I met Brazilian vocalist Ithamara Koorax for the first time a year ago in New York at an amazing holiday party on Sutton Place. Jazz writer Ira Gitler introduced us. Ithamara was in town briefly to sing and had postponed her flight by a day just to make the soiree, which was softly lit and jammed with jazz legends. Singers Helen Merrill and Annie Ross were there. So were Joe Wilder, Teddy Charles, George Wein and about 50 other jazz luminaries. Ithamara was as lovely and as outgoing as her voice is on recordings, and what you see on stage is what you get when you have an animated conversation with her. Ithamara's latest CD, Bim Bom: The Complete Joao Gilberto Songbook, typifies her grace. The CD is an exuberant tribute to the bossa nova and the beat's low-key, unassuming inventor.
In Part 2 of my interview with Ithamara, the singer talks about recording on Bim Bom with guitarist Juarez Moreira, what she discovered about Gilberto's melody lines, recording with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, and why all of her proceeds from Bim Bom are being donated to the Dizzy Gillespie Fund:
JazzWax: You enjoy the sound of the acoustic guitar, don’t you?
Ithamara Koorax: I do. I should have learned to play it, but I only studied classical piano. I feel fortunate for having had the chance to play with so many great guitarists. After I played with Luiz Bonfa and Larry Coryell on Almost in Love in 1995 and 1996, I invited Jay Berliner to record on my Serenade in Blue album. I grew up listening to his albums with Charles Mingus, Milt Jackson and George Benson. Then, John McLaughlin recorded with me as a guest artist on Love Dance. Now I'm working with Juarez Moreira.
JW: How did you and guitarist Moreira work together on your new album?
IK: We did the recordings in three days. Juarez lives in Belo Horizonte and I live about 270 miles away in Rio de Janeiro. So I sent him sheet music of the songs and a CD with a few tracks of Gilberto songs that weren’t familiar to him.
JW: Did you record together in the same studio?
IK: Yes, yes. When I booked the studio, Juarez came to Rio, and on the first day we rehearsed for six hours. Then we did two six-hour studio sessions for two consecutive days. All of the tracks were recorded face to face in the studio, and most of the songs were first takes.
JW: No overdubbing?
IK: I don't like to overdub vocals unless I'm doing electronic projects and working with programming and sequencers, which was not the case here, of course. So what I sang with Juarez is what you hear on the album. On a few tracks, Juarez felt he should add a second guitar for the solos, to not lose the groove of the rhythm guitar.
JW: What input did arranger and your long-time producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro have on the album?
IK: As usual, Arnaldo was essential. He suggested tempos, helped us find the best keys, prepared the basic arrangements and then asked Juarez and me for suggestions. He kept us focused on the spontaneity and asked us to not over-rehearse or lose the creative vibe. [Photo: Ithamara, Luiz Bonfa and Arnaldo DeSouteiro]
JW: How did Arnaldo work with Juarez?
IK: Arnaldo knows how to create and sustain a happy mood in the studio. At the same time Arnaldo also is a perfectionist, which is why he has worked with so many great artists, including Joao Gilberto [pictured]. In just a couple of hours, it seemed as though Juarez and I had been friends for decades. Arnaldo also interacted a lot with engineer Geraldo Brandao, who already knew how Arnaldo wanted my voice to sound. Everything clicked, and the bonding made the mix sessions easy and joyful.
JW: What did you discover about Gilberto's music that may come as a shock to some readers?
IK: What I discovered is that Gilberto’s music was much more difficult to sing than I imagined. As a singer you have to deal with so many things at the same time with Gilberto’s [pictured] songs. You need to be subtle, you need to sing softly, but you also need to deal with rhythm—all at once. And it all happens so quickly that you can't think about it. You only need to do it.
JW: You worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim. What was he like in the studio?
IK: Jobim was very important to my career because he gave me a great deal of support in my early years. For my first album, Ao Vivo (JVC) in 1993, I included four or five Jobim songs. After his sister Helena Jobim, a poet, gave him a copy of my CD, he called to congratulate me. He said, "Next time, please invite me." So in 1994 when I started working on my second CD, Red River (Paddle Wheel), I selected three Jobim songs and took him up on his kind offer.
JW: What did he say?
IK: His only request was, "Please book a studio with a good Steinway!" Actually, we did only one session together, in October 1994. Those were some of the most special six hours I have ever experienced in my life. He was very kind and was telling jokes the entire time. I felt he was trying to make me feel relaxed. Then, out of the blue, he suggested that we do a song titled All That's Left Is to Say Goodbye, which isn’t among his most famous songs. He said it was special to him, because he had recorded it with Astrud Gilberto on The Astrud Gilberto Album, her debut album in 1965. This was such a compliment. [Pictured: Ithamara and Antonio Carlos Jobim]
JW: Did you know the song?
