Culture

This Classic Bossa Nova Album Is 50, So Listen Up

Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim sing “Girl from Ipanema.” Can it get more classic than that?

I first saw this video of Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim singing "Girl from Ipanema" about three years ago in the Jardim Botanico in Rio de Janeiro. In the middle of this lush, gorgeous park is something called the Espaco Tom Jobim 1 —a cultural center and museum dedicated to Jobim's memory. The museum is filled with sheet music, photographs, occasional bits of Jobim's writing and a few old videos showing the father of bossa nova playing his music.

This particular video comes from a Sinatra television special called "A Man and His Music," which aired in 1967 and featured Sinatra singing duets with Ella Fitzgerald as well as Jobim. It's the last two minutes of a longer medley of Jobim songs that the two men did on the show—songs they had earlier recorded on an album called "Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim."

The first thing you notice when you watch the video—or at least the first thing I noticed—was the cigarette in Sinatra's hand. Can he really be taking drags and blowing smoke into the air during Jobim's choruses? Given our current attitudes about cigarettes, it seems almost inconceivable.

But once you get past that, and pay attention to the music, you can't help but be transported; Jobim playing those melancholy minor chords that he virtually invented in the early 1960s as he and the poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes and Joao Gilberto were creating this sophisticated new music they called bossa nova. And Sinatra, at 52, singing with a restraint and sensitivity that harkens back to albums like "In The Wee Small Hours," which he had recorded more than a decade earlier. "Girl from Ipanema" has been recorded so often it’s become a cliche, but when you listen to this version, it still feels like an original.

The Sinatra-Jobim collaboration 2 is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and while it's not everyone’s cup of tea, I think it ranks among Sinatra’s finest recordings. As James Kaplan, the author of a definitive two-volume biography of Sinatra reminded me recently, it came during a time of turmoil in his life. He was divorcing Mia Farrow—she was served the divorce papers on the set of "Rosemary's Baby." He didn’t know how to cope with the ascendancy of rock 'n roll. He had two major public tantrums, either of which would have gotten anyone else arrested, and one of which resulted in his two front teeth being knocked out at the Sands in Las Vegas. "Spiritually and artistically, he felt bereft and furious," Kaplan told me.

Yet in the middle of this, he had the wit to see that bossa nova was a style of music, unlike rock 'n roll, that would suit him, that Jobim was someone he should record with, and that Jobim’s producer Claus Ogerman should produce the record. And however thuggish he acted outside of the recording studio, he retained the ability to produce sublime music. That duality, of course, was always the mystery of Sinatra.

One reason the album has stood the test of time is that bossa nova has too. It first came to America in 1964, via the great saxophonist Stan Getz, whose album "Getz/Gilberto"—recorded with Joao Gilberto, Jobim and Astrud Gilberto—became a huge hit. It wasn't long before bossa nova was being described as a "craze"—Edie Gorme recorded a funny song called "Blame It On the Bossa Nova"—with many people in the music business predicting that it would soon fade.

But it never did. It was simply too compelling a style of music—with the ability to convey joy and sadness, sometimes in the same measure. The late harmonica player Toots Thielemans, who played a great deal of bossa nova in the latter half of his career, used to describe his music as being "in the space between a smile and a tear." That’s bossa nova.

To this day, those early Jobim songs—not just "Girl from Ipanema," but "Waters of March," "Dindi," "Desafinado" and many others—have become part of the standard cabaret and jazz repertoire. And the bossa nova sound, with its lyrical guitar chords and samba-like rhythms, has become incorporated into all sorts of music. John Pizzarelli, the jazz guitarist, recently recorded Paul McCartney's "My Valentine" as a bossa nova tune. Joyce Moreno, a great Brazilian singer, has recorded "My Favorite Things" in the bossa nova style.

For those with a little more time on their hands, here is the complete medley that Sinatra and Jobim sang on that television show in 1967. Try not to let the cigarette distract you.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. In America, he’s Antonio Carlos Jobim, but in Brazil everybody, but everybody, calls him “Tom.” Even Rio’s airport, which was named for him in 1999, five years after his death, is the “RIOgaleao Tom Jobim International Airport.”

  2. Of course this is also the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’” which, as it happens, would beat out Sinatra-Jobim for the Grammy that year.

To contact the author of this story:
Joe Nocera at jnocera3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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