Getz/Gilberto and the Evolution of Bossa Nova

Getz/Gilberto, named for the two featured artists on the album, American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto is one of the albums that best defines the Bossa Nova genre. According to blank, (insert what he does), this album was also significant as it helped to bridge the gap between American consumers, who were previously unfamiliar with Bossa Nova and Brazilian listeners.

Bryan McCann, a Professor of Latin American History and Chair of the History Department at Georgetown University comments that Bossa Nova can be split into three distinct ‘waves’. The first wave most heavily contains the characteristics that traditionally define Bossa Nova; (insert these characteristics). The second wave features slightly more deviation and more improvisation from the musical artists. The third wave is contingent on historical context, and its lyrics are often overtly political. Getz/Gilberto was released in 1964, one month into the military dictatorship in Brazil. However, although the political situation of the time of its release puts the album into the third wave, its lyrics are not overtly political and it heavily features the traditional characteristics of the first wave. It describes Rio de Janeiro through a sort of “rose-colored glasses”; painting the picture of an idyllic destination that at that point socio-politically, did not exist. McCann says that this irony is intentional, making the political statement behind the album even more significant.

For international audiences, Getz/Gilberto is best known for the classic version of Girl From Ipanema, which features the English vocals sung Jao Gilberto’s wife, Astrud Gilberto. McCann comments that Girl From Ipanema was not only what made the album most attractive to English-speaking listeners but also helped to create a distinct Bossa Nova style. According to McCann, the song made the gap from jazz to pop. However, melodically, the song is still very complex. The instrumental section of Girl From Ipanema sticks fairly close to the melody at the beginning of the song but then begins to stray, offering more chromatic possibilities in the middle section until it shifts from one chromatic chord to the next.

McCann comments that there is often some tension in appreciation of Bossa Nova because it is a genre that, has elements from the Afro-Brazilian class, was not created by or for the popular class. Instead, Bossa Nova was created by almost entirely white, middle-class composers in the living rooms and the nightclubs in areas of Copacabana and Ipanema.  Antonio Carlos Jobim, the composer of Getz/Gilberto is criticized as he uses Afro-Brazilian elements in his music as a way of contrasting the elite class, yet he is a member of that class himself.

However, Jobim was undeniably monumental for the evolution of Bossa Nova. McCann states that Jobim can hear and write chords that most are incapable of hearing, making him able to write incredibly unique songs. The element that makes his songs so defining are the “chromatic harmonies” he writes. In his songs the melody sung by vocalists is simple, yet the harmony played by instrumentalists, which is placed one-half step down from the melody, is incredibly complex. This half step difference creates a kind of dissonance that has become typical in Bossa Nova and is what makes the chords sound like they never resolve.

An evolution in radio programming also helped to define Bossa Nova as a genre. As Bossa Nova began to gain popularity, radio programming shifted from targeting live audiences to family audiences, gathered around a radio in their living rooms, to people living individually. Car ownership also changed how people listened to music and as more Brazilians became able to afford cars–which had nicer radios than in their homes–people listened to music by themselves. Bossa Nova being listened to in-car once again shows who the music was designed for; the middle class–who could afford luxuries like a car. The change from large audiences to smaller ones helped to contribute to the tranquil, intimate sound that defines Bossa Nova. Joao Gilberto heavily utilized this sound; it is said that he came up with it by playing in his bathroom and it shows he would often walk off stage if the venue could not cultivate the amplifying, yet intimate sound.

As seen in its creation and the way that is consumed, Bossa Nova is inherently designed for and by people that are middle-class and white–even though it contains the core elements of Afro-Brazilian music. McCann comments that when looking at albums that are monumental to defining Bossa Nova, such as Getz/Gilberto it is important to acknowledge where many of Getz, Gilberto and Jobim’s influences came from. It is also important to realize how these men, as white upper-class performers, were able to occupy a space in the performing world that people of color could not. While this should not stop us from enjoying the intricacies of Bossa Nova, we must be aware of its background in order to appreciate the many people who contributed to it, that perhaps don’t occupy the spotlight.