IK: Yes, but I wasn't intimately familiar with Astrud's version at the time, even though I owned a copy of the album. I loved the version that Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund made of the song during her live recording with Bill Evans after their famous studio date in 1975. [The song is called Samba in discographies.]
JW: What happened next?
IK: We clicked. After we recorded All That's Left Is to Say Goodbye, we had lunch. Then we recorded two more songs. But Jobim wasn't totally satisfied with his performance. He said, "I need to go to New York next week, but we'll record again as soon as I come back to Rio". I was thrilled. One of the songs was titled Absolut Lee, and I started to study it. But he died in New York in a hospital after complications from surgery to remove a tumor. Nobody knew he had cancer, so Brazil was in a state of shock when he died.
JW: How did you feel?
IK: I felt devastated and decided to include only All That's Left Is to Say Goodbye on my album. The other songs I recorded with Jobim remain unreleased. I added other Jobim songs to the play list: Correnteza, a song Jobim co-wrote with Luiz Bonfa, who came in to play guitar on the track, and Zingaro, which I recorded with bassist Ron Carter [pictured].
JW: How did Luiz Bonfa differ from Jobim?
IK: Both had what I call "sophisticated souls." Both were gentlemen and geniuses. They worked together often in the 1950s and 1960s in Brazil, and both performed at the famous Bossa Nova at Carnegie Hall concert in 1962. Soon after both were signed to Verve by producer Creed Taylor.
JW: You recorded an entire album with Bonfa, yes?
IK: Yes. Almost In Love: Ithamara Koorax Sings the Luiz Bonfa Songbook (Paddle Wheel), which was a Top 15 album on the Japanese charts. The title track is a lush bossa nova that Bonfa wrote for Elvis Presley, who had a Billboard Top Pop chart hit with it. I was fortunate to record once again with Ron Carter as well as with Sadao Watanabe and Larry Coryell on that album.
JW: What was Bonfa like?
IK: Bonfa and I were neighbors for 10 years in Rio. We used to meet at least twice a week, sometimes just to chat. There were times when he would pick up his guitar as soon as I arrived at his home to show me new tunes he was working on. He wrote a couple of songs especially for me, which was a huge honor, especially because he was so reclusive, like Joao Gilberto.
JW: Did you perform in concert together?
IK: Bonfa loved to appear by surprise at my concerts, bringing his guitar and offering to sit in. The first time he did that, he entered the backstage, asking from the wings: "Don't you want to hire a guitarist for this band?" The musicians who played with me at the time recognized him instantly, of course, and were blown away. They felt so intimidated by his presence that they feared performing without a rehearsal. Bonfa was like a god to them. [Photo: Luiz Bonfa, Ithamara and John McLaughlin]
JW: What did you do?
IK: I started that concert by going off-stage and taking Bonfa on stage by the hand. As I led him out, I said to the audience, "We have a very special guest tonight, and he will start the show playing his song Manha de Carnaval from the movie Black Orpheus. When the audience realized Bonfa was there, they started to scream. He played superbly, of course, and we got a standing ovation on the first song! I'll never forget that night.
JW: You do quite a bit of touring.
IK: I'm just back from my third European tour this year. I performed at 47 concerts overseas in 2009, for a total of 82 concerts if you include my gigs in Brazil. My goal is to sing all over the world, I want to conquer new audiences all the time. That's why I do concerts for 1,500 people in Finland and 4,000 people in open-air jazz festivals in Korea. Last month I performed for the first time at jazz festivals in cities where I had never been before like Belgrade, Indija and Sofia, and people loved my music.
JW: I hear that the proceeds from Bim Bom are going to charity?
IK: Yes. I'm always involved in charities and benefit projects. I'm donating all of my revenue from Bim Bom's sales to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund of the Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J. I sing to give love to the people and receive love back. God gave me a gift. I can't disappoint Him.
JazzWax tracks: Ithamara Koorax's Bim Bom: The Complete Joao Gilberto Songbook features 11 songs composed by the creator of the bossa nova beat. Gilberto wrote only 11 songs that he and others have recorded. Joining Ithamara is acoustic guitarist Juarez Moreira. The liner notes are by Ira Gitler. Bim Bom is available at iTunes and at Amazon here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Ithamara and Bernard Fines singing the theme from A Man and A Woman in 2007...