Born: June 10, 1931;

Died: July 6, 2019

João Gilberto, who has died aged 88, was a Brazilian musician, singer and songwriter whose work carried international renown, particularly among fans of Latin-flavoured jazz, and for those who enjoy that far-reaching amalgamation of sounds which might once have been referred to in broad terms as ‘world music’. His most well-travelled work was the 1964 record Getz/Gilberto, a smooth and perfectly-suited collaboration between Gilberto’s guitar playing and the saxophone of the American jazz musician Stan Getz.

Getz/Gilberto sold two million copies and won three Grammy Awards in 1965, including Album of the Year, the first jazz album and non-American album to do so. Its key track was The Girl from Ipanema, rerecorded into English from the original 1962 Portuguese version by musician Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, with vocals by Gilberto’s then-wife Astrud; this version was a top five hit in America, and is rumoured to have since become the second most covered song ever, after the Beatles’ Yesterday.

For casual fans of Gilberto’s nearly forty albums – many of them live concert recordings – he was a fountain of gloriously resonant and softly textured guitar ballads which bore a perfect fusion of optimistic rhythms alongside bittersweet melodies; the ideal listening for a lazy summer’s day or a cool evening’s reflection, his voice and his playing as soft as a soothing murmur. For aficionados and for listeners in his home country in particular, however, Joao Gilberto meant something far more than just the pretty sound of his music.

In Brazil the called him ‘O Mito’, which means ‘The Myth’ or ‘The Legend’, and Gilberto’s fame and influence there were almost unparalleled. He is widely credited as a – if not the – prime mover of the bossa nova style of the late 1950s, a fusion of the rhythmic qualities of Brazilian samba music and the virtuosic playing of jazz musicians in a sound which was mature and thoughtfully expansive.

Although the precise details of bossa nova’s inception are unclear (as is the meaning of the term, with the loosest translation being ‘new fashionable sound’, ‘bossa’ being a slang term for the latter), its originators are acknowledged as being old friends Gilberto and Jobim, who came together in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-‘50s and unearthed a unique chemistry. Gilberto’s interpretations through voice and guitar were the definitive sound of bossa nova, but it was through Jobim’s efforts as a songwriter that he had his greatest successes.

Gilberto’s 1959 debut album Chega de Saudade (‘No More Blues’) is credited as being the first bossa nova record, its cover portrait of a thoughtful, handsome young Gilberto announcing the new style. It was followed in 1960 by O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor, and by this point the most cultured musicians in America were catching on to bossa nova.

Getz was an early adopter, teaming with the well-travelled guitarist Charlie Byrd for the breakthrough 1962 album Jazz Samba, and their recording of Desafinado (a song written by Jobim and performed by Gilberto on Chega de Saudade) was a hit in the US and the UK, winning a Grammy Award in the process. In 1962 alone the song was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and many others.

Despite its sonic freshness and popularity with hip younger audiences, however, the Brazilian military coup of 1964 saw radical listeners shift away from the gentle, sophisticated tones of bossa nova – which celebrated love and nature within its lyrics – and towards more unsettled forms of musical expression which leant towards the rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic styles popular in the US and Europe.

There is an irony to these political developments coinciding almost to the moment with Gilberto’s breakthrough in America. Just as the sound’s popularity began to decline in its home nation, bossa nova had made it onto the world stage. Elvis Presley had recorded the cash-in Bossa Nova Baby, Brazilian musicians (including Gilberto and Jobim) had been invited to the White House by Jackie Kennedy, and Frank Sinatra cemented The Girl from Ipanema as a cultural tentpole.

Although Gilberto’s period of culture-changing fame was over by the mid-1960s, he continued to record and play live, and enjoyed an enormous amount of respect, particularly among younger Brazilian musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. He lived in America throughout the 1960s and 1970s, after which he returned to Brazil. Although he became known in later life for his demanding audio perfectionism, cutting short a 2003 Hollywood Bowl show due to unhappiness with the sound, he maintained strong support among fans, and the album João Voz e Violão won a Grammy Award in 2001.

João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born in the city of Juazeiro in northeast Brazil in 1931, the son of a wealthy middle class family. Yet when his grandfather bought him a guitar at age 14 – despite his father’s disapproval – he fell into the itinerant youth of the jobbing musician, sleeping on friends’ couches and smoking marijuana while refusing gigs he felt were beneath him. As his mid-twenties approached, the singer Luis Telles encouraged Gilberto to buckle down and perfect his immense talent, not long before his fateful years in Rio with Jobim.

He was married twice, to Astrud (who left him for Getz), with whom he had a son, and to the late Brazilian singer Miúcha. The latter couple’s daughter is the singer Bebel Gilberto, while Gilberto also had another daughter with journalist Claudia Faissol. He was always reclusive, refusing interviews, and in his final years he was afflicted by indebtedness and health problems, a sad situation for an artist who brought such inspiration to so many peers and followers.