Looking back at The Astrud Gilberto Album at 55
She was everywhere. On transistor radios faintly heard at poolside, drifting on the charcoal smoke at backyard barbecues, on the hi-fi at make-out parties.
By contrast, anything else that summer was a kind of racket, a liberating noise: the British groups, the car songs, the girls in love’s thrall (“People Say”) or in lonely despair [“(Remember) Walking In The Sand”]. As so many have noted, it was the first summer after JFK was killed in Dallas; people wanted to dance, and scream, and drive fast. That June of 1964, Rudi Gernreich’s invention, the topless swimsuit, was featured in Look magazine, and although no one anyone knew was brazen enough to test it out in public, the idea of its existence was enough. It was a topless beach of the mind. You hear “The Girl from Ipanema” now, and you can still smell the Coppertone, still feel the grains of sand in your Keds, still see the older girls in their daring bikinis. If they knew their effect on the boys—and they must have—they didn’t show it. They walked on by, and were watched so sadly.
That’s all she did. She walked. The story goes that Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes first saw her one day when she was on her way to school, then on the beach, and were in a trance. You can imagine that she had the coltish, blasé beauty that only certain nineteen-year-old girls possess (some sources say she was fifteen), and so they wrote a song about her, “Garota de Ipanema.” The song bounced around for a couple of years in little-known (but quite nice) versions until Stan Getz and João Gilberto cut it, with a vocal assist from Gilberto’s (and later Getz’s) wife Astrud, who’s the observer, the narrator (singing the English lyrics by Norman Gimbel).
Part of the Portuguese lyrics are translated like this:
Ah, why am I so lonely?
Ah, why everything is so sad?
Ah, the beauty that is out there!
The beauty that is not just mine
that also goes by alone
It’s not the loneliness you feel when you’re alone; it’s the loneliness of seeing “the beauty that is out there!” and not being able to grasp it. “The Girl from Ipanema” is sexy—that melody is a slow-motion reverie—but it’s also about that wide gap. You could say, I suppose, that Jobim and Moraes were voyeurs, the way they followed the girl (Heloisa Pinto was her name) around and captured her golden youth for posterity, but nothing about the song feels creepy, not even when sung by a man, as it has been over and over again (Sinatra most gracefully, and also by singers as diverse as Alex Chilton, Chris Montez, and Lou Rawls). The song stumbles only when a female singer does it as “The Boy From Ipanema,” which is just dopey. As James Woodall writes in his terrific essay in Lives of the Great Songs, the gender flip “makes nonsense of the lyric…This is not a song that survives a sex change.” Astrud (like the other girls who stick to the script, including Cher and Amy Winehouse) isn’t a part of the story; she’s evoking a scene, watching the men watching the girl, amused by the male gaze, maybe from another spot on the beach—this lovely, oblivious girl, and the guys’ unspoken admiration
This is what is going on, she explains: this girl who walks to the sea as though listening to a private rhythm of a samba is catching everyone’s eye, but one guy’s in particular. He can’t approach her, and she doesn’t notice him, and that’s the song. Gilberto’s vocal and Getz’s saxophone seem tuned to the same sensual frequency. He matches her hush with the softest sax solo that’s like the musical embodiment of a summer wind. Or like a foreshadowing of the Eric Rohmer film Le Genou de Claire, which has the same type of sun-kissed laziness and admiration from afar.
And with all the commotion that was going on around her, phase two of Beatlemania and all that followed in those insane six months after the group landed in New York City, the Getz/Gilberto album was in everyone’s home; it was the hip LP for parents to have, and the single was on the radio all the time. When the Grammys came around, “The Girl from Ipanema” was Record of The Year (other nominees: “Downtown” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand”), and Getz/Gilberto won Album of the Year, the first time a jazzy album took that prize (alas, Astrud lost in her category). Bossa nova, the slinky sound from Brazil that had begun to seduce American ears with Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado,” from their 1962 Grammy-nominated album Jazz Samba, was now a full-blown craze.
Once Getz/Gilberto swayed into ubiquity, the second U.S. wave of Bossa Nova started in earnest. In May 1965, fifty-five years ago, Verve Records released The Astrud Gilberto Album. It is, along with the Sinatra-Jobim collaboration of 1967, one of the essential documents of Bossa nova; Jobim is by Astrud’s side on guitar, and he is the composer of all but one of the album’s tracks (the charming Dorival Caymmi song “…And Roses and Roses”). With the sensuous arrangements of Marty Paich, and the subtle woodwinds of Bud Shank, these classic songs—“Once I Loved,” “Meditation,” How Insensitive,” “Dindi”—are like reflective interior monologues. Gilberto’s singing had its precedents, like the intimate murmurs of Françoise Hardy and Julie London, but in this context, it felt almost impressionistic, the gentlest of brushstrokes. It became a thing, this conspiratorial whisper, girls trying to under-sing each other. In ’65, Wanda de Sah, a singer in Sergio Mendes’s group, released an album called Softly! (why the exclamation point?); Doris Day did a few Jobim songs on Latin for Lovers; Chris Connor cut Sings Gentle Bossa Nova; Joni James chimed in with Bossa Nova Style (“Once I Loved” and “Dindi” appear on that one). (It must be said that not all attempts to ride the ’65 wave made sense, as one listen to Connie Francis’s “Bossa Nova Hand Dance” makes clear.)
Every record label, it seemed, needed to grab a strip of beach after “Ipanema,” and Warner Brothers signed Jobim (who had previously made an instrumental album for Verve in the wake of Getz and Byrd’s hit “Desfinado”) in 1965. Warners paired him with arranger Nelson Riddle for The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim, released a few months after The Astrud Gilberto Album. In a way, the two are musical companions; they share a sensibility—like Paich, Riddle took the opportunity to create a string-laden soundscape (“the Brazilian Mood,” as the Jobim LP’s subtitle tells us)—and a few songs. Neither album revisits “The Girl from Ipanema,” and why should they? That girl had moved on. But Jobim singing for the first time on record (other than joining Astrud on her version of “Agua de Beber”), offers other objects of desire, on “She’s a Carioca” (“Here she comes,” Jobim announces, “Just see the way she walks”), on “Bonita,” written, Ruy Castro’s book Bossa Nova says, for seventeen-year old Candice Bergen (“What magic words would capture you? Like a soft evasive mist you are”), on “Useless Landscape,” which Sinatra recorded as “If You Never Come to Me”:
What’s the use of the waves that will break
In the cool of the evening
What is the evening
When Getz’s quartet featuring Astrud came to New York City in that “Ipanema” summer of ’64, Gilberto sang Jobim songs, of course (“Corcovado,” “One Note Samba”), but the album from that engagement, Getz Au Go Go, also includes “It Might as Well Be Spring” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. Getz blows a few notes, and Astrud mimics them, “dee-dee-doo-doo.” She’s as restless as a wee-low in a weend-storm, she sings, and it’s delightful how perfect this is, with the Brazilian touch (Kenny Burrell plays guitar on this track), how it fits in with the breezy melancholia of her Jobim covers, Gilberto as the ingénue, “starry-eyed and vaguely discontented.” Picture her; she is only a few feet away, taking everything in, singing her quiet songs of quiet nights, of foolish, distracted men, and of vague discontentment.