Astrud Gilberto: The Essence of Bossa Nova

Astrud Gilberto: The Essence of Bossa Nova

Written by Anne E. Johnson

She was hardly a powerhouse singer. In fact, her voice was thin, barely more than a whisper. But Astrud Gilberto’s low-key vocal style captured the essence of bossa nova at exactly the right time, connecting the Latin jazz craze with mainstream jazz and pop.

The daughter of a German émigré to Brazil, she was born Astrud Weinert in 1940. At age 19 she married guitarist, singer, and composer João Gilberto. Although the marriage lasted only a few years, singing with her husband launched her career.

In 1962, pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim wrote a song called “The Girl from Ipanema.” He and Astrud Gilberto recorded it together in 1963 for her husband’s album Getz/Gilberto, with Jobim singing in Portuguese and Astrud singing in English. The song did well in Brazil. But when the Portuguese verses were cut out in a 1964 edited single, it became a worldwide hit. From that moment, Astrud Gilberto was a star.

She left her marriage to be with her husband’s colleague, American saxophonist Stan Getz, following him to the US. The affair was brief, but she still calls America home 60 years later. Her career, however, was global and unstoppable, aided by the fact that she had a knack for learning new languages. This not only helped her diplomatically and socially as she traveled, but it allowed her to record songs in many different languages, including German, French, and Japanese.

The 82-year-old Gilberto hasn’t performed or made a new record in a couple of decades, but she remains active as a painter and an animal rights activist.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Astrud Gilberto.

  1. Track: “Corcovado”
    Album: Getz/Gilberto
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1963

The “Gilberto” in the album title refers to Astrud’s first husband, guitarist João. Its opening track was “The Girl from Ipanema.” Stan Getz, who was determined that his fellow Americans should fall in love with bossa nova, gives a sinewy performance on the saxophone. Even if this weren’t Astrud’s debut album, it would be among the most influential records in jazz history.

Astrud sang on only one other track, “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars).” As with the album version of “Ipanema,” she alternates verses with Jobim, singing an English translation of the original lyrics. Jobim’s voice is as laid-back and delicate as hers, making them the ideal vocal pairing.


  1. Track: “How Insensitive”
    Album: The Astrud Gilberto Album
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1965

By 1965, Gilberto was living in California and ready to launch a solo career. Verve released her debut, The Astrud Gilberto Album, on which she is accompanied by Jobim (this time on guitar) and a mix of excellent musicians from both America and her native Brazil. Jobim also wrote most of the album.

Norman Gimbel, who had done the English translation of “The Girl from Ipanema,” wrote lyrics to Jobim’s music for “How Insensitive.” The string arrangement envelops Gilberto’s hesitant but earnest vocal delivery. Bud Shank’s flute helps define the style. Typical of the times, the percussionist, so essential to bossa nova, is uncredited.


  1. Track: “O Ganso”
    Album: The Shadow of Your Smile
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1965

Given the success of Gilberto’s first solo album, Verve released a second one less than a year later. The arrangements this time are more focused on brass than strings (none of the players is credited). They are the work of two Jobim collaborators – Claus Ogerman and João Donato – as well as American jazz producer/arranger Don Sebesky.

One of the album’s particular pleasures is the unusual scat singing that Gilberto does on “O Ganso.” The wordless song is by Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá, best known as the composer of the soundtrack to the film Black Orpheus. Gilberto applies her quiet, serious style to the bouncy melody, using Portuguese-based nonsense syllables that would never have occurred to most of America’s premiere scat singers like Ella Fitzgerald.


  1. Track: “Berimbau”
    Album: Look to the Rainbow
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1966

Gilberto’s album Look to the Rainbow features Gil Evans, the Canadian pianist who helped develop and popularize several styles of jazz after bebop, including cool jazz and free jazz.

Although the track list includes some standards like the title song, a favorite from the show Finian’s Rainbow, there’s also some interesting Brazilian music. The opening song, “Berimbau,” is named after the pitched percussion instrument made of a single string taut on a wooden bow.


  1. Track: “Você Já Foi à Bahia”
    Album: A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1967

A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness is a duo album with jazz organist Walter Wanderley. A native of Brazil and specialist in bossa nova-flavored lounge music, Wanderley was a huge success at the time, largely thanks to his massively popular instrumental single, “Summer Samba.” He and Gilberto were an obvious musical couple to team up, and the result is a cultural snapshot of the late 1960s, when bossa nova took over the listening habits of a large segment of the population.

“Você Já Foi à Bahia” means “Have you been to Bahia?” It was written by Dorival Caymmi (1914 – 2008), considered one of the forefathers of bossa nova. The melody is extremely difficult, clearly written for an instrument, not voice. Gilberto tackles its fast jumps without stress. Claudio Slon, brought to the US by Tony Bennett, provides the samba rhythm on percussion.


  1. Track: “The Face I Love”
    Album: Beach Samba
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1967

Releasing bossa nova records in the late 1960s was a sure path to fortune, but only if the artists were willing to expand their idea of the style. Beach Samba is a case in point, more pop than jazz and leaning heavily toward the sentimental. One track even features Gilberto’s little son singing with her.

While it’s easy to dismiss this record as having too little substance, it represents an important element of Gilberto’s career. And while the arrangements by Sebesky and Eumir Deodato have a sugary glaze, listen carefully to “The Face I Love” and you’ll hear great craftsmanship and top-notch players. For example, that’s Ron Carter on bass, Grady Tate on drums, and Marcos Valle on guitar.


  1. Track: “Chup, Chup, I Got Away”
    Album: Windy
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1968

The same arrangers returned to work on Windy, another pop-leaning album. As is true of several of Gilberto’s Verve albums, it was engineered by Phil Ramone.

“Chup, Chup, I Got Away,” composed by guitarist Marcos Valle, is another song that does not lie naturally on the voice. But Gilberto is undaunted: before our very ears, she seems to become a rhythmic instrument. Her precise syncopation sounds effortless.

  1. Track: “I’m Nothing Without You”
    Album: Plus
    Label: Polydor
    Year: 1986

After bossa nova’s heyday in the1960s, Gilberto made very few albums. One that she decided was worth doing is Plus, a collaboration with German bandleader James Last. This project was clearly focused on the European market, where Last’s light style, known as “Happy Music,” was a big seller.

The song “I’m Nothing Without You” shows a more mature, philosophical Gilberto, with a stronger sound than her timid 1960s persona allowed. Her unadorned vocal is the perfect foil against the intricate trumpet line. (Last’s trumpet section at the time included Derek Watkins, Bob Coassin, Bob Lanese, and Håkan Nykvist. This exquisite, uncredited solo could have been by any one of them.)


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Kroon, Ron/Anefo.

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