A Gentle Whirlpool of Music

I’ve been playing the bass for about forty years now and I thank my lucky stars that all of the knowledge I’ve acquired through experience and study has not blunted my ability to partake of music on a purely emotional level. Whether playing or listening, it’s the way music feels – and makes you feel – that counts, and this goes beyond any knowledge, important though that is. No matter what kind, music at its best should move you, take you to a place of joy and rapture, make your mind giddy and your body move, should lift you up. It’s this way with a magical clip of Elis Regina singing Antonio Carlos Jobim’s beautiful “Aguas de Marco” (“The Waters of March”), which I’ve included here as a kind of Happy New Year wish to everyone. This is appropriate not only because of the inspirational performance, but because I discovered it for the first time just this past New Year’s Eve, thanks to some friends.

Along with saxophonist Mike Murley and his partner Leslie Adcock, my wife Anna and I were invited over to Ruth and Jim Vivian’s house to ring in the new year. We’re all old friends and this same group had a similar New Year’s evening five or six years ago chez Vivian. Jim of course is a marvelous bassist and a very intelligent and hilarious guy, but he’s also a great cook and wine connoisseur, so the evening promised much eating, drinking and social pleasure.

It’s a wonder all of the deluxe food and wine didn’t kill us, but more important was the social feast, a great unfolding of conversation, stories, memories and laughter that only such old and good friends can share. Things eventually grew a bit dim and fuzzy thanks to the lashings of wine, but I think it was after midnight when YouTube somehow came up and we began sharing favourite clips using somebody’s smart phone and a small speaker. A bottle of Bollinger bubbly had been opened, which we needed like a hole in the head. At any rate, somewhere in there Jim and Mike dialed up this clip of Elis Regina, knowing that I would love it. And they were dead right, within ten seconds she had me in the palm of her hand and I was utterly transported. I had to hear it again immediately, I was in the land of goosebumps and couldn’t get the song out of my head even on the way home, in the wee small hours of the morning.

Mornings after can be a little vacant and grey; this one was at least pain-free. I was dying to hear this clip again, but was so foggy that I could have sworn it had been Elaine Elias I’d heard the night before, which was laughable when I dialled her up. For one thing, although Elias is Brazilian and a vocalist, she’s also a pianist who performs in a much different style than Elis Regina. She’s also much younger and this clip is clearly from a time when Elias was barely a teenager, plus the two look entirely different – it just goes to show how far gone with the wine I’d been. I eventually figured it out by Googling the song and recognizing the clip with Regina’s lovely face. I must confess that although I certainly knew of Elis Regina and had probably heard a little of her in passing, I’ve been mostly asleep on her. This is shameful, because in her time she was a huge star and is still considered by many to be the greatest of all Brazilian singers. All I can say is mea culpa and that music is so vast it’s impossible to be aware of it all, no matter how long you’ve been at it. Better late than never though, and I’m certainly on to her now, she’s just superb. Anyway, I found the clip and played it over and over again, finding it even more rewarding in the cold, sober light of day, so to speak. It’s not so much an ear-worm as a heart-worm. Eventually this will burn out like most flames, much to my long-suffering wife’s relief.

The performance itself is worth much more than the thousand or more words I can write about it. What follows is some commentary and information which may hopefully enhance your enjoyment of it. It’s from a Brazilian TV show shot in 1973, when Elis Regina was twenty-eight and at the height of her fame and popularity. She’s accompanied by a trio of Brazilian musicians on piano, electric bass and drums, but perhaps it would be best to begin with the song itself.

