1997, contending that the old music had been poorly remastered. A statement by his lawyer at the time declared that the reissues contained sound effects that “did not pertain to the original recordings, banalizing the work of a great artist.”

There were also other issues. Luiz Bannitz, the legal director at EMI Brazil from 1999 to 2004, said that the royalty rate in EMI’s old contract with Mr. Gilberto, drawn up in the 1950s, was very low by current standards — “less than 5 percent,” he said. The court ruled in 2002 that EMI should raise his royalty rate to 18 percent, but Mr. Gilberto began a series of appeals on other decisions related to the case; the lawsuit is still pending a superior tribunal court decision.

For good or ill, it is the remastered, early ’90s CD version of this music that I keep in my head. I have heard an old, pre-remastering Brazilian LP pressing of the album “Chega de Saudade,” and the remastered version has some perhaps unnecessary reverb and a more spacious sound-picture, a result of turning mono originals into stereo — the standard practice during the early years of CD reissues. As a consequence the balance of instruments sounds slightly reshuffled; the percussion, for instance, is louder.

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