Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Carlos Lyra: 60 Years of Bossa Nova

Carlos Lyra will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his career this year with concerts in several major Brazilian cities and the recording of a live DVD, both mostly likely in September. The singer-guitarist-songwriter is one of bossa nova's key figures and most important composers. João Gilberto recorded three of Lyra's songs—"Maria Ninguém" (Maria Nobody), "Lobo Bobo" (Foolish Wolf) and "Saudade Fez Um Samba" (Saudade Made a Samba*)—on Chega de Saudade (1959), generally regarded as the first bossa nova album. Lyra was one of the first bossa artists to release a solo album, in 1960. And he took the genre in new directions in the early '60s, with polemical lyrics and his involvement in musical theater productions that protested social injustice in Brazil.

Antonio Carlos Jobim praised Lyra as a "great melodist" and "formidable composer," while Marcos Valle commented that Lyra "was the guy who knew how to create bossa nova's most beautiful melodies. Tom [Jobim] was fantastic, with his harmonies and everything, but the melodies of Carlinhos were unbeatable." In the early '60s, Stan Getz, Charlie Byrd, Zoot Sims, Cal Tjader, Herbie Mann, Quincy Jones Vince Guaraldi, Phil Woods, Paul Winter, Lalo Schifrin, Astrud Gilberto, Sérgio Mendes and even Brigitte Bardot recorded Lyra's songs. And Paul Winter performed "Maria Ninguém" at the Kennedy White House in 1962.

Kay Lyra and her father Carlos perform "Você e Eu" on live TV

Despite all this, Lyra's works have had much less of a presence in international jazz and pop recordings since the '60s, as opposed to Jobim, whose compositions are still heavily performed and recorded. In part, this is because Lyra fell out of favor with Brazil's military, which overthrew a democratic government in 1964, and he went into a self-imposed exile from 1964 to 1971. This took him away from the Brazilian recording industry for a long and crucial period in his career, and he spent most of his exile in Mexico, hardly a launching pad for global recognition at the time. Lyra always marched to his own drummer and never put much effort into establishing a career in the U.S., as did Jobim and many other Brazilian musicians. "I never pursued success, not even in Brazil," Lyra comments. "I always pursued quality. My songs, when they were heard, were accepted and recorded by many in the whole world, without my having to ask, do marketing or let go of my life and my tranquility in order to run after success."

As a result of this, Lyra is still a musical hero in Brazil, for his bossa nova classics and for being a symbol of the resistance during the dictatorship, but his catalog of songs lies largely untouched overseas. In the new millennium, Phil Woods and Barbara Casini have covered Lyra's "Você e Eu" (You and I) in 2001, Luciana Souza recorded "Se É Tarde Me Perdoa" (If It's Late, Forgive Me) in 2003, and Rosa Passos interpreted "Lobo Bobo" in 2004. But such efforts are few and far between, and the last ten years have seen an even bigger drought. Jazz and pop artists who appreciate Brazilian music would do well to acquaint themselves with Lyra's work, which is a somewhat undiscovered source of bossa classics, with great melodies and rich harmonies.

Carlos Lyra and Leila Pinheiro perform

"Saudade Fez Um Samba" and "Se É Tarde Me Perdoa."

Lyra was unusual for bossa nova in that he was both a charismatic performer and an acclaimed songwriter; the other principal artists were mostly good at one or the other thing. Jazz saxophonist Paul Winter teamed with Lyra on The Sound of Ipanema album in 1965 and recalls, "He was a little more outgoing than João [Gilberto]. I remember many nights when Carlos just would melt the clothes off every lady in the room. That guy had a magic that probably surpasses that of any other performer I’ve ever known. His music was so alluring and sensual. His melodies are gorgeous, whereas João didn’t write and Jobim didn’t perform a lot."

Lyra started his career precociously. Born in 1936 in Rio de Janeiro, he wrote his first song "Quando Chegares" (When You Arrive) in 1954. The next year, singer Sylvia Telles recorded Antonio Carlos Jobim and Newton Mendonça's "Foi a Noite" (It Was the Night); the other side of the single was the young Lyra's composition "Menina" (Girl). Around this time, he began frequenting the Plaza Bar in the Hotel Plaza in Leme, a neighborhood adjacent to Copacabana. It was a formative site for the creators of bossa nova, a place for the likes of Johnny Alf, Jobim, Gilberto, João Donato, Baden Powell, Sylvia Telles, and Dolores Duran to share musical ideas. 

