Interview: Ithamara Koorax (Part 1)
In 1958, the bossa nova began to expand beyond Brazil and attract international attention, particularly in the U.S. While jazz artists here began adapting the Brazilian folk beat in the 1950s and early 1960s, the bossa nova didn't become a bona fide sensation until the release of Getz/Gilberto in 1964. On that album, Stan Getz was joined by two bossa nova stars, pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and guitarist Joao Gilberto. Today, of the pair, only Gilberto survives. So last year, when Brazilian singer Ithamara Koorax was contemplating her next CD, she decided to pay tribute to Gilberto, whose debut album was released in 1959.
Bim Bom: The Complete Joao Gilberto Songbook is Ithamara's 11th solo release and the result of her life-long affection for the composer's hushed melodies and beat. If you're unfamiliar with Ithamara, she is a throwback to the days of graceful and poised Brazilian singers, when conveying passion and vulnerability mattered most of all. Ithamara's voice has the girlish breathlessness of early bossa nova singers but also the brash confidence and stamina that today's modern vocal style demands.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Ithamara, 44, the Brazilian singer talks about Joao Gilberto's importance, why the guitarist did not record on her tribute album, why she chose to record with guitarist Juarez Moreira, and the process she uses to learn songs before singing them:
JazzWax: Why did you decide to record an album of Joao Gilberto's compositions?
Ithamara Koorax: Guitarist Joao Gilberto [pictured] is the most important living legend on the Brazilian music scene. Along with pianist Joao Donato, he's the last living genius of the bossa nova era. So, after recording with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonf, Dom Um Romao and Joao Donato, I felt it was only natural that I turn to Gilberto in terms of a tribute album. I grew up listening to Gilberto's recordings, including the album Cano do Amor Demais by singer Elizete Cardoso. The 1958 LP featured the single Chega de Saudade, now known as No More Blues. Gilberto played the new rhythmic beat behind her, and the single is considered the first pure bossa nova recording.
JW: Why is Gilberto called the Bossa Nova Pope?"
IK: Because he was the one who invented the style. Of course there were others who inspired him, like Luiz Bonfa and Garoto, another great guitarist who is still little known outside Brazil. But Gilberto [pictured] was the one who developed the bossa nova beat on the guitar. My producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro played me a few Joao Donato recordings from the mid-50s on which you can hear a very similar beat played by the pianist on the accordion. Nevertheless, Gilberto was the one who mixed all the elements together--the rhythmic guitar beat, the soft singing style and the complex harmonies. It's that mix that became known as the bossa nova.
JW: How does Gilberto differ from other great Brazilian composers?
IK: I don't feel I'm able to translate his whole creative concept into words. But it's something magical that transcends music. The way his harmonies move and the way he develops his harmonic changes--they remain unmatched.
JW: And yet you covered all of his compositions in your new CD.
IK: Yes, Gilberto wrote only 11 songs--at least the only compositions that he and other artists have recorded. I decided to put all of them together on one CD. Of course I know that Gilberto has created some other pieces, some pretty tunes that he calls guitar miniatures." But he says they are unfinished business" and would never allow me or anyone else to record them. He is an obsessive perfectionist, and he considers such unrecorded songs as mere sketches, not finished songs.
JW: Why do you think Gilberto hasn't recorded more of his own compositions?
IK: Gilberto is such a creative interpreter that he winds up becoming an unofficial co-author" of any song he chooses to sing and record. He says that's the reason he never felt compelled to write hundreds of songs. He has always said he knows hundreds of great songs that already exist that he's satisfied trying to improve or re-do in his own style. [Pictured: Gilberto with his then wife Astrud Gilberto]
JW: For example?
IK: Look what he did with Estate, an Italian pop song recorded by Bruno Martino in 1960. Before Gilberto's interpretation of the song on his album Amoroso in 1977, nobody knew the song in the U.S. The song wasn't even popular in Italy, where it originated. Joao turned it into a universal jazz standard. Which is proof that he performs musical miracles [laughs].
JW: What's the origin of Gilberto's song Bim Bom, the title track of your new album?
IK: The song was first recorded in 1958 as the B-side of a 78-rpm single that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim's Chega de Saudade (also now known as No More Blues) on the A-side. Chega de Saudade was a hit and remains beautiful. But Bim Bom was much more intriguing and modern, and ahead of its time. At the time, most people other than musicians didn't pay much attention to it. They couldn't understand such a strange song. Another wonderful tune by Gilberto, Voce Esteve Com Meu Bem, was composed in 1953 and still sounds unbelievably modern.
JW: Did you use song sheets or other artists' recordings to learn the melodies for your new album?
IK: For half of the material I turned to Claus Ogerman's piano parts from a recording Joao Donato made with Claus in 1965 called The New Sound of Brazil. The songs, Forgotten Places and Glass Beads were co-written by Gilberto and Donato specifically for that album. So I made copies of the lead sheets and gave them to the great Brazilian guitarist Juarez Moreira, who adapted them for voice and guitar on Bim Bom.
