Charlie Byrd is among the people most responsible for importing the breezy, easy sound of Brazilian bossa nova to the USA in the 1960s. In fact, his recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado” was the hit that ushered in America’s love affair with all things tropical. Although his reputation has been eclipsed over time, Byrd himself continued refining his bossa nova sound for nearly forty years until his death in 1999 after a long battle with cancer.
In some ways, Byrd was ideally suited to be one of the foremost ambassadors for Brazilian music. Although nominally a jazz musician (and one who had met and actually played with Django Reinhardt), he parted ways with the jazz world for a time in the late 1940s to learn classical guitar at the feet of the legendary Andres Segovia, probably the greatest classical guitarist of all time. Although a fine guitarist with his own distinctive style, it is not slighting Byrd to observe that he retained echoes of both Segovia’s and Reinhardt’s styles. Blessed with a keen ear for melody and the tight technical rigor of a student of Segovia, Byrd meshed jazz improvisation with understated classical touches; it is not clear whether he is responsible for American bossa nova’s trademark sound or the other way around.
In 1994, Byrd took the stage at the 26th Concord Jazz Festival to play an entire set of tunes written by the legendary Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim. Accompanied by Ken Peplowski on clarinet, Hendrick Muerkens on harmonica, Allen Farnham on piano, Bill Douglass on bass, Michael Spiro on percussion and Chuck Redd on drums, Byrd and company get straight to the heart of the balance of hot and cool that make Jobim’s compositions such classics of the bossa nova style.
I don’t think Antonio Carlos Jobim gets enough respect. The songwriter who most reminds me of Jobim is, oddly, Hoagie Carmichael, whose melodies always seemed absurdly simple but were in reality works of elegant genius. Think about it; “Heart and Soul, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and “Little Brown Jug” are constructed of simple scalar movements and small leaps such as any novice pianist could come up with by accident. But once you get “Heart and Soul” stuck in your head, nothing can get it out again. The melody is indestructible.
The same goes for many of Jobim’s finest songs, which seem at first glance to be little more than languid two-note musings played at low volume. But when you look closer, simple little tunes like “Favela,” “Desafinado” or the ubiquitous “Girl from Ipanema” prove to be rich and lovely compositions full of raw material for interpretation or improvisation; they are the Gettysburg Address of the jazz world.
Bossa nova as a genre seems to thrive on languid understatement, and bossa nova musicians can never seem like they’re trying very hard. In the hands of amateurs, this can mean endless minutes of being cool with a horn in their hands while the player puts everyone around him to sleep. But the best bossa nova players can raise heaven and hell while never rising above a light and airy mezzo forte .
It is clear from Homage to Jobim that Charles Byrd is one of those players. Throughout the set, he and the group don’t so much deconstruct Jobim’s tunes (as many players might do) as inhabit and elaborate upon them. Jobim’s simple, bouncy tunes mutate as they pass from soloist to soloist from a few simple notes into sheets of sound, long and complex but still elegant. Bossa nova is a genre not well suited to grand gestures, but by the time the band get to their closer, “Watch What Happens,” they have built some serious momentum.
Some selections do sag a little, thanks in part to the rhythmic uniformity of the bossa nova sound (dit DIT, dit DAH, dit DIT dit; dit DIT, dit DAH, dit DIT dit, etcetera). Also, the clarinet and harmonica are not to my ears natural choices with which to get Brazilian, and sometimes the soloists move into statements that are a bit too pat, too cloying, or too twee. Given that Jobim wrote sweet melodies to begin with, this leads the band at times to indulge in a musical sugar overload.
But nothing can get in the way of good musicians playing good material. It seems as though Charlie Byrd was born to play Jobim, and despite the occasional twee moment, Homage to Jobim: Live at the Fujitsu-Concord 26th Jazz Festival is a graceful and lovely memorial to a great Latin jazz songwriter and a great guitarist.
Homage to Jobim is now available on Concord Picante.