Saturday, February 21, 2004

Luiz Bonfá

Written in 2004 as the booklet essay for the Folkways disc Solo in Rio

This is the historic first release on CD of one of Luiz Bonfá’s masterpieces, complete at last. Because the Smithsonian possesses the original master tapes (part of the generous legacy of the innovative recording engineer Emory Cook), the disc comprises all seventeen tracks from the 1959 Cook LP (#1134),O Violão de Luiz Bonfá, plus nearly another half hour of never-released material. This includes not just alternate takes but pieces which Bonfá never recorded elsewhere.

Even within Bonfá’s enormous output, the Cook recording remains very special. Every guitar aficionado will enjoy hearing Luiz thrive in that most challenging situation, of playing solo. His warmth, intimacy, and dynamism suffuse every track; he plays the most treacherous passages with characteristic effortlessness, and sounds absolutely free and relaxed on this unforgiving instrument. The number of tracks apparently improvised on the spot only adds to the virtuosic allure. It is simply how the man played, on one of his best days before a microphone.

Though Bonfá was technically superb — to my mind, one of the great guitarists of the 20th century — he always puts his prodigious abilities at the service of the music. It is never virtuosity for its own sake, or to impress; his innovations always arise with some specific musical effect in mind. As Cook wrote in his original liner notes: “The ten Bonfá fingers, presumably in a fairly marital state at birth, are now collectively and separately divorced, each from the others to such an extent that it has been facetiously suggested that he should carry at least five paid-up union cards.”

Luiz Floriano Bonfá (October 17, 1922—January 12, 2001) was born in what he called the “jungle village” of Santa Cruz, Brazil, the son of an Italian immigrant. He took up the guitar at age 11 — it was a birthday present — and, serious from the beginning, quickly absorbed all the local teacher had to offer. With the apparent luck that seems to follows people of unusual destiny, a short time later the boy was at a party in Rio and met the Uruguayan classical guitar master Isaias Savio, a resident of the city, who asked him to play and then immediately offered to teach him.

By that time — the mid-1930s — Savio (1902-77) was one of the finest and most widely knowledgeable guitarists in South America. He had studied with the great Miguel Llobet (a Catalan, the most eminent disciple of the 19th century Spanish master Francisco Tarrega), and was thus able to pass on to the young Bonfá a demanding, systematic approach that would also encourage an original and flexible style to develop freely. Three years of these weekly lessons, which meant a 2½ hour train trip each way, gave Luiz a thorough knowledge of 18th and 19th century repertoire and of the most highly developed “school” of the classical guitar — which remains a notoriously individualized instrument in terms of technique compared to, say, the violin or the piano.

“Savio was extraordinary to study with,” Bonfá remembered years later. “Unlike many teachers, he was the friend of his students. We were like one big family of pupils with a spectacular father.” Bonfá would eventually reply in kind by sending a promising boy named Carlos Barbosa-Lima, now one of today’s best-known classical guitarists, to Savio.

Though Savio had declared that Bonfá could become one of the world’s top classical soloists, Luiz was increasingly drawn to the idea of dedicating himself to Brazil’s popular music. (The ever open-minded Savio supported this decision.) By his late teens Luiz was expanding his formal training to the work of making a living playing in Rio’s nightclubs, hotels, and casinos.

This was a tremendously creative era in Brazil’s popular music culture, due partly to a hunger for live music on the radio stations. Traditional forms like chôro, serenata, and samba were being invigorated and reinvented; others, like waltzes and boleros, were being given an ever more Brazilian intonation as their own local roots deepened. The influence of jazz from the U.S.A. was penetrating as well. Bonfá ended up performing and recording as both guitarist and singer with a successful vocal group, the Quitandinha Serenaders; when he left them, his stand-in was briefly the young João Gilberto. Luiz eventually wrote several songs that became hits for other singers, like “Ranchinho de Palha,” “Sem esse Céu,” “Cançao do Vaqueiro,” and most notably “De Cigarro em Cigarro” (‘From Cigarette to Cigarette’).

