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A rare concert in 1998 was a chance to see the great musical pioneer emerge from hiding and why his glorious talent lifted him beyond pop fads

In 1998, I had the rare experience of seeing bossa nova pioneer Joo Gilberto live in concert in San Francisco. Gilberto, who died on Saturday at age 88, was a famous recluse known both for his magical music-making as well as his stage fright. If you had the chance to watch him perform live, you seized the opportunity because it might never happen again. This is my account of that memorable evening.

This anxious man in a brown suit

The man holding the guitar has the nervous look of someone who has just stepped off a subway train and now worries he has picked the wrong stop. The concert promoter is taken aback by his unexpected appearance she is still in the midst of her introduction (I would like to thank my boyfriend, I would like to thank the audience for being here ). She has not yet mentioned the star of the evening, Joo Gilberto. And here he is onstage now, looking very unlike the evening star, this anxious man in a brown suit, who wants to get back on the subway train but is afraid that it has already left the station.

As was the case at Carnegie Hall a few nights before, the audience gives a standing ovation merely at a glimpse of the performer. The warm welcome may backfire. Applause seems only to amplify Gilbertos stage fright. But retreat is impossible, the train has certainly left the station by now. He moves to the small padded bench at centre stage, sits down and stares at his feet.

Getting on stage may be the most difficult part of a concert for Joo Gilberto, legendary inventor of the bossa nova style. Twenty-one years have passed since his last performance in San Francisco. But veterans of the nightclub scene still recall his engagement with Stan Getz at the now-defunct Keystone Korner where club owner Todd Barkan virtually needed to shove Gilberto out on stage. His reclusion is well known, and few expected him ever to perform again in the United States.

Many stories are told of Gilbertos shyness. Some may well be apocryphal: for instance, the account of Elba Ramahlo, a well-know singer in her own right, reportedly moving into the same apartment building as Gilberto, in an attempt to befriend him. When Joo phoned her one day to borrow a deck of playing cards, she quickly complied, seeing this as her chance to break through the barriers that kept him out of contact with other human beings. To no avail. When she arrived at the door of his apartment, he refused to let her in, asking her to slip the cards, one at a time, under the door.

The same week that Gilberto is scheduled to perform in San Francisco, a number of famous Brazilian singers, including Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, are participating in a Brazilian music festival in France. Their visit coincides with the World Cup match taking place there, and is likely motivated by the performers desire to root for the Brazil team in person. Yet Joo has somehow been convinced to come to the US for concerts in New York, Miami and San Francisco while his compatriots are congregating in France. The apparent reason is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bossa nova recordings which Gilberto made for Brazils Odeon label in June 1958.

Knowledgeable fans realise how rare a treat this is. At Carnegie Hall, one could spot Tony Bennett, Jon Hendricks, Joo Bosco, Tommy Mottola, Cornell Dupree and Sonia Braga, among other luminaries. The day before the California concert, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Gilbertos appearance was the hottest ticket in town.

Joo Gilberto marries his second wife, Heloisa Maria Buarque de Hollanda, aka Miucha, in a ceremony on April 22, 1965 in New York. Photograph: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Now firmly seated on his bench, Gilberto begins speaking in a whisper. The applause has yet to die down, but suddenly the audience becomes quiet, strains to hear what he is saying. No, he is not whispering, it just seems that way. He is singing, but very softly. I am in the third row, only a few feet away, yet it takes me some time before I can hear his guitar, which is even quieter than his voice.

The confusion is not surprising. Gilbertos singing style is as shy as his stage demeanour. Miles Davis once said that Joos delivery was so hypnotic that he would sound good reading a newspaper. The analogy is apt in many ways. Gilberto is almost as quiet as a man reading the newspaper, almost as introspective, as unaware of whats happening around him. When Tom Jobim first brought Gilberto to the attention of record company executives four decades ago, they listened in shocked silence to this singer who hardly moved his lips. Finally one remarked: Tom said hed bring us a singer, but ended up bringing a ventriloquist.

The release of their first record, Chega de Saudade, would eventually be lauded as the most influential event in modern Brazilian music. But resistance was firm at first. When the sales staff played it for an influential client, he tore it off the turntable and smashed the record against the table. Why do they record singers who have a cold? he asked sarcastically.

Within a few months, Gilberto had taken Brazil by storm. Five years later, the bossa craze reached America, where Gilberto teamed with Stan Getz for a recording which spawned the hit single Girl from Ipanema, and spent almost two years on the Billboard album charts.

Gilberto was a revolutionary, but one who retained strong links to the previous generation of Brazilian musicians. On his US tour he performs the many Jobim compositions that he made famous, but also plays pieces by Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi, whose songs were recorded by Camen Miranda before the second world war. And he is equally at home with the later generation of Brazilian Tropicalist songwriters, such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Many in the audience were no doubt surprised when Gilberto sang SWonderful in English, but George Gershwin and Cole Porter are equally part of his tradition.

Gilberto is anything but derivative in his use of these influences. They become part of his musical vision; he never adapts to them. His relationship to the audience is similar. They must come to him, to the artistic space he occupies it is not in his nature to reach out to them. And this is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the concert: how the listeners brought themselves to the shy man on stage, adapting to his soft dynamics, his under-stated sensibility, his artistic vision. In a day and age when performers resort to the basest tricks and grandest gestures to reach the audience, Gilbertos role reversal is endearing.

