Review Beginner’s Guide To Bossa Nova

A flawed three-disc sampler that suffers from poor track selection

Every musical genre has its standard flagbearers: for jazz it’s Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Duke. Rock’s got Dylan, Hendrix, Lennon, just to name a few heavy weights. I’m always wary of musical genre or stylistic compilations – how can anyone honestly compile the Best Of Hip Hop? – but at least these collections guarantee a few tracks by definitive artists who have become synonymous with the genre in question. Here’s where the three-disc sampler Beginner’s Guide To Bossa Nova seriously fails to deliver.

It’s hard to imagine a 48-track overview of the influential Brazilian movement without at least one recording by Joao Gilberto, whose Chega De Saudade (1959) is widely considered the first bossa nova album, but here you have it. Key figures like Luiz Bonfa, Tom Jobim, Dorival Caymmi, Vinicious De Moraes, Astrud Gilberto, Elis Regina, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Nara Leão were also not invited to this disappointing musical party.

My guess is the compilers of Beginner’s Guide To Bossa Nova, who also brought us Beginner’s Guide To African Funk, Beginner’s Guide To Salsa, and the must-have Beginners Guide To Lounge & Exotica, were limited in their selection due to copywrite constraints. All 48 tracks were “pulled from the vaults of the legendary EMI/Odeon label;” in other words, the selections were not based on the importance, relevance or brilliance of each track but rather on their legality.

The result is a mediocre run-through of the bossa nova songbook that will leave most listeners disappointed, even confused at times. Most of the classics are here – “Garota de Ipanema,” “Corcovado,” “Agua de Beber,” “Samba de Verão” – but they are not the versions that you’d expect or want to hear on an introductory compilation. Instead of the surreal vocal interplay of Elis & Tom on their classic rendition of “Aguas de Março” from ‘74, you get a choppy instrumental version by Milton Banana Trio, a perfectly nice interpretation but hardly deserving of genre compilation status. What’s more, many classics are spoiled by irksome pop string arrangements and stale vocal performances by crooners like Dick Farney (former host of the Dick Farney Show!).

The collection also suffers from sequencing issues, a common yet avoidable problem with these kinds of samplers. Things start out alright with opening track “Chega De Saudade” by Elizeth Cardoso, a mesmerising recording that rivals that of João Gilberto. The first four tracks hold up well as examples of early bossas performed in a more operatic vocal style; then out of nowhere we get a quasi-experimental and vocal-less version of “E Luxo Só,” a killer track but one that completely alters the flow of the album.

This happens throughout the compilation – as soon as a certain flow is established it is interrupted by something that feels out of place, be it a live recording or experiment bordering on the avant garde. Three songs, “Balanço Zona Sul,” “Primavera,” and “Onde Anda O Meu Amor” are placed back to back with their respective second version. How, then, can they justify including just one recording of “Garota De Ipanema,” the most covered Brazilian song of all time?

That’s not to say it’s all bad news, and for the price (£5/$12.99 on Amazon), Beginner’s Guide to Bossa Nova may be a worthwhile investment for some. There are plenty of stellar tracks in here that casual fans may not have heard before: Claudia’s “Deixa Eu Dizer” is a soulful 70s cha cha that brings to mind Gal Gosta’s work from the same period; Quarteto Novo’s polyrhythmic “Misturada” is as impressive now as it as was in 1967.

Oddly, many of the most interesting tracks on the compilation are also the least representative of the genre and can hardly be considered bossa nova at all, as is the case with Wilson Simonal’s off-beat “Nem Vem Que Não Tem,” which almost sounds like the Brazilian cousin of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. If you are a bossa nova beginner in search of a guide, this collection is not for you, though it may serve to introduce fans to some lesser known figures in the movement.

Beginner’s Guide To Bossa Nova is released by Nascente Records and is available from Amazon and other music retailers.

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