Jobim, Vinícius, Bôscoli, Menescal and Lyra

In 1956, Lyra opened a guitar academy with high school buddy Roberto Menescal, who would become another major figure in bossa nova. One of their students was a young Nara Leão, whose parent's Copacabana apartment became a favorite spot for jam sessions and who later became one of bossa's most renowned singers. By the next year, singer-guitarist João Gilberto had introduced the bossa nova beat to his musician friends, distilling samba rhythms into a simpler and irresistible pattern and acting as a catalyst for much great songwriting to come. Lyra, though, remembers Gilberto as having introduced his new beat at an earlier date, and doesn't give it as much importance as others do, seeing it as part of bossa's repertoire rather than its essential rhythm.

The new style of music made its public debut with Lyra and others before some two hundred people at Rio's Clube Hebráica (Hebrew Club) in 1957. Either the club's events director or an anonymous secretary billed the night's offerings as "Today, Sylvia Telles, Carlos Lyra and the bossa nova group." From that point on, "bossa nova" became accepted as a label for the new style. Odeon released Gilberto's recordings of "Chega de Saudade" and "Desafinado" in 1958, and the album Chega de Saudade in 1959, the latter produced by Jobim and including three Lyra songs as well as three Jobim tunes in the mix.

But Lyra became fed up with the Odeon label's delay in recording him and others and signed with Philips, for which he recorded his first album Bossa Nova in 1959, released in May 1960. This created a small rupture in bossa nova, with some musicians staying with Odeon, which had been nurturing them for some time and making promises, and others going to Philips.

Also in 1960, Lyra began his collaborations with poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, who replaced Ronaldo Bôscoli as his main songwriting partner. Vinícius was the genre's most important lyricist and Jobim's frequent collaborator, and wrote the words for "Garota de Ipanema." Philips released Lyra's second album Carlos Lyra in 1961, and the next year he appeared on Bossa Nova Mesmo with Sylvia Telles, Vinícius and Oscar Castro-Neves, and Bossa Nova at Carnegie Hall, the live recording of the historic concert that introduced many of bossa's main figures to an American audience.

In front: Carlos Lyra, Nara Leão and Vinícius de Moraes

By 1961, with bossa nova booming in Brazil, Lyra had already begun to take his art in a new direction, co-founding the leftist CPC (The People's Center for Culture) of the UNE (National Student's Union), which sought to create revolutionary popular art and popular art forms to take the masses out of "alienation and submission." The CPC also sought to facilitate interchanges between the culture of the povo (the "people," i.e., the poor and working class) and the middle class. At this time, Lyra had begun to feel that bossa nova needed socially conscious lyrics and that, as he would later say, it had "a hell of a lot of form, but lacked content."

He and Vinícius wrote the musical Pobre Menina Rica (Poor Little Rich Girl) in 1962. It had politically conscious lyrics, such as those of the electrifying "Maria Moita," which manages in just a few words to be both a protest against social inequality and an early feminist anthem. Pobre Menina Rica was released as an album in '64, staged in France that year, and translated into Spanish by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

A young Antonio Adolfo participated as a pianist in the musical. "It was a privilege having Carlos Lyra invite me and my Trio 3D to participate in the wonderful and magical play by him and Vinícius. He was the one who baptized my trio. We worked on Pobre Menina Rica for three or four months from December 1963 through March 1964, at the Teatro de Bolso in Ipanema. Jobim always mentioned, 'Carlos Lyra was the finest melodist of bossa nova' and I agree completely. His songs are so inspired, and the combination of melody and harmony is really something. Later, during the '90s, when I worked with him again as arranger and producer of his Bossa Lyra album, I had the chance to go deeper into his songs and become more and more passionate for his music. He is one of the greatest composers of all time." 

Vinícius de Moraes and Carlos Lyra

Also in 1963, another of Lyra's new songs was the polemical "Canção do Subdesenvolvido" (Song of the Underdeveloped) about economic exploitation, written with Chico de Assis; it was censored the next year. Lyra was the musical director of Teatro de Arena, which staged controversial productions. One of their most famous shows was Opinião, directed by Augusto Boal, which protested Brazil's poverty and social problems and in which Lyra played an important role.

