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Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim: A Musical Love Story and a Timeless Recording

Victor L. Schermer By

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One of my all-time favorite albums and desert island picks is Elis and Tom (Phillips, 1974), featuring duets by the legendary Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim and Elis Regina, an iconic Brazilian singer lesser known in the U.S. who a few years later died of a drug overdose at the age of 36. I'm writing about it now because recently I was listening to some of Jobim's records and took this one off the shelf and played it. I marveled as I always had at the remarkable musical rapport of the two and the spontaneity and pure Brazilian feel of their singing. I then looked around the web, and found that there is a wonderful story to be told about the making of this album.

The recording date was more intensive and took more time than most. Elis and Tom were together day and night in and out of the studio, rehearsing, talking, cutting tracks, dining with the musicians and others, and just hanging out. This went on for at least seven days and nights (estimates vary up to two weeks). They lived together, dug deeply into the tunes, and established a rapport that made for an entrancing and timeless recording. Compare this with the way recordings are typically made: in a day or two, with one or two takes, sometimes intermittently, and often in a rush between travel commitments and gigs. The album shows beyond a doubt the inestimable value of doing a recording with sufficient time for an extensive collaborative process, with the musicians bonding deeply and engaging in a prolonged creative process. Such conditions can elevate the recording to a new level of human intimacy and musical interaction.

It was the mid-1970s, and Jobim was chilling out in Los Angeles after his incredible successes in the U.S and as the bossa nova craze began to wind down. A younger Elis Regina had become a leading popular singer in Brazil with many performances and recordings already to her name, and with outspoken political convictions that at one point later on put her family in danger. In other words, like Jobim, she was a celebrity in Brazil, and a woman with passion and conviction as well. I don't know if she ever met Jobim personally or performed with him, but she asked her record label (Phillips) executives if they could get her a recording date with him. They got a deal, and Elis, her husband, and son flew to L.A. Jobim met them at the airport and they stayed at the same hotel together. (All this is documented in various news articles and on-the-scene videos. There is a video of them walking along a beach together. It was probably staged, but there is plenty of other evidence showing how close they became to one another.)

At their points of origin, jazz and Brazilian music both were forged in such intimate contexts. In the U.S., you had the musicians in L.A., New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit, for example, living amongst one another, spending long hours woodshedding, writing tunes, re-working arrangements, dropping in on one another's gigs, playing extended stays at clubs with sets that ran well beyond midnight. In Brazil, it was just like that too. Music was a communal enterprise, and in both countries, it came mainly out of the lower-income and/or minority districts, reflecting the struggles of the people. That is perhaps why Brazilian and U.S. music and musicians have always had a natural rapport with one another. In that respect, the Elis and Tom recording went back to their communal roots. It's still a mystery how all that came together. No one else was doing it that way at the time.

The family feeling and intimacy of the experience is apparent in videos made at the time. It is also evident in the testimony of the great Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who was called in to join the small orchestra for a couple of tracks.

According to the L.A. Times' Lynell George, in a 2004 review when a new issue of the record was released, Castro-Neves recalled "the session, the built- in family, the gatherings in those late winter /early spring days, with a soft-focus fondness and pride (italics mine-VLS). 'It was a magical rhythm section,' says Castro-Neves. 'Her [Elis'] husband, Cesar Camargo Mariano, on piano, Paulo Braga on drums, a bassist from New York, Luizao Maia. Aloysio [Aloysio De Olivieria] was really a hands-on producer. Jobim was in charge of arranging, of course, getting the keys and everything.'" They are Brazilian musicians. Videos and photographs show them all woodshedding, sitting in the engineer's booth, listening, going over charts, having meals, like a family in a barrio. What it all adds up to is that everyone was fully engaged in the process.

