There have been a million bossa nova compilations released since the toned-down samba form came into existence in the late 1950s. Through the years, it has not been able to shake its perception as a cute and frivolously breezy soundtrack for cocktail parties. This is largely thanks to the disproportionate attention given to one song, "The Girl From Ipanema", and the moderately talented Astrud Gilberto, who happened to be in the studio when her husband was recording the tune with Stan Getz. From there, bossa as we know it became a very west coast cool jazz sound, codified into a 3-3-4-3-3 rhythmic pattern that was never indigenous to bossa in the first place and represented on collections by the same old five songs—you know them well: "Desafinado", "One Note Samba", "Wave", "Chega De Saudade", and of course, that darned "Girl From Ipanema".
The scene in the 1960s was a lot more interesting than conservative compilers allowed us to know about, until the Acid Jazz scene really started to dig for obscurities in the '80s and '90s, before finally leading to a massive deluge of reissues in the late '90s and early 2000s. During this time, collections of Brazilian rare grooves focused on the impossibly obscure, often, again, missing out on the narrative of bossa nova as it actually developed in Brazil.
John Kong, label boss of Do Right Records, referred to this as a "bossa nova 101" collection, while browsing in our shop on one of his regular visits, and he’s right. What is most interesting is how this is, in my mind, the first of its kind to get it right by avoiding the false clichés of the genre while staying clear of the pitfalls of steering too heavily toward the hopelessly obscure. Having spent hundreds of dollars on this stuff before downloading put an end to the goldrush, most of this is familiar to me, but the sequencing, in-depth liner notes, and impeccable tracklisting from Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker make this an essential reissue for collectors and newcomers alike.
One of the key indicators that this would be a solid set was the inclusion of the criminally overlooked Nara Leão, the beautifully fragile singer who arguably invented MPB (the rich open-minded popular music of Brazil of the past 40 years), and was so beloved by the tropicalistas for her forward-looking musical vision that they adopted it as a model for their progressive movement. (In fact, that’s her on the cover of Tropicalia: Ou Panis A Circenis, in a framed portrait held by Caetano Veloso.) Following her 1964 debut on the Elenco label (whose black, white and red iconography predates Jack White's by decades), she never stood still, constantly developing her style and always having the best choice of tunes; after all, her role as the 'muse of bossa nova' (her bourgeois background and spacious Copacabana apartment allowed her to regularly host most of the major figures of the second wave of bossa, where they would workshop their latest compositions and guitar tricks) put her in a position in which she could be the auteur of her artistic development. The same could never be said about Astrud Gilberto.
Leão’s "Berimbau (Ritmo De Capoeira)" is her only track included, but her influence is all over it, a slightly darker and moodier version of bossa than you might be used to. Edu Lobo, who supported Leão when the bossa scene fractured into a politically progressive wing (represented by Leão and others) and another, more conservative one, shows up here with a version of "Ponteio" that is happily new to me. He’s also got "Aguaverde", one of his many vocalese tracks. The Technicolor arrangements of Roberto Menescal light up the 5/4 "Inverno", while another track in 5, Wanda Sã’s delicious "Adriana", is a surprising but savvy inclusion.
Goodness, I could go on and on about this stuff, but I’ll leave you to dig in yourself. I can only hope that this will set off a rash of reissues of originals that are patiently awaiting a second go at it. For now, please enjoy this absolutely essential 2CD package (alternatively available as two separate double-vinyl volumes), made even better if you pick up the eponymous companion oversize book, which documents the fabulous album art that gave a face to the rise of Brazilian music in the 1960s. Once again, Soul Jazz has set the bar high on this one, making this an early contender for best international reissue of the year.
(Ed. note: We've also just received stock of the single-disc follow-up that supplements/accompanies this set, this time focusing solely on the Elenco roster, titled Brazil Bossa Beat! Bossa Nova and the Story of Elenco Records, Brazil.)