Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd | Jazz Samba (April 1962)
MGM / Verve (USA)
Jazz / Bossa Nova – 33:12
“I don’t even know my name yet.”
I often wonder what it would be like to be responsible for creating a moment in the zeitgeist which lives on far beyond my years. How does it feel to be the person who wrote that song or directed that film which becomes genre-defining? Is there something special about those people who change the way we watch, read or listen? There are times that exist before certain songs, books or movies existed, and yet it becomes impossible to remember them. What was it that inspired someone to do something differently and, in doing so, alter the course of culture?
One of the things I have seen over the last year, as I began to explore these albums, was that nothing is produced in a vacuum. True, when something big hits, it is possible to assume that one single person has created a whole new concept in music that has never been seen before. There are certainly aspects of certain musicians which clearly show a great talent. But more often than not, it is not even a case of connecting the dots; rather, it is a case of hearing something which is little heard and introducing it to a new audience. By bringing their own background to these ideas, adding perhaps a slight twist, it appears to those who aren’t in the know – the majority of the listeners, in many cases – that something radical has happened. In reality, it has only been a small step – but the small step seems huge to the rest of the world, as it tries to catch up.
To the modern ear, more than 50 years after the event, Bossa Nova seems perhaps passe. It is so closely associated with the cheesy listening of the late 1960s and 1970s, that it is impossible to remember a time when it would have sounded radical. Mention the style to people of a certain age and the image which springs to mind is Mike Myers’ Austin Powers dancing to Quincey Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova. But when Jazz Samba was released as the first major bossa nova record in America back in 1962, it came like a breath of fresh air to the jazz scene. Yet the sound had already been popular in Brazil for a number of years and, while seeming to be something new, in reality was simply picking up on a musical style that had existed elsewhere since at least the 1950s.
That’s not to take anything away from the music itself. Guitarist Charlie Byrd had developed an interest in Brazilian music and, in 1961, was introduced to the sound of bossa nova during a tour of the country. He decided he wanted to arrange an album of music based on the style, bringing in saxophonist Stan Getz as the soloist. The resulting album, Jazz Samba, started a huge craze across America for this “new” sound. The album begins with the wonderful strains of Desafinado, a song which takes you to the heated evening streets of Rio. As the sax begins its soulful moan across the top of the snare drum, this languid track evokes an image of lazy evenings in a cafe along the beach front. To my ears, bossa nova is very much mood music; it creates a soundtrack to dinner parties and nights outside under the stars. Jazz Samba does nothing to diminish this idea.
Things speed up for the second track, Samba Dees Days, but not so much to take you out of the mood which the opener has created. The saxophone playing of Gertz is tremendous and dominates the numbers here; a shame as the drumming and guitar playing underneath are equally exquisite. The joyful O Pato keeps the feet tapping along; this is music with the aim of keeping your body moving, even as you feel it relax. It is too laid back to dance to but won’t let itself slip unnoticed by either. The guitar brings to mind the playing of Django Reinhardt’s playing in the 1920s and 30s; again, the myth of these styles appearing out of nowhere can be quickly dismissed once you learn to hear how the sound has developed over time.
A Spanish feeling number, Samba Triste, and the smokey Samba De Uma Nota So, perhaps slow down the album a little too much, and by the final two tracks, there is a distinct feeling that you have started to hear it all before. This does not stop the numbers from being very easy to listen to, gently swirling into your ears. But it does mean that Jazz Samba is not album which readily calls you back for more. Once heard, it will remain a favourite for playing on a chilled out evening with friends; background music to fill the gaps between chatter. But, despite its claim to bringing a new genre to the ears of the music buying public in the USA – and, for that matter, the UK – it cannot ever attain real greatness.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Jazz Samba here:
Next time: Night Life by Ray Price