The first time I heard “Aguas de Marco” was also the first time I played it, in the early 1980s with Mark Murphy, who recorded a terrific version of it. Since then I’ve heard it many times and played it a few times; it was named the greatest Brazilian song ever in a 1980’s poll of Brazilian musicians, critics and music fans. It’s a fascinating, surreal kind of song, without a normal narrative structure of beginning, middle and end, but more of a loop. Its form is similarly cyclical, without a conventional AABA structure or bridge. Simple yet elusive, it’s disarmingly easy to get lost while playing it. There are Portuguese and English lyrics, both by Jobim, and they are somewhat different, not a direct translation. Jobim left out several “inside” Brazilian references in the English lyrics, of which there are more verses. The Portuguese words have a soft, undulating flow which suit the song’s melody beautifully, but it’s worth Googling the English words or hearing a version sung in English, of which there are several available on YouTube. There’s one by Art Garfunkel, of all people, which I find a little wooden musically but it’s accompanied by some wonderful images which nicely illustrate the song’s meaning. There’s a heart-breaking one by Susannah McCorkle; heart-breaking both because it reminds us of her tragic, surrendering demise and because, although she does a wonderful job with the dynamic and linguistic nuances of the song, the necessary rhythmic relaxation eludes her at times. In either language, the words don’t tell a story, but conjure up a series of random images about the things seen carried down toward the sea in the high waters of March, the peak of Brazil’s rainy season. Jobim, a genius with both melody and word, weaves all these metaphorically into a streaming, dancing tone poem about the “promise of life”. The song’s harmony has a similar cyclical, descending pattern, making it all of a piece.

This rendition is by far the best one I’ve heard and this mainly has to do with the tempo, as it’s also the slowest version I’ve heard. This more relaxed tempo brings out the many nuances of the song, a tinge of sadness and gravitas that other versions miss. There’s also a delightful lilt to it, much like a breeze. This only works because Regina and her trio know what to do with all this space, they’re not in the least afraid of it. More and more, I’m bothered by songs being crowded by tempos that are too fast. This may have to do with the decreased energy of growing older, but I think it also has to do with having more patience. Besides, when something is this beautiful, why rush through it?

Everything in this clip – the song, Regina’s poetic singing, the wonderful accompaniment provided by her trio and the sparse, beautifully timed camera work in black and white – combine to mirror the disparate elements of the song’s aquatic “list”, so that we’re bathing in a mosaic, a gentle whirlpool of music and emotion.

The trio plays very simply but offer the kind of focused, sublime backing that makes the listener hear things that aren’t actually being played: they seem to be doing nothing, yet everything is happening. At first, I thought it might have been Jobim himself playing piano, but no. Some digging revealed that the pianist is someone I’ve never heard of – Cesar Camarga Mariano, who was marred to Regina at that time and acquits himself here like a kind of Brazilian Wynton Kelly. It’s interesting; bossa nova is a very guitar-based music and pianists who don’t understand this often ruin this music by overplaying, but not Mariano. He plays very minimally, interjecting tasty, simple little fills, countermelodies and leading tones, always with perfect timing. His interplay with Regina and the song is delicious and playful, artfully captured by brief shots of his hands when he plays something choice.

The brilliantly subtle drumming is by Paulhino Braga, whose touch reminds me of Vernel Fournier or perhaps Connie Kay. This music doesn’t ‘swing’ in the Count Basie sense, yet what Braga does here with just brushes and a whisper of hi-hat swings in its own infectious way. I’d like to somehow take a sample of this and inject it into several lead-footed, ham-fisted drummers I can think of, to carry this message: don’t just sit there playing too loud and too busy, grinding out mechanical rhythm. Play the flow of the time, the feeling of it, make it dance. The bassist is Luizao Maia, who worked for many years with Regina and can be seen in a wonderful sequence playing perfect, round notes always just ahead of the beat. Collectively, this trio’s feet never touch the ground.

They allow Elis Regina to soar, and soar she does in a wonderfully layered performance that delivers joy and savvy, wisdom and humour all at once. Needless to say, her voice, though a bit tinny-sounding on this TV recording, is a perfect one for Brazilian music. Intimate, understated, cool yet with much warmth underneath, the same quality which Miles Davis described in Bill Evans as “that quiet fire”. She was a very close associate of Jobim’s and knows this song inside out, there’s an effortless grace in her delivery of it even though she clearly feels it very deeply. This ease adds to her power here, in contrast to some singers who might need cue cards to deal with all the words.