Many of Bonfá’s most dramatic instrumentals(“Sambolero,” “Uma Prece,” “Batucada,” “Dança India”) similarly date from his early twenties. His compositional style on the guitar was already mature — a sense of exuberant virtuosity allied to a mood of tender joy, amid a still-audacious ability to imitate several percussion instruments at once. What would come later was an equally daring, liberated harmonic sensibility which sprang from his deep love of impressionism and of Debussy in particular.

Around 1946 Bonfá met his other main mentor, who was less a teacher and more a musical elder brother: the guitarist Anibal Augusto Sardinha (1915-55).“Garoto” was a rare original who managed to combine a range of disparate classical and folk influences into an impressionistic, fervently Brazilian style that was passionate, technically brilliant, and harmonically idiosyncratic. Though only seven years older than Bonfá, Garoto had become extremely well-known through many radio performances, and was able to help Luiz in the early stages of his career.

Bonfá called Garoto “my dear friend by whom I was greatly influenced, a musical genius far ahead of his time . . . it was he who got me my first job with Radio Nacional. In spite of his great ability he was a truly humble man. We used to get together at his place in Copacabana and jam for hours, just the two of us.” Garoto’s stepdaughter Maria Alice de Medeiros Rosa — Luiz was later best man at her wedding in New York — remembers that Luiz and his guitar were constant visitors in the Rio household, along with other luminaries of Brazilian music. As she put it, “In terms of the guitar, Garoto always spoke of Bonfá as the best. And of course Luiz always spoke of Garoto as the best.”

Luiz first recorded as a leader in 1945, and by the time of the present disc (1959) he’d released under his own name about fifteen 78 rpms, mostly for Continental, and about a dozen LPs, mostly for Odeon — and played on plenty of other artists’ discs. [This is all detailed on the Bonfá Discography Website, the labor of love of two collectors, Koichi and Motoko Yasuoka, who have tirelessly put together the world’s most extensive Bonfá archive. [Http://]

Brazilian popular music was changing rapidly, as the old forms acquired a languid, contemporary cool that was eventually labeled bossa nova (“the new knack,” “the new thing,” or “the new swing”). Bonfá was an architect of this sound, along with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Baden Powell, and others, but the movement’s popularity sprang from an authentic feeling that was now simply in the air, and seemed to reside in every melody.

Bonfá was both partly responsible for it and partly absent from it. In 1957 he’d gone to New York, knowing little English, and found that “no one knew me or anything about Brazilian music.” Once again a chance invitation to a cocktail party brought him luck, for Mary Martin — an enormously successful singing star, Broadway’s Peter Pan — heard him play that night for fellow guests, and straightaway offered him a feature spot on a 60-city tour. Subsequent tours with her, and frequent TV appearances, helped him establish a Brazilian beachhead with U.S. audiences and record labels. For the next fifteen years Luiz lived in both countries, with a steady emphasis on the U.S.A.

The year before, 1956, Luiz had been the guitarist in a Rio musical theater piece with a marvelous ensemble; he’d added one number to the score, which was by his friend Jobim, with a libretto by the prominent poet Vinicius de Moraes. Orfeu da Conceição set the Orpheus legend in Rio, and got enough notice to attract the French director Marcel Camus, who in 1958 went down to Brazil to film the story within the setting of carnaval.

By this time Luiz was busy in the States, but he returned to Rio during a month off from the Mary Martin tour. When director Camus heard that Luiz was in the city, he asked him to write a melody for the main character. With a mere week to go before his flight back to the U.S., Luiz came up with a theme overnight that was liked by everyone involved except Camus, who asked him to try again. He did so, but when the new theme was approved by the director, Luiz insisted that the prior song was better, and argued until Camus relented.

