Countless American jazz artists have delved into the unfathomably deep and seductive ocean of Brazilian standards, interpreting the ravishing songs of Jobim, Lins, Nascimento, Bonfa and their peers. Turn about is certainly fair play. Brazilian-born guitarist and vocalist Paulinho Garcia brings an understated bossa nova sensibility and keen jazz-steeped harmonic ear to a diverse collection of American Songbook treasures on the sublime Beautiful Love, which is slated for release on St. Valentine's Day, 2014 on his Jazzmin Records label as a co-production with Shrinktunes Media.
A prolific recording artist long based in Chicago, Garcia is a regular presence on the international concert circuit who has never quite broken through to American jazz audiences. Beautiful Love showcases his essential gift for inhabiting songs as if speaking directly from his soul, with an emotional intimacy that flows directly from his burnished baritone.
In an age that too often celebrates a more-is-more aesthetic, Garcia stands out as an artist who understands the power of silence and simplicity. Beautiful Love serves as an ideal introduction to Garcia, a master improviser whose deftly orchestral guitar work and deceptively unadorned delivery puts a potent personal stamp on classic material while honoring timeless melodies. "I always try to be very truthful to the composer," says Garcia, who is known for uncovering rarely played verses of otherwise familiar songs. "I change the harmony to fit my way of playing, but I never change the melody. And if the composer took the time to write a beautiful verse, we should do it too."
Something of an odyssey through the mysteries of the human heart, Beautiful Love avoids imposing a conspicuous narrative structure on the program, but there's a sense of emotional discovery around each turn. Garcia moves from Portuguese to English and Spanish and back again, enfolding the American Songbook material with two Brazilian treasures. A seamless and unabashed sojourn into the vicissitudes of love, from roiling passion and headlong romance to heartache and despair, the album opens with Jobim and De Moraes' quietly beguiling "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" (I Know I'm Going to Love You) and closes with the captivating folk song "Casinha Pequenina" (The Little House Where Our Love Was Born), with a midway detour through the aching bolero "Historia de un Amor."
Like many a romance, the album takes off with a mood of beaming optimism, even as Garcia injects a note of longing into the usually sweeping ballad "When I Fall In Love." The affair picks up steam as he captures the giddy rush of infatuation with "Like Someone In Love." Approaching the title track almost like a soliloquy, "Beautiful Love" feels like an homage to Shirley Horn, with Garcia's note choice every bit is interesting and apt as the grand dame's supremely sophisticated piano.
If the tribute to Horn is understated and perhaps unplanned, Garcia leaves no doubt that he's sending a love letter to harmonica legend Toots Thielemans with his expertly grooving version of "Bluesette," which he turns into an insistent samba. The piece was inspired by Garcia's experience at an all-star tribute for Thielemans in Singapore several years ago when he suddenly found himself alone on stage accompanying Toots, playing the guitar part Thielemans originally created. As a song that usually lends itself to melodrama "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is a perfect example of Garcia's knack for quietly revelatory interpretation. Setting the tune to a tango beat, he injects a note of irony into the cautionary tale. From the carnal to the ineffably sensual, he sighs out "But Beautiful," turning Van Heusen and Burke's daydream into an almost spiritual vision.
In many ways, Beautiful Love is something of a departure for Garcia, who is known for his eclectic repertoire. "My last CD was all Beatles compositions, Beatles Nova," he says. "And before that I did a Two For Brazil album that's more jazz oriented. But many critics say they love the romantic feeling I bring to songs, so Judith and I thought I should do a CD all talking about love."
A musician, writer and psychologist, Dr. Judith Schlesinger is the album's co-producer. She was drawn to Garcia by the understated mastery of his music and the healing quality that emanates from his intimate and soothing sound, which she feels offers "an antidote to the darkness, frantic pulse, and noise out there."
Born on August 16, 1948 in Belo Horizonte, the cosmopolitan capital of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, Garcia can't remember a time when he wasn't surrounded by music. He wasn't part of Milton Nascimento's legendary Clube de Esquina, but some of the members lived close by and their musicality suffused the neighborhood. Singing on the radio as part of a youth choir by the age of nine, Garcia actually wanted to be a soccer player, but by the time he was in his mid-teens it was clear that he wasn't headed toward an athletic career. While he ended up graduating from college with a degree in physics, Garcia's determination to follow his passion for music shaped the course of his life.
"My first interest was in rock, especially British rock, and in school I played drums in a little rock band," Garcia says. "One day the bassist got mad and left, and I picked up the bass. Within two years I got hired as house musician at the local TV station where I accompanied a lot of acts from Rio."
He turned his attention to African American music when a recording by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson seized his imagination. He was further entranced by Nat "King" Cole, and then utterly smitten by trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker, whose sound had already played an essential role in shaping bossa nova. Immersing himself in jazz gave him the harmonic vocabulary to create his own chord voicings for whatever songs he feels moved to interpret. "I do my own harmonies on the original melody, and with my phrasing and feeling on guitar it becomes Brazilian," Garcia says. "As I like to say when I introduce a tune, here's a great song by the Brazilian composer named Gershwin. These American standards are so beautiful. When you have great melodies you can do whatever you want."
Drawn by some musical opportunities he moved to Chicago in 1979. While he quickly gained attention among his fellow musicians, he spent many years working a day job to support his family. It was only in the mid-90s that he started focusing on music full time, and since then he's released a steady flow of stellar albums, often in collaboration with other artists. Uninterested in courting the spotlight, he's been a behind the scenes force, producing concerts by some of Brazil's most celebrated artists and sharing his knowledge as an educator.
Garcia and tenor saxophonist Greg Fishman have released half a dozen acclaimed albums and toured internationally as Two For Brazil, their homage to the legacy of João Gilberto and Stan Getz. He's also recorded extensively with the inventive Polish jazz singer Grażyna Auguścik, another transplant to Chicago who has forged a singular sound. Garcia has released several solo albums, but with Beautiful Love, this quietly brilliant artist is poised to become a late-blooming jazz star.