His singing has become even more eccentric with the passing years. His voice on the 1958 recordings may have struck listeners by its soft-spoken ambiance, but today it is even more conversational, even less declamatory. His phrasing of lyrics has always been unusual, but is even more so now. Joo is skilled at singing behind the beat, like many jazz singers, but his ability to phrase ahead of the beat is even more remarkable. Few singers attempt to push the beat in this manner, because doing so tends to impart a rushed and anxious quality to the music. It remains a mystery to me how Gilberto can propel the lyrics one bar or more ahead of the music, yet continue to sound so extraordinarily relaxed. One is reminded of the jets flying high in the sky, which we are told travel at fantastic speeds, yet from our vantage point appear to be moving at a slow, leisurely pace.

Everything about the sound of Gilbertos music conveys relaxation. Everything about his appearance on stage suggests tension. He never looks at the audience while playing, and in between songs he stares at his feet, apparently checking the list of songs on the floor, and nervously adjusts his glasses. He pushes them up the bridge of his nose, touches the temples, steadies them, moves them again up to a dozen times. And then, not waiting for the applause to stop completely, he begins playing the next song.

Tonight he introduces none of his songs, offers no thanks, acknowledges no applause. Even when his microphone begins to malfunction, he merely ignores it and plays on. He makes only one remark during the entire evening. Midway through the concert, the audience is growing restless at the recurring static and noise coming from the sound system. The sound engineer can be seen at the side of the stage, but seems reluctant to interrupt the proceedings. Finally, a young man climbs on stage in-between songs to fix the microphone. An audience member shouts out a rude comment about the poor quality of the amplification. As the young man fixes the microphone, Gilberto explains proudly in slow, steady English: This is my son. The audience claps, even Gilberto claps for a moment in response, and for a split second a hint of a smile plays on his face. Then he again retreats into himself, and begins to sing Wave.

Gilberto is at his best when playing, as on this occasion, with only his guitar as accompaniment. I prefer his solo recordings even to the famous collaborations with Getz. Indeed, I have had the opportunity to play songs such as Desafinado and Garota de Ipanema with Getz memorable experiences in my performing career as a jazz pianist yet I was perhaps even more moved to hear Gilberto play these same numbers in concert. One marvels at his ability to cut to the core of pieces that have lost their freshness over time, played to death by cocktail lounge hacks and anaesthetised by wedding reception singers.

Gilbertos guitar playing is every bit as quirky as his singing. It relies on a few repeated rhythms employing bass tones played by the thumb conversing with a constantly changing palette of rich harmonies strummed by the other fingers. Early in his career, this distinctive approach became known as violao gago, which translates as stammering guitar. It sounds deceptively simple. Yet though many emulated it in the years following Gilbertos rise to fame, few succeeded in capturing its essence. One listens in vain to some of the most technically accomplished Brazilian guitarists Laurindo Almeida, Baden Powell, Oscar Castro-Neves and never hears a bossa nova rhythm with a swing as relaxed and carefree as Gilbertos.

Joo Gilberto performing in 2008. Photograph: Marco Hermes/AFP/Getty Images

Although one notes superficial changes when comparing Gilbertos playing tonight with his first recordings, the similarities are even more striking. Gilberto has clearly rejected the notion which one associates with Picasso, but is at the heart of so much twentieth century art that a creative individual must go through different periods.

In fact, I have become so accustomed to my musical icons Miles Davis, the Beatles, Lou Harrison, Brian Wilson, Glenn Gould pursuing step-changes in their work, that I have come to appreciate all the more artists such as Gilberto, who stay true to the core values of their artistic vision throughout their entire careers. I was tempted to say that Gilbertos style has not changed. But the word style does an injustice in this context. With its implicit reference to the world of fads and fashions, a style has become something superficial, something that we can discard when a new style comes out next season. Gilbertos music defies this attitude. It is one of essences, not superficialities. As such, it is beyond concerns of style. His music has not changed, one feels, because his being has not changed. I am convinced that this is connected to his ambivalence about his audience. On stage he appears to be performing for himself. And anyone whose music-making is for personal enjoyment can obviously have little concern with whatever happens to be stylish at any given moment in time.

A little over an hour into the performance, Gilberto closes with Desafinado, then hurries into the wings. He soon returns for an encore set of a half-dozen songs, including Garota de Ipanema and Mas Que Nada. Again he leaves the stage, without thanks or comment. A woman holding a bouquet of flowers for him has to sprint across the platform to reach Gilberto before he disappears into the wings. He stops, seems surprised, takes the flowers from her hand, and then gives her a warm embrace strikingly at odds with his noli me tangere demeanour during the concert. Then he is gone. The audience claps and shouts for an encore. Yet even before the house lights come on, I know that we will not be seeing any more of Joo Gilberto in San Francisco not this evening, not any evening, according to my odds. And I am reasonably sure that the louder the audience claps, the more they frighten our evening star, the faster he retreats back into his private constellation.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/jul/07/an-evening-with-joao-gilberto-the-bright-wallflower-of-bossa-nova