When Orfeu Negro (‘Black Orpheus’) went on to win the ’59 Palme d’Or at Cannes (and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film), Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval” became the #1 hit in Europe and one of the most recorded songs in history. The entire soundtrack, which included Jobim’s “A Felicadade,” helped coalesce the coming awareness of bossa nova. (Over the years, Bonfá wrote or participated in quite a few soundtracks; his “The Gentle Rain,” from a lackluster 1966 film, has become a jazz mainstay.)

In the late sixties and early seventies Luiz rode out the bossa nova wave and, by spending more and more time in the U.S., became far better known here than in Brazil. Despite his uneven records during this time — which often feel as if it wasn’t he making the paramount decisions — Bonfá remained as innovative as ever, ready to experiment with a subtle compositional use of electronic effects like echo and delay on his classical guitar sound.

In 1971, apparently mid-career, he left the States and moved back to Rio. Afterward he explained that, “An artist has to look out or all the pressure will destroy him. Brazil is a slow, relaxed country, and I have many things aside from music that I enjoy doing.” These included collecting vintage cars and raising exotic birds and plants. On a visit to New York he told an old friend, “You’ve seen what it’s like in Rio — which would you choose?”

Bonfá’s later career seems a gradual happy withdrawal from the rat race of the music business. Always peripatetic, he still did concert tours to Europe and Australia and the occasional U.S. concert with the likes of Dave Brubeck. Regrettably, he rarely recorded solo after the superb 1972 LP Introspection, though with customary amiability he continued to record, often with lesser musicians. Still, it is impossible to know his magnificent early solo work, like the present disc, and not dream about the later introspections we never got to have.

In the 1980s and early 1990s Luiz returned to New York for several club dates and made a couple of compact discs. All the old gentleness of touch was still there, but soon afterward Alzheimer’s set in, and eventually left him unable to play and ever more remote from the person he’d been. He died in his beloved Rio from prostate cancer at 78.

It is a sad truth of the music profession that though a performer may sustain a long and fruitful career, his recordings usually telescope into a much shorter period with the kind of public attention that supports record contracts. Yet Bonfá’s recording career ran from 1945 until 1996 and spans over fifty discs; indeed, he was one of those rare performers whose first recordings were issued on 78s and whose last appeared as CDs.

Bonfá’s golden era is the decade that began in the early 1950s, when he and Jobim and Gilberto and a few others were inventing a fresh sound. Everyone knows about the popular boom of the bossa nova — so often degraded across a half-century by overuse in the wrong hands, yet in retrospect so remarkably invulnerable, for those original recordings still glow with the luminous poetry of a new magic entering the world.

One can debate the relative strength of its different roots — strains of jazz, the rich tradition of Brazilian popular music of earlier eras, plus elements of a South American classical tradition particularly as incarnated by Villa-Lobos — but at the heart of bossa nova were a dozen extraordinary young musicians who all listened to each other, and together heard life differently than anyone before.

This decade is the gravitational center of Bonfá’s most fascinating work. Sadly, very few guitarists nowadays, of any genre, are aware of Luiz’s mastery. Like the general public, they remember him not as a guitarist but only as the composer of three standards: “The Gentle Rain,” “Samba de Orfeu,” and “Manhã de Carnaval” (the latter variously referred to as ‘A Day in the Life of a Fool,’ ‘Morning of the Carnival,’ and ‘Black Orpheus’).

It seems surprising in the face of fifty-odd records, but until very recently it took determination to hunt down any discs of Bonfá’s serious work; even now many of his best LPs have not yet been re-released on CD. One danger of living in an age of cultural achaeology is that it’s easy to assume the treasures of yesteryear have all been unearthed and re-issued. The collectors know different.

Emory Cook (1913-2002) was once referred to as “the best ear in the U.S.A.” In an era when most classical guitar LPs can seem as if they were made in the same tiny bathroom, the sound Cook achieved here is detailed, unadorned, spacious, and uncolored by the usual mushy reverb. His widow Martha Cook has pointed out that Cook “liked the guitar in general, and played classical guitar quite well himself. When he began to court me, this is the record he brought to my house and played over and over.”

