Feature/Interview

Fred Thomas on João Gilberto

Fred Thomas (*) has just taken advantage of a quiet period spent in Paraguay to write a superb and detailed long essay on João Gilberto for his website. It amounts to a fascinating and deep re-appraisal of the Brazilian legend, drawing on Fred Thomas’ own wide range of musical reference points. As he writes in the conclusion:

“We have so much to learn from him: about self-imposing restrictions on our art forms, about creating upper and lower limits, about making clear-minded stylistic decisions, about creating enclosed systems within which freedom nevertheless flourishes, about the inexhaustible elasticity of phrasing, about the relaxation of grooves, about the boundaries of interpretation, about deep listening, about minutiae and extremes, about simultaneity, about process and its relationship to content, about humility, restraint, minimalism and obsession.” Interview by Sebastian:

Fred Thomas. Photo credit: Jean-Paul Dumas-Grillet

LondonJazz News: From the obvious passion with which you write about João Gilberto, you must have been thinking about his music for quite some time….

Fred Thomas: Even though I first heard his music when I was 16, it was only by writing this essay that I was forced to really think deeply and analytically about him. As a teenager I learnt the songs by ear and learnt to sing in Portuguese phonetically. I made a lot of mistakes of course. Throughout my life I always came back to him in the summertime, when I was travelling around and maybe only had a guitar available. I’ve had quite a few João phases, so his ways of thinking and playing have seeped in and had a huge impact on how I make music. When I started the piece I found that I had quite a lot of things to write about.

LJN: The “ inexhaustible elasticity of phrasing” is something you evoke very well. What is the best example?

FT: The amazing thing is that you can hear that quality on every single recording João made. It was just in his bones – he couldn’t help it. At the same time it was very deliberate and that’s proved by his fixation with displacing melodies. This is quite a strong statement, but I can’t think of anyone who went deeper when it comes to phrasing. And it’s kind of paradoxical that it’s because he himself is the accompanist that he was able to go so deep. Perhaps my favourite example of elasticity is one I mentioned in my essay: “Besame Mucho” live with Caetano Veloso in Buenos Aires. That it’s such a jaded song makes João’s transformation that much more special. Alongside Caetano, there’s a kind of ‘God + disciple’ situation, and you get to hear the huge difference between the two of them. João is just so free and in control. How he spins out the melody just blows my mind.

LJN: And do you think that is something that comes from “nature” or “nurture”, or where does it come from?

FT: It’s absolutely a combination of both. João had a crazy talent, particularly for dividing his brain in two and separating his voice and guitar. Even if you really analyse it, the independence he pulled off is kind of hard to explain. But just imagine the amount of amazing music he must have come into contact with growing up in Bahia in the 1930s and 40s. One of my favourite albums of all time is a compilation called Bresil – Le Chant Du Nordeste 1928-1950. And, possibly most important of all, he practised his ass off obsessively, probably his whole life.

LJN: You describe and analyse complex processes. Are we wrong to think of what João Gilberto does as instinctive, unforced, natural?

FT: He was definitely instinctive, but then all musicians are. Listening to his music I don’t get the feeling that he gave instinct any special status – it all seems very considered to me. Did he prioritise instinct above, say, research, practise or meticulousness? I doubt it. His sense of taste probably was very instinctive, but he combined that with heavy listening to other artists and hours of refinement. As to ‘unforced’ and ’natural’, I think you’ve hit on something by combining those two words. In fact, the magic of João is that he makes very forced things seem natural. For example, he forces melodies out of their original placement or phrasing, often to the point where they no longer synchronise logically with the chords. But he does so in such a gracious way that it appears natural. That trick is extremely rare.

LJN: You have not actually used the word genius in the essay – surely he was one?

FT: That wasn’t deliberate, but I don’t find that word particularly helpful when you’re trying to understand something. It might be hard, but I do think his music is, in principle, understandable. If we accept the word in its earthbound sense of ‘insanely talented’, then of course he was. His particular genius lay in knowing how to delineate and limit his artistic boundaries to then seek total freedom of phrasing within them. Alongside Bach, Lester Young, Orlando Gibbons, Lee Konitz, Schubert and a couple more, João is right up there in my fantastical pantheon of imaginary music Gods.

(*) Fred Thomas is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer with a wide-ranging career. He recently made his ECM debut on the album “Lost Ships” with Elina Duni, Rob Luft and Mathieu Michel. Full biography HERE

LINK: The full essay on Fred Thomas’ website

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