While working on a film soundtrack, Lyra had visited Mangueira, a poor neighborhood that is home to a venerable samba school of the same name, and gotten to know Cartola, who introduced him to fellow samba composers Nelson Cavaquinho, Zé Keti and Elton Medeiros. They met often at the apartment of Lyra, who sought to introduce their music to a wider public. He introduced them to bossa singer Nara Leão, who would record their songs on her 1964 album Nara; one of the tunes was Keti's "Diz Que Fui Por Ai," which became a hit. Later, Leão, Keti and northeastern composer João do Vale starred in the politically charged musical Opinião, which debuted in December and was a big success. Lyra contributed two songs, "Lamento de Um Homem Só (Song of a Man Alone) and "Marcha da Quarta-Feira de Cinzas" (Ash Wednesday March) and was present in the early rehearsals of the show, a precursor of the MPB (eclectic post-bossa Brazilian popular music) to come with its mixing of bossa, samba and regional music.

While Lyra wanted to take bossa nova in a different direction, he also surprised some CPC colleagues by unashamedly stating that he was part of the bourgeoisie and that he created bourgeois, not popular, culture. He was always true to himself and wouldn't let others sway him. When Lyra appeared in one of the first televised bossa performances, on TV Excelsior in São Paulo, he was told backstage beforehand that he would be offered some Mentex chewing gum (Mentex was one of the show's sponsors) and should say, "Thank you. I love Mentex." He refused, replying that he wouldn't plug their product or anyone else's for free. The show's representatives didn't give up and tried to force the issue. During the performance, a girl dressed as a bunny approached him and asked if he'd like some Mentex. "No, I hate it," he replied on live television.

The Sound of Ipanema (1965) with Paul Winter (left) and Carlos Lyra (right)

In 1964, he recorded the The Sound of Ipanema with Paul Winter (released in '65) and appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with Stan Getz. His career was flourishing, but the military had overthrown Brazil's democratically elected government on March 31 of that year. Lyra knew his days there were numbered, as sooner or later the government would come after him. He left Brazil, came back, and left again, this time for seven years. While he was gone, he toured with Getz in 1965 and '66, and decided to relocate to Mexico, where he lived for five years. While there, he married the American actress-model Katherine Lee Riddell (now Kate Lyra); their daughter Kay is now a singer.

After he returned to Brazil for good, he still had to tread carefully. His album Herói de Medo (Fear's Hero), recorded in 1974, was initially censored entirely. He left to live in Los Angeles for two years, where he took Arthur Janov's "primal scream" therapy (there, he met John Lennon, a fellow participant) and studied astrology. Since his return to Brazil in 1976, he has performed often, but recorded relatively few works, with the exception of the retrospectives Bossa Lyra (1993) and Sambalanço (2000); Carioca de Algema (Carioca in Handcuffs), a 1994 album of original songs; and group efforts like Vivendo Vinícius Ao Vivo (1998), with Baden Powell, Miúcha, Toquinho, and Os Bossa Nova (2008) with Roberto Menescal, Marcos Valle and João Donato.

Leo Gandelman (sax) and Charlie Hunter (guitar)
improvise to "Quem Quiser Encontrar o Amor."

Some of his other well known compositions not mentioned above include: "Aruanda," "Minha Namorada" (My Girlfriend), "A Certain Sadness," "Influência de Jazz," "Coisa Mais Linda" (The Most Beautiful Thing), "Quem Quiser Encontrar O Amor" (Who Wants to Find Love), "Samba do Carioca" and "Primavera" (Spring). The retrospective DVD Carlos Lyra: 50 Anos da Música (2005) is an excellent introduction to his work; Lyra performs 27 of his best known songs with guests such as Leila Pinheiro, Antonio Adolfo, Roberto Menescal, Marcos Valle, João Donato, Wanda Sá and his daughter Kay Lyra.

*saudade = missing someone or something.

-Much of the background information is from a 2013 interview with Carlos Lyra by Chris McGowan (for The Brazilian Music Book).
-Jobim quote from Carlos Lyra Songbook (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Lumiar, 1994).
-Marcos Valle quoted in the DVD Carlos Lyra: 50 Anos de Música (Biscoito Fino, 2005).
-According to Paul Winter, interviewed by Chris McGowan in 2014.
-Mentex story from from Magda Botafogo, Carlos Lyra's agent and manager.

Read about Brazilian Music

The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova
and the Popular Music of Brazil

by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha (Temple University Press)
(the leading guide to Brazilian music in English;
available on Amazon worldwide)

by Chris McGowan
(interviews with iconic figures from Jobim
and Airto to Djavan and Gal Costa)



Dennis said...

Nice piece, Chris! Always loved Lyra and agree he's unjustifiably under appreciated.

Kate Lyra said...

Good job, Chris -- very nice!