And to match her musicality, she’s visually stunning. Not just because of her considerable beauty, but because of the slightly deadpan soulfulness of her face. Her close-cropped hair and gamine-like features remind me of the Italian actress Maria Falconetti in the 1928 silent-film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, though Elis is happier and more glamorous. It’s a haunting, unforgettable face and like many great singers, she’s a natural actress. Not that she over-emotes or indulges in any hamming it up, but she draws the audience in to watch the fleeting emotions of this song play across her face in such subtle ways, with an eyebrow here, a smile or a direct look or a nod there. She begins in darkness with her head averted shyly and then slowly raises her head to face the audience, the camera closely fixed on her like an unblinking eye. Ever so gradually the diffidence gives way to confidence as the rhythms of the song and the band begin to get to her. She closes her eyes, bobbing her head gently back and forth or offering that sunbeam smile, getting lost inside the music more and more as her joy takes over. Toward the end, she cracks up while delivering the word “poco”, perhaps briefly unhinged by how delicious all this interplay feels. This small flub – if you can call it that – makes this performance even more perfect and at this point you have no choice but to fall in love with her, if you haven’t already.

Elis Regina now goes to the head of the class among my all-time “Calendar Girls”. Singers like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lee Wiley, Anita O’Day, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Jeri Southern, Jo Stafford, Etta Jones. And actresses like Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, Judy Holiday, Audrey Hepburn. Women who were not just beautiful for their looks, but because of their brains and talent, the strength and uniqueness of what they did. Like many great ones Regina was troubled, mostly about the corrupt politics of her homeland, and died too young at just 36, the result of an accidental interaction between too much cocaine, alcohol and temazepam. Goddamn it. Couldn’t we get her back by having Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears take her place?

A couple of other small-but-cosmic things to watch and listen for during the clip: After building very gradually, just before the 2:00 mark Regina and the trio all land together on beat one and pause ever so slightly, it’s an arresting little accent. After this they begin to really build and rhythmically dissemble the song. There’s a stunning sequence where they’re all together on off-beats, each one a little louder, yet never rushing, followed by several similar patches where Regina sings on beats one and three and the band answers on two and four. They begin to wind the song down from the 3:00 mark on by softening and slowing down ever so gradually, Regina singing just short phrases or single words and being answered playfully by the piano. Just as you’re wondering how they’ll end it, the band plays a slick unison jazz ending which Regina doesn’t catch vocally, but with her eyes, followed by a chuckle of joy. The charm of it is infectious: this, folks, is how it’s done:

I hope you enjoy this clip half as much as I have and I can’t thank Mike Murley and Jim Vivian enough for introducing it to me. If you do like it, there are all sorts of other versions of the song along the right hand column of YouTube. There are two by Elis and Jobim together, one live and another in the studio, both faster. The 1973 Elis Regina TV show is also available in its entirety or in separate clips, and it’s deadly. She does an impossibly slow and gentle version of Nelson Cavaquinho’s lovely song “Folhas Secas” (Dried Leaves) which floored me. In the mid-80’s The Boss Brass recorded an album of South American music called Atras de Porta (a song that’s also here) and we recorded “Folhas”, which I haven’t heard or played since then. Rob McConnell told me he had a hell of a time arranging it, because the first part of the song’s melody is strongly reminiscent of three hoary old chestnuts – “Whispering”, “Sonny Boy” and “My Melancholy Baby” – but filtered through an ultra-languorous Brazilian sensibility.

At any rate, “Aguas de Marco” and Elis Regina’s lovely rendition of it here are what music and life are all about. Elusive, random, inscrutable, joyous, a little sad and sometimes scary. But also full of surprising promise and tiny moments of delight around every corner, which constantly draw us back into the pool to keep swimming and keep going, to find out, to learn what’s next. I thought we could all use a little of this warmth and wonder as we face a new year in January, that bleakest of months.

Happy New Year.

© 2015 – 2018, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

12 thoughts on “A Gentle Whirlpool of Music

  1. That brought tears to my eyes. SO beautiful on so many levels. Thanks for sharing the clip and your observations and feelings.

  2. I love every aspect of this rendition of the tune; the singing and the playing . One of my favorite parts is towards the end with the sense of playfulness that comes out in her smile and in her singing too. Beautiful to see and beautiful to hear.Thanks for sharing this today Steve and HAPPY NEW YEAR to you and Anna…

  3. Had never heard her (Elis) Steve..many thanks for this column a breath of fresh vocal air! Happy New Year and keep those columns coming; very enjoyable.
    Jack Fortin

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