The beauty of The Girl From Ipanema is that there are no bad versions of the song. Actually, let me rephrase: You have to work really hard to mess it up. And while there are hundreds of good versions, great ones are harder to find. For the rendition to be exceptional, the artist needs to capture the song's romantic side and its youthful energy. A little sad, but mostly resigned and upbeat at the same time. Sort of swinging sigh.
Unlike most great standards, The Girl From Ipanema doesn't demand that its story be told well. To ace this song, an artist's phrasing just needs to get the melody to canter ever so slightly but not trot. The song needs patience and just a little kick, that's it.
With that said, here are my top-12 versions, in order, plus lots of clips:
1. Stan Getz/Astrud Gilberto—Getz/Gilberto (1963). No matter how many times you hear the hit version, you realize it's still the winner, hands down. The song moves catlike, inhaling and exhaling, and Gilberto's innocent voice saturates the melody and lyric beautifully. You surely own this one and know it backward and forward. So rather than offer the usual clip, here's a different version, from the 1964 movie Get Yourself a College Girl:
2. Nat King Cole—L-O-V-E (1964). This was the singer's last LP before his death in February 1965. The bossa nova track just proves that no matter what Nat chose to record, he could turn it into ear candy. You'd think Nat's broad, pop approach would be too glossy a fit for this song. Or at least not appear this high up on my list. Hear for yourself. And dig Nat capture The Girl's swishing beach bag in his phrasing. So cool and smart. The trumpet solo belongs to Bobby Bryant:
3. Walter Wanderley—Rain Forest (1966). I've always been a sucker for Wanderley's firm, popcorn organ attack. What's more, Wanderley was Brazilian and knew how far out he could take a bossa nova song while retaining its melodic beauty and spring. Wanderley brought a new pace and a different level of excitement to this song that was quickly imitated by countless artists. Someone merged Wanderley's version with a sequence from a James Bond film. A rather odd juxtaposition, but at least you'll get to hear the version:
4. Frank Sinatra—Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967). Sinatra at his tender, caressing best. Toss in Claus Ogerman's arrangements and Bud Shank's flute, and you have the vocal version of a cloud ride. In the clip below, dig Frank and Tom sitting around singing about what The Girl didn't see:
5. Sammy Davis Jr.—Our Shining Our (1964). Hey, what can I say? I love this one because it's pure Sammy—with the jutting chin, cupped microphone and ad-libs ("chi-kong, chi-kong, chi-kong" and "She ain't lookin' at me"). Plus dig Count Basie's band swing this one right over the moon. Don't be surprised if you find yourself doing a Sammy impression while singing along:
6. Antonio Carlos Jobim—The Composer of Desafinado Plays (1963). I'm also a sucker for carefully arranged instrumental versions of this tune. Claus Ogerman's arrangement here is brisk and sliced beautifully thin. It's the sound of being aboard a 1960s passenger jet flying down to Rio. You can hear this version at YouTube here.
7. Astrud Gilberto—That Girl From Ipanema (1977). At the height of the disco era, vibraphonist and producer Vince Montana did what many thought was sacrilegious: He arranged a strings-and-horns, Salsoul Orchestra-like disco base for an updated Astrud Gilberto vocal. Musicians on the date included Victor Paz (trumpet) and Urbie Green (trombone). To me, there's something about Astrud and the hustle that sounds so right and ultracool. And you're in luck: Some guy from Transylvania plays the whole extended, 12-inch version on YouTube:
8. Lisa Ono and Joao Donato—Lisa is a Japanese bossa nova singer who was born in Brazil, moved to Tokyo when she was 10, and splits her time living in both countries. And with pianist Donato on board, this version is a winner. I'm not sure when this track was recorded (probably in the 1990s), but it's available at iTunes and Amazon on a CD called Entertaining Made Simple: Baubles, Brazil & Bossa Nova. Or you can just dig the sound on YouTube:
9. Antonio Carlos Jobim—Tide (1970). Here, arranger Eumir Deodato takes a shot at the classic using a dramatic score and full orchestra that featured top jazz and Brazilian musicians. You'll find it at iTunes or Amazon.
10. Sergio Mendes—The Beat of Brazil (1967). By 1967, the bossa nova was at its florid peak, and American folk-rock scene was getting edgier, shifting to San Francisco. As a result, many bossa nova artists started to toughen up a bit. Mendes' treatment here combines horns and piano for a funky, hard bossa interpretation.
11. Bobby Hackett—Live at the Roosevelt Grill (1970). Even though this is a live date (and you want to brain the idiots who are talking while Bobby's playing), Hackett delivers a swell rendition, wandering around on that mellow, ripe horn of his. Bobby got it. Then again, Bobby got everything he played. That's Dave McKenna on piano. You'll find this at iTunes and Amazon.
12. Oscar Peterson—We Get Requests (1964). The Big O brings a bit of blues to the bossa nova and is joined by Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. There's no image here for this clip, but at least you can hear it: