NEW YORK Legendary, temperamental bossa nova singer/songwriter João Gilberto was 20 minutes late for a date Friday night in sold-out Carnegie Hall, where concerts usually proceed with military precision.
"You're no more nervous than I am," jazz-festival producer/emcee George Wein admitted to the audience, as everyone awaited Gilberto.
They were patient. It had been two years since Gilberto's last New York performance, which followed a 10-year wait from the previous one.
"João is João," Wein shrugged.
Gilberto whose new album, João Voz e Violão (João Voice and Guitar), recently hit stores was apparently a half-block away at his hotel, waiting for a car that was blocked by a presidential motorcade. He wouldn't walk.
Forty minutes later, a flustered-looking little man in a dark suit hustled to the center of the enormous, barren Carnegie Hall stage. He mumbled something about locking his glasses in his hotel room, sat down and began to strum "Doralice," which he first recorded in 1960, when the airy, sinuous bossa nova style had gone no further than Brazil, the country of its origin.
Casting A Spell
It took Gilberto a little while to settle in as he performed "Samba de Una Nota Sô" (One Note Samba), an early classic by the Brazilian singer/songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim; "Voê Vai Ver" (RealAudio excerpt), a late Jobim classic Gilberto had recently recorded for the first time; and seven other tunes.
Then, during "O Pato," a silly, 40-year-old anthem to a duck, the magic began.
The 69-year-old Gilberto head down, eyes averted began to weave a spell. It was a bittersweet glow produced by the singer's husky voice whispering the Portuguese lyrics, his time-twisting guitar strum, those magnificent melodies and the allure of the bossa nova as played by its true progenitor.
As Jobim once described Gilberto's approach to bossa nova, "He was pulling the guitar in one way and singing the other way, which created a third thing that was profound."
A reticent man whose concerts usually conclude after a tidy 80 minutes and whose albums usually top off at an even half-hour, Gilberto began to pour himself into the performance in a way that seemed unusually generous.
One gem followed another: "Estate," a beautiful ballad, sung in Italian; "Um Abraço no Bonfa," an instrumental that fully revealed his famous "stammering guitar" style, the downward thumb pattern like the bass of samba's surdo drum, the upward pluck like a section of samba tambourines; "S'Wonderful," the Gershwin chestnut sung in charming, heavily accented English ("glamorous" and "amorous" rhymed with "goose"); "Desafinado" (RealAudio excerpt), the Jobim standard and bossa nova watermark; and "Wave," another Jobim favorite.
He sashayed through his musical career, performing both rarities and familiar numbers.
After the great "Rosa Morena," his 25th song, Gilberto rose abruptly, bowed quickly and disappeared.
'João Is João'
Appreciative whoops and hollers brought Gilberto back to the Carnegie stage for an encore. He sat down and the spell continued with Dorival Caymmi's wonderful carnival song, "Samba da Minha Terra." It was followed by more songs, another mumbled apology about losing his glasses and more songs.
As Carnegie Hall's strict 11 o'clock curfew approached, Gilberto, like his audience, sat spellbound. The delicious "Tim Tim por Tim Tim" was the 30th song of the night; the magnificent "Corcovado" was 31.
And then George Wein, again looking nervous, found a mic and bellowed, "Ladies and gentlemen, João Gilberto!"
A startled Gilberto jumped perceptibly. He shrugged, smiled wanly and wandered into the wings.
Tropicalia star Caetano Veloso, who produced João Voz e Violão would agree that, if nothing else, "João is João."
The new record marks the 15th album of Gilberto's career counting live albums, appearances on Stan Getz albums, everything. Caetano wanted his hero to record songs he'd never recorded, with new arrangements by Jacques Morelenbaum. Gilberto, on the other hand, wanted to re-record his classics, solo.
In the end, the album featured five re-recordings, five new performances, no Morelenbaum and is exactly 30 minutes long.
"He may seem hard to deal with," Veloso said, "but we have to take into consideration that tension, long delays and doubts are part of his nature."