Expanding your Bossa Nova repertoire

If you’re a jazz pianist, you probably enjoy playing bossa novas. What are your personal favorites? For myself, I like playing the old standard “Play, Fiddle, Play” as a bossa, but that’s kind of evading the question, isn’t it? I mean, what are your favorite “real” bossas?

If you’re just getting into Latin styles, you may know The Girl From Ipanema and Corcovado, both written by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Another jam session favorite is Blue Bossa, which was composed by an American jazz musician, Kenny Dorham. If you’ve been playing for a while, you’ve possibly learned a few more, like Dindi, Meditation, and Desafinado. Perhaps you’ve gone even further and discovered a more rarely-played bossa or two, like Jobim’s Zingaro or Wayne Shorter’s Ana Maria (another of my all-time favorites).

Just like the world of jazz standards, the real vastness of the bossa repertoire is merely hinted at in players’ repertoires. Yes, there are some musicians who specialize in it, but most of us learn the common bossas and maybe a few that we’re particularly interested in.

Im not an expert in Brazilian music at all, but I’ll get an occasional glimpse into how wide and deep it is when I play with some of my Brazilian colleagues, like percussion extraordinaire Nanny Assis.

I’m also getting a chance to learn (and re-learn!) some new bossas as I make my way through The Real Book, song by song. This week I made a video of Jobim’s classic “Agua de Beber (Water To Drink)” which I hadn’t played much in the past. I had fun checking out the various versions on Youtube to get a better sense of the tune’s history and some of the musical approaches that players have taken with it over the years.

Here’s a beautiful rendition by vocalist Astrud Gilberto:
Aqua de Beber

She’s definitely one of the authentic sources to go to when you’re learning a bossa!

Now have a listen to the tune played by the composer himself, Antonio Carlos Jobim:
Aqua de Beber

Although in general you can’t get much more “authentic” than a song’s composer, we have to keep in mind that Jobim often arranged his tunes for radio play and as “hits.” So even though his arrangements are great, they’re not always the best to imitate if you’re coming at the music from a jazz background. I love his piano playing, though, especially the “free” piano intro on this video!

For a jazzier but still Brazilian take on the song, we can go to a live concert by pianist Eliane Elias. It’s wonderful to hear a trio play as “in sync” with one another as they do here:
Agua de Beber

I think the best approach is to watch all these videos and some others as you practice the tune yourself. Listen to them carefully, and then “let it go” as you play the song from your heart. Here’s what I came up with when I sat down to play it:
Agua de Beber

I hope you enjoy the process of discovering new bossa novas as you gradually expand your Brazilian repertoire and dive in deeper to this beautiful and vibrant music. Jobim’s “Agua do Beber” is the 5th tune in the Real Book and is a great place to start. Have fun!

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