JW: When did you and guitarist Moreira meet?
IK: We met a few years ago. In addition to being a fantastic musician, Juarez also is a huge fan of Gilberto. He told me he grew up listening to his father's Gilberto recordings. He learned most of them by ear when he was in his teens.
JW: You've sung a few of Gilberto's songs before.
IK: Oh, yes, of course. I sang Ho-Ba-La-La on my debut gig as a professional singer in January 1990 at a place called Rio Jazz Club. Since then it has become part of my repertoire in performances. But I had never recorded it before. As for Minha Saudade, I've recorded it on two different albums that were popular in Japan and in Europe. One is Wave 2001, an acid-jazz session recorded in Tokyo in 1996, and the other is Bossa Nova Meets Drum 'n' Bass, an electronic project for the jazz dance-floor market recorded in New York in 1998. But both sound very different from my new acoustic reading.
JW: Your singing approach on Gilberto's songs is mostly wordless. Is that because his songs don't have lyrics?
IK: Yes, exactly. But some of them, like Undiu appear as though they have lyrics because of the movement of the sounds. I repeat the same word Undiu throughout the track, and each time the word sounds different. Take a listen and I'm sure you'll hear what I mean. I felt in a kind of hypnotic trance while recording that tune. There's a very special and strong energy there, a very subtle Eastern influence.
JW: Was there ever a plan to invite Gilberto to record this tribute album with you?
IK: I can't deny that I dreamed of recording with him, although not specifically on this album. My producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro [pictured] has been friends with Gilberto for about 30 years. They have worked together on various projects. But I never wanted to take advantage of their professional relationship. Then when I met Juarez, I felt that diving into Gilbert's songbook with a guitarist as sensitive as Juarez would be fun and challenging.
JW: Is Gilberto intimidating?
IK: He doesn't like to do collaborations. Most of his recent albums are solo projects. He currently performs only solo concerts. Even on his albums Amoroso , Brazil  and Joo , which were orchestrated respectively by Claus Ogerman, Johnny Mandel and Clare Fischer, Gilberto recorded his guitar and vocal tracks alone. Then the tapes were sent to the arrangers who added the rhythm sections and later overdubbed the orchestral parts.
JW: Gilberto is quite a mysterious personality.
IK: I know some of the guys who recorded on all of these album projects, and they said it was bizarre and frustrating that they never had an opportunity to meet Gilberto in person, not even at the studio. That's how Gilberto likes to work, which is very different from the way I like to interact with the musicians on my recording dates.
JW: What did Gilberto say when you told him you were going to sing his songs on a tribute album?
IK: Oh, it's a secret [laughs].
JW: Come on!
IK: If you knew Gilberto, you would understand. He's highly eccentric and one of the most exotic, shy and low-profile musicians ever. He even refused to perform on his daughter Bebel's albums.
IK: Decades ago, when Bebel was a child, he sometimes invited her to perform with him during his concerts. But after she started a solo career, it never happened again, and he never recorded on any of her albums.
JW: So what was his reaction to your project?
IK: When Arnaldo told him that we were planning to record the album, Arnaldo said Gilberto smiled and said, Nobody will be interested in releasing a Joao Gilberto songbook." Don't ask me why the great Gilberto thought that [laughs].
JW: What do you feel when you're singing one of Gilberto's songs?
IK: Here's my creative process for any song: I listen to the original recording until I absorb all the elements. Then I start singing the song alone, a cappella, in my home studio. I do this for hours and hours. Sometimes I practice a tune for months. When I feel I have forgotten all that I have learned, I know I'm ready to sing the song live or record it.
IK: I have to ensure that I will not feel hesitation or fear, which will paralyze me. Nothing can compromise the free flow of passion and feelings when I sing.
Tomorrow Ithamara talks about singing with guitarist Juarez Moreira on her new album, working with bossa nova legends Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa on previous projects, the biggest hurdles she faced when singing Joao Gilberto's songs, and the U.S. charity to which all Bim Bom proceeds are being donated.
JazzWax tracks: Ithamara Koorax's Bim Bom: The Complete Joao Gilberto Songbook is a sensual bossa nova album and her finest CD to date. Ithamara's charm and optimism are irrepressible and a perfect fit for Gilberto's spare, smoldering melodies. What's more, Ithamara is joined here only by guitarist Juarez Moreira, who brings enormous technique and tenderness to the Gilberto canon. Together, they patiently tease out the beauty of Gilberto's simplicity in warm, shimmering lines. Bim Bom is available at iTunes and at Amazon here.
Another album by Ithamara with similar tenderness is Obrigado Dom Um Romao (2007). It's available at iTunes and Amazon here. By contrast, Brazilian Butterfly (2006) will give you a taste of Ithamara's stronger vocal style. It's available at iTunes.
JazzWax clip: Here's Joao Gilberto's original recording of Bim Bom in 1958...