But what was really captivating was the warmth and spontaneous rapport between Elis and Tom. Take, for example, a video (see below) of them singing "Aguas de Março," ("The Waters of March") a Jobim song (he wrote remarkable, poetic words as well as the music) considered the greatest Brazilian song of all time by many, including the Brazilian press. They are having a ball! Their vocalizing and body language are in perfect synchronicity, and joy radiates from both of them. At the end, Jobim doubles over with amazement and gratitude. You can hear this communion of two souls in all the music of the album. They are coming home. They have found their singing soul mates. I don't think there is anything quite like this in the recorded vocal duet legacy. The Ella and Louis (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong) album (Verve, 1956), the Ray Charles and Betty Carter duets (ABC, 1961), and Natalie Cole's overdubbing of Nat "King" Cole's singing, Unforgettable with Love (Elektra, 1991) might tie for second place. There may be others that I don't know about, but for me Elis and Tom is the greatest vocal duet album of all time. Together, Elis and Tom show complete mastery of the genre, are totally attuned to one another, and perhaps most importantly, there is not the slightest hint of the artificiality and posturing that you can hear sometimes in even the best vocalists. There are no ulterior motives. It's just the most sincere expression of emotions, and it is truly faithful to the character of the music.

The Significance of the Recording

OK. So it's a great recording done with a rare kind of dedication and sustained effort, with just the right personnel, inspired by the magical presence of Jobim. It's considered a cult classic, and gets very high ratings in many critics' polls. But does it occupy a special place in musical history, as for example, Billie Holiday's recordings with Lester Young (Billie Holiday and Lester Young: A Musical Romance (1937-1941), Columbia, 2002) or Charlie Parker's recordings with Dizzy Gillespie (Bird and Diz, Clef/Verve, 1952), each of which ushered in a new approach to jazz collaboration and style? I think the answer is both yes and no.

On one level, it's just a great recording where everything came together in a magical way. That's a sufficient reason to listen to it if you haven't. But it also can be seen to be a commentary and a gentle protest about the way that bossa nova was imported into the U.S. The first recordings by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (Jazz Samba, MGM/Verve, 1962) and by Getz with João and Astrud Gilberto (Getz/Gilberto Verve, 1964) were magnificent and very popular. The bossa nova craze soon became an ongoing part of the jazz legacy. Ever since, Brazilian music has been in the repertoire of almost every jazz musician. But the nuances of the music as it is done in Brazil, the unique feel of what happens in a club there, the special inflections and temperament, were more or less filtered out in order to give it the polish and sheen that catered to an upwardly mobile culture that strove for classy sports cars, fancy beach resorts, cool, expensive clothes, and privileged emotional reserve. Astrud Gilberto and Elis Regina came from two different planets, the former cool, understated, and silky, the latter spontaneous, emotional, at times even percussive. (Gilberto was groomed by Getz, who discovered her in the midst of a recording session. Regina came up through the ranks, the product of many hours of working with Brazilian musicians.) What got lost, although partly recovered later, was the original down to earth quality that is so essential to the work of Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, and the other creators of the bossa nova style. It's the problem that always accompanies cultural assimilation: when you adapt to a new culture, something essential to the original is lost.

The Tom and Elis album avoided that trap. It retained the original feel and spontaneity of the music as it had been generated in Brazil, with all the emotional subtleties and bittersweet sentiments of music that came out of poverty and struggle, as, for example, Billie Holiday's singing always reflected the way she came up. In this respect, it can be considered a landmark album of the bossa nova genre and the Brazilian-U.S. connection. It is an album "made in U.S.A.," but it retains all the qualities of the music and culture that spawned it. It reflects and respects the values of ethnic diversity and the retention of the roots of cultural origination. From the jazz influence, it also has more of a flavor of swing and bop than the cool jazz interpretations that preceded it. And it is a quintessential instance of an approach to recording which emphasizes prolonged and intimate engagement in the process, rather than the fly-by-night takes that are the more common practice. In these ways, it occupies a special place in the history of jazz. It is a unique musical statement that current and future musicians should be aware of when they go into the recording studio.

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