Saturday, August 26, 2023

Astrud Gilberto - "Look to the Rainbow" (1966)

The idea of pairing Brazilian vocalist Astrud Gilberto with jazz arranger Gil Evans seems, if not necessarily inspired, then certainly audacious. Producer Creed Taylor, the only one who could have made such a meeting possible in the first place, likely regretted the decision almost immediately.

Recorded over no less than five sessions in November and December 1965 and one in February 1966 – and requiring two additional arrangements by Al Cohn (“Lugar Bonita” and “El Preciso Aprender A Ser So”) – the eleven songs that make up what became Look to the Rainbow must have felt like pulling teeth.

Listening to the result sometimes feels like no less than a trip to the dentist’s office itself: sometimes pleasant, sometimes not.

Surprisingly, there is almost no chemistry here. Gilberto, who is often said to inject “a certain sadness” in her singing, sounds positively disinterested here. She is surely not the breezy “Girl from Ipanema” (which she isn’t anyway) on this disc. Gilberto sounds bored, sometimes off-key, not to mention uninspired and even confused by her accompaniment. Such confusion seems justified.

To be fair, Astrud Gilberto, despite her stunning ability to sing in many languages, is not a jazz singer. And while Gil Evans had arranged for several singers earlier in his career (Helen Merrill, Marcy Lutes, Lucy Reed), his affinity for this sort of music was limited…at best.

Let’s face it: Astrud Gilberto is no jazz singer and Gil Evans is no populist.

It is notable that only two musicians are credited here. That’s pretty unusual for an Evans project and suggests that his (or somebody’s) heart really wasn’t in it. Not even the Stan Getz-ish soloist on “Maria Quiet” is identified.

The Verve recording logs list the possible participation of Johnny Coles on trumpet, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone and Kenny Burrell on guitar. Evans himself is credited on piano and while it sounds like him on the album’s tinkly title track, the soloist on “Bim Bom” surely does not. Grady Tate is audibly present throughout on drums.

Baden Powell’s “Berimbau” kicks the album off in fine style, offering the best of both singer and arranger the disc has to offer. It promises much more than Look to the Rainbow ends up delivering. Featured on the titular instrument is Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romão, who played drums on the 1964 version of the song by Trio 3D on their album Tema 3D.

The album’s first two English-language songs are both Michel Legrand numbers, “Once Upon a Summertime” (a.k.a. “La valse des lilas”), which Evans previously tackled with Miles Davis on Quiet Nights, and the soporific “I Will Wait for You,” with a brief statement of sorts from trumpeter Johnny Coles.

Antonio Carlos Jobim’s well-known “(A) Felicidade” and ”Frevo” – both from Black Orpheus (1959) – get fairly uncomfortable makeovers in Evans’s hands. The latter tune, especially, gets a wildly incongruent Carnival setting. It’s as though John Barry went native much as he did for the Junkanoo sequence in Thunderball.

The pair don’t really get back on track until the album’s closer, an English-language cover of Jobim’s “She’s a Carioca.” This iteration of the song made its first appearance on the 1965 Nelson Riddle-arranged album The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim (which also included Dom Um Romão on drums), although Gilberto leaves out all the bits about being “in love with her in the most exciting way.”

Even Evans is back in his element here. His horn parts – which don’t even attempt to mimic Riddle’s smoother strings and flutes – are more in his signature style and fit the song and Gilberto’s style more seamlessly than elsewhere.

Gilberto avails herself nicely on the Brazilian pieces – perhaps because she had more of a hand in selecting them. These include the aforementioned “She’s a Carioca”; “Bim Bom,” written by ex-husband João Gilberto (and previously covered by Stan Getz and Gary McFarland on Big Band Bossa Nova); and Carlos Lyra’s spunky “Maria Quiet” (first heard in America on a 1965 Sergio Mendes record), which gets a set of English lyrics by Norman Gimbel specifically for this recording.

Look to the Rainbow was released in April 1966 to surprisingly little fanfare. “The clear, bell-like tones that mark Miss Gilberto's vocal style,” wrote Billboard, “enhance the jazz-oriented melodies arranged by Gil Evans…Should prove a hot sales and programming item.” But it didn’t.

Oddly, there were no singles issued from the album at the time. Instead, Verve had Astrud Gilberto front some contemporaneous movie themes: the non-album, Don Sebesky-arranged “Wish Me a Rainbow” (from This Property is Condemned) and, later in the year, “Who Needs Forever” (from the soundtrack to The Deadly Affair).

In July of the following year, Verve released a promotional five-disc boxset of singles titled Verve Celebrity Scene – Astrud Gilberto that sampled ten songs from Gilberto’s catalog, including this album’s “Once Upon a Summertime,” “Berimbau,” “Look to the Rainbow” and “Lugar Bonita.” The package, issued to radio stations for airplay, likely had very little effect.

After Look to the Rainbow, Astrud Gilberto would team with fellow Brazilian ex-pat Walter Wanderley for A Certain Smile A Certain Sadness (1967). (The first side of that LP appears as “bonus tracks” to the first CD issue of Look to the Rainbow.)

Gil Evans would again vanish from the scene. “Periodically,” wrote Ralph J. Gleason, “since he first attracted attention in the jazz world, Gil Evans has made a statement and retreated from the stage into a kind of musical hibernation into which he assimilates music and lets it work its way through his system. Then he emerges again with some new contribution.”

That contribution would not appear until four years later with a newly electric Evans set on Ampex called, simply enough, Gil Evans (later known as Blues in Orbit). That album laid the foundation of the orchestra that would personify Evans for the remainder of his career.

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