His trademark was an ability to make vital recordings on the spot, with no need of a studio. “He’d take his microphones and his Nagra — a portable tape machine — and go travel for months at a time. He specialized in field recordings; he had started off by recording the sounds of the sea and the sky. He always worked relentlessly at placing his microphones. He just wouldn’t give up until he got perfection.”

On this particular odyssey he also recorded in Mexico, Ecuador, and the Caribbean; Martha believes that Luiz was the only artist Cook recorded in Brazil. Unfortunately, the Cook archives contain no information on where the LP was made, or over how many days. The cover merely states, “... popular, serious, samba and a few songs / all recorded on Nagra in Rio de Janeiro.”

1959 was a busy year for Luiz. He toured with Mary Martin as a featured soloist until the spring. At some point he did a first-rate recording in the U.S. for Atlantic Records (Amor!) then returned to Rio, where he made this recording, using (according to the original liner notes) a “Model HS Series E Do Souto.” It sounds — and looks — like the same guitar Bonfá used on many LPs he made at about this time: a spruce top with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, judging by the cover photo.

In delving into the work of a popular instrumentalist like Bonfá, we’re appreciating someone who is creating music not for the larger world of many other interpreters (as a composer usually intends), but primarily to play himself. As a result we sometimes end up judging him on the collective strengths of his artistic personality, the sum of all the work, rather than on the quality of an individual piece. His style, not any particular composition, in effect becomes the opus.

The 31 extremely diverse cuts on this disc fall into three categories: original compositions (19), which Bonfá played somewhat differently each time; probable outright improvisations (9), done on that day’s spur-of-the-moment; and his semi-improvised versions of other’s compositions (3).

Thus, except for three cuts, the music on this disc is entirely by Luiz. This alone made him a rarity within the guitar world of the 1950s, no matter what style. Even rarer was that so much of this particular LP was improvised.

One crucial aspect of Bonfá’s artistic personality is that he was happy to make up the music literally while he played it. The guitarist, musicologist, and composer Brian Hodel has recounted a puzzling Rio afternoon spent trying to extract an ideal performance of “The Gentle Rain” from Luiz to transcribe, and watching him play it totally differently a few times before it dawned on Hodel that Luiz was not only improvising, but instinctively disinclined to repeat himself. Each version was unique, and valid.

The implicit question — How much is improvised? — tends to be knotty for any genre that involves musicians making up substantial parts of a performance as they play. Every jazz musician improvising on “Summertime” assumes his colleagues know the song’s structure and have sufficiently acute ears to follow any harmonic substitution and melodic byway that strike at a moment’s whim. (Ditto a flamenco guitarist, a blues saxophonist, an Indian vina player.)

Jazz scholars sometimes argue the point of honor of how much so-and-so is making up on the spot — as if a wholly-improvised performance is more “honest,” whatever that means — without admitting that a large percentage of a piece is necessarily agreed-on in advance. In effect, what is occurring in all these genres is improvised variations on pre-existing material.

This is far from the Western classical tradition of improvising that has, save among master organists, largely died out. In Bach’s day, for instance, any keyboardist worth his job could create a four-voice fugue from scratch, and there are many accounts of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s improvisational abilities, only hinted at by the piano Fantasy, op.77.

The chief drawback of improvisation is that it’s difficult to invent a compelling structure off-the-cuff; hence the long tendency of musicians to turn to the ready-made one, be it a fugue or a 32-bar song. For the musician giving it life, the structure is liberating by being understood from the start, a skeleton waiting to be fleshed out. But even with no structure at all, there’s often considerable beauty in an improvisation intended solely to express the mood of a moment, the free-flowing river of an acute musical imagination and its fingers. That fleeting sense of pure fantasia, of expressing the tidal currents of a dreaming mind even as an idea quickens to life and then vanishes, is one of music’s unique capabilities. At this, Luiz Bonfá was a master.

