When Astrud Gilberto passed away recently aged 83, we lost one of the most famed voices in Jazz. Today we celebrate her most famous work by taking a closer look at one of the most critically and commercially successful Jazz albums of all time.
Released in March 1964, ‘Getz/Gilberto’ was recorded a year earlier in March of ‘63 in New York City. Its origins, however, go back even further. When Antônio Carlos Jobim, better known as Tom Jobim, began to adapt the sound of Samba in his native Brazil in the late 1950s, he created a sound that would come to be known as Bossa Nova. Soon enough, the style was picking up attention overseas and American saxophonist and Jazz bandleader Stan Getz would record the album ‘Jazz Samba’, further popularising the style in the USA. Back in Brazil, Jobim was working with guitarist and singer João Gilberto, further developing their Bossa Nova sound with Jobim arranging and playing piano while Gilberto sang and played guitar. Central to their developments was a technique where two separate microphones were placed to capture voice and guitar independently, allowing greater clarity but requiring the volume of each to be balanced. This, in turn, influenced Gilberto’s singing as he took on a hushed, conversational tone.
As Bossa Nova gained popularity in the USA thanks to records by Getz and Charlie Byrd, a concert was arranged for Carnegie Hall in late 1962 featuring a plethora of Brazilian talent, including Jobim, Gilberto, Sérgio Mendes, and Luis Bonfá. On the back of this came a suggestion, Gilberto and Stan Getz should collaborate.
Recorded in just two days in March of 1963, Getz and Gilberto recorded eight tracks, the majority Jobim compositions. Both Getz and Gilberto were known perfectionists, and neither was considered easy to work with, allegedly leading to fractious debates on which takes should be used. That said, both named contributors wrote of their musical friendship at the time, making note that while they lacked a common spoken language they found communication through music effortless. The result was a suite of tracks that, as Getz pointed out, moved away from the one upmanship and complexity prevalent in Jazz of the time and instead embraced a more laid back, swinging feel.
Where ‘Para Machucar Meu Coração’ begins with Jobim’s piano, it ends on an extended passage by Getz’s saxophone, while ‘Desafinado’ is built on the staccato guitar work of Gilberto. Featuring Gilberto’s Portuguese vocals, there is a wistful sadness to the tracks for non-speakers that is balanced out by the sprightly warmth of the instrumentals. The lyrical sound of saxophone generally, though particularly true for Getz’s playing, lends itself to a reading as wordless but voicelike. For an English speaking audience then, it is possible to find Gilberto’s vocals as more musical, focusing on the melody over the lyrics and finding a greater conversational link between voice and saxophone. The result is an album filled with narrative, leading the listener through a series of casual vignettes. Yet, would this ease have been achieved if not for the opening track?
Now instantly recognisable, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ was written in 1962 by Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes with lyrics in Portuguese. The exact timeline for how it came to be on the album are unclear, though it’s generally accepted that producer Creed Taylor hoped to have at least one song with English lyrics and Gilberto did not speak enough English and Getz did not sing. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, however was fluent in a number of languages, including English, and had performed as a singer alongside her husband in Brazil. Upon hearing her sing Getz was convinced. Songwriter Norman Gimbel had previously been introduced to Jobim and Gilberto and crafted English lyrics to ‘Garota de Ipanema’. With all the pieces in place, Astrud took to the mic and with a hushed, sultry, almost dreamlike take she recorded a track telling the tale of a beautiful girl who frequented the small streets of Ipanema near Rio de Janeiro. Backed by Gilberto’s guitar strums and sung in English, the track would establish a lyrical narrative that would be echoed by Getz’s saxophone and Jobim’s piano taking turns at delivering the now immediately familiar melody. The real life inspiration behind the song, Helô Pineiro, would go on to become a famed figure who would in turn develop a successful modelling career in Brazil. More significantly for the musicians, by establishing a lyrical narrative and echoing the vocal melody with the instrumentation, the track would create a blueprint through which the rest of the album could be viewed by English speaking listeners.
To those now more familiar with the edited version released as a 45 rpm single, the album opener may come as a surprise as it opens with João’s vocals rather than Astrud’s. This significant edit, made for commerciality, is all the more galling when we now know that Astrud was paid just $120, the fee for a session musician, and would never receive any royalties for her performance. Commercially and critically, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ would succeed beyond what any of the originators could have imagined, climbing the charts and winning the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1965 and going on to be one of the most covered songs of all time. It would ramp up Getz’s fame to new heights and make a star of João Gilberto.
Opening side two, ‘Corcovado’, a Jobim composition also known as ‘Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars’, would also be sung by Astrud Gilberto. Like ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ it too would go on to become a Jazz standard, with Sarah Vaughan, Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald all laying down versions over the years.
Elsewhere ‘So Danca Samba’ is one of the most upbeat tracks here with Gilberto’s lyrics glowing with warmth while Getz’s saxophone playing is almost celebratory in nature. It’s a sun soaked breeze and the most danceable number here.
‘Getz/Gilberto’ would go on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1965, the first time a Jazz record would take that crown. Yet its namesakes could not have accomplished that feat without the writing, arranging and playing by the great Tom Jobim, nor could they have reached such significant audiences without their crossover hit helmed by Astrud Gilberto. One of the finest Jazz albums of all time, every track is an accomplishment in refined playing and musicianship. Yet the names on the cover let it down, failing to fully acknowledge the significant roles of two of the main players in its creation. While Jobim got a ‘feature’ creditline and would be globally recognised for his songwriting and go on to work with Frank Sinatra among others, Astrud Gilberto would not be so lucky. Within a couple of years of the recording the Gilbertos divorced and Astrud would suffer financial hardships. She would go on to tour with Getz and later recount how he continued to take advantage of her work. In time she would move to America and build a strong career eventually being joined in performance and recording by two of her sons. Her most famous work, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ would become globally renowned and would continue to be both the foundation and the gateway into one of the most successful Jazz albums of all time.