I must confess: I adore Brazilian jazz. Its seductive lyrics, exotic percussion, and gorgeous chord changes combine to make Brazilian jazz one of the most romantic — and unappreciated — music genres. Artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim have been unfairly dismissed as creators of “lounge music,” a bachelor pad soundtrack frequently lampooned in films like Austin Powers. Instead, the genre should be acknowledged as being a sophisticated combination of world music and jazz.
In 1994, Brazilian jazz legend Jobim passed away. One year later, one of his most ardent fans and occasional collaborators, Michael Franks, expressed his sorrow and admiration by releasing Abandoned Garden, a moving and exquisite tribute to his longtime friend. Best known for quirky songs like “Popsicle Toes,” Franks has maintained a steady output of albums filled with jazz and pop influences, set to eccentric but intelligent lyrics. While Franks has recorded a steady stream of quality albums, Abandoned Garden remains his most heartfelt, personal, and lovely work.
The CD’s first track, “This Must Be Paradise,” sets the tone for the rest of the album. The soft strumming of the guitar melds into Franks’s voice, which croons: “See that shadow cross the mountain/summer in the warbler’s eyes/beauty never is forgotten/though the moment passes by.” Immediately the listener is drawn into a sort of alternate universe filled with natural beauty, where time comes to a virtual standstill. “Bird of Paradise” vividly paints a picture of a private beach, clear water, and a beautiful woman by his side. It could be seen as a continuation of Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema.” “Hourglass,” a delicate ballad, perfectly exemplifies Franks’ superior lyricism. Does it describe a love affair or musings on the nature of time? The beautiful acoustic guitar, melded with quiet piano, adds to the song’s romantic atmosphere.
Franks picks up the tempo a bit with “A Fool’s Errand” and “Cinema,” the latter being one of my favorite tracks. “Cinema” depicts a woman finding her true love, but the language evokes a movie. “Love never lasted off screen… losing each new leading man/to those unhappy endings” Franks narrates. Like many of his songs, this one has a happy ending: “Enter the one/that the author created especially for her/the focus blurs/the composer writes strings,” a perfect summary of a typical romantic comedy.