In practicing the rigorous art of improvising an entire piece from scratch, Luiz is a virtual anomaly within the world of Brazilian guitar, at least as preserved on record. There are plenty of accounts of major Brazilian guitarists as adept improvisers — say, Garoto (1915-55), Bola Sete (1928-87), Paulinho Nogueira (1929-2003), and Baden Powell (1937-2000), among others — but precious few recordings as examples. Yet for cut after cut, Emory Cook allows us to hear Luiz doing it in front of the microphones. [I suspect that part of the LP Introspection was also improvised.]

Naturally, we as listeners are inevitably always up against our own expectations. We approach a Schoenberg sonata differently than a Bach mass, an Indian raga, a tango, or a Broadway song; this is as it should be. In a wide world where all are far more easily available than a decade ago, it is important to try to hear what each is trying to say, to learn to listen in as many different ways as possible — both to appreciate what each is, and not expect any to be what they are not. (As the artist and poet Dolber B. Spalding aptly wrote in a 1977 essay for Chelys, a music quarterly, “One thousand mice do not equal a horse.”)

What I’m getting at is that even though this disc contains magnificent performances of several melodies that will still be played long after we are all dead, it also contains a number of slighter Bonfá pieces, made up on the spot, that are only passing remarks and fancies — albeit of a singular musical personality. They would sound quite different played by any another guitarist, no matter how good, and probably come across wrong in those other hands. Their purpose is merely to express a brief human moment, not to construct a cathedral. They are best approached as part of a visit with Luiz Bonfá, which is the overriding mood of this record. As a guitarist he could do no wrong; no one has spoken more deeply, intimately, and exuberantly on six nylon strings that — until just a decade before this recording — had always been spun from animal’s guts.

Having now lived with this recording over many months in preparing these notes, I’ve been reminded countless times of the sense of wonder and mystery with which, as a young guitarist, I first encountered it over twenty-five years ago. Now I know — most of the time — what Luiz is actually doing; and yet it is no less wondrous. I have played my original scratchy copy for many friends across the decades, and whether or not they were musicians, they were all aware of being in the presence of true human magic, and that almost tactile thrill which comes from hearing a performer on one of his best days. Luiz Bonfá was one of nature’s musicians: a man who could transmit beauty easily and intimately, and who was afraid of nothing on the guitar. I am happy to be able to say, after all these years, that he remains as great an inspiration and a joy as when I first heard the sounds of that unique poetic spirit.

Selected Luiz Bonfá discography:

Luiz Bonfá (Continental, 1955)
Orfeu da Conceição (Odeon, 1956)
Alta Versatilidade (Odeon, 1957); issued as Brazilian Guitar (Capitol Records)
Violão Boêmio (Odeon, 1957)
Bonfafá (Odeon, 1958)
Meu Querido Violão (Odeon, 1958)
Amor! (Atlantic, 1959)
A Voz e o Violão (Odeon, 1960)
Pery Ribeiro e Seu Mundo de Canções Românticas (Odeon, 1962)
Luiz Bonfá Plays and Sings Bossa Nova (Verve, 1962)
Violão Boêmio vol. 2 (Odeon, 1963)
Jazz Samba Encore! (Verve, 1963, with Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Maria Toledo)
Introspection (RCA, 1972)
Bonfá Burrows Brazil (Cherry Pie, 1978)
Non-Stop to Brazil (Chesky, 1989)

Selected reading:


Brian Hodel, “The Brazilian Guitar,” (Dennis McMillan Publishing,1983; out-of-print; contains 5 transcriptions)
Luiz Bonfá, “The Music of Luiz Bonfá: Four Pieces” (ed. Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Guitar Solo Publications, 1987)


Brian Hodel, “Luiz Bonfá, Ambassador of Brazilian Swing” Guitar Player, May 1983
Brian Hodel, “Spotlight on Luiz Bonfá,” Guitar Review, Winter 1984
Brian Hodel, “The Brazilian Guitar,” Guitar Review, Winter 1991

Selected filmography:

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), dir. Marcel Camus, 1959


  1. Wow! Think I'll move to Rio ...

  2. It would be lovely to see some photos of Rio...