Friday, October 3, 2008

On a Visit From Brazil, a Certain Vowel in Tow

Music Review | Gal Costa

Published: October 1, 2008

photo by Michelle V. Agins of the NY Times

Whenever Gal Costa draws out a flat “a” at the end of a Portuguese word, she wins. She can do this as much as she wants, and it always works. She doesn’t use it showily; she’s in her early 60s now, and her voice has become darker and softer. But the corners of her mouth widen so that you can see her back teeth, her tone dramatically brightens, and suddenly what was language becomes purely sound.

Halfway through her first set at the Blue Note on Tuesday, where she plays through the week with only the guitarist Romero Lubambo accompanying her, she sang a version of Caetano Veloso’s “Lindeza.” It’s a love song without a specific object — maybe just the idea of beauty itself — and as she sang the opening line “coisa linda” (“beautiful thing”), she won twice. After that came “louca,” “boca,” “acreditar,” and then, a bit later, the line she had clearly been waiting for: in a downward stepwise melody, “lua lua lua lua.” It meant “moon,” four times, but it was as if she had cracked open the word, had thrown away the shell of meaning and had shown us the viscous stuff inside it.

Singing this particular vowel pulls her face into a smile, and that was good too because Ms. Costa seemed otherwise preoccupied and slightly downcast between songs. For someone who clearly cares about sound, she had reason to be anxious: a show this intimate was an experiment.

In her American appearances over the last several years she has compressed her performance style: big concerts have given way to appearances with a small jazzlike ensemble, and now, unprecedentedly, this. In the set’s ballads, and in bossa novas done the right way — as miniaturized adaptations of percussive samba, with strong and subtle swing — there was a great deal of intricacy. She’ll need the week to get used to the room and to Mr. Lubambo, with whom she hasn’t played much in the past.

But the signs are promising. Ms. Costa has chosen some of the most durable songs from Brazilian popular music — songs by Chico Buarque, Antonio Carlos Jobím, Ary Barroso and Mr. Veloso, among others. (“The Girl From Ipanema” was among them, delivered half in Portuguese and half, unnecessarily, in English.) For his part, Mr. Lubambo was working hard. A highly fluent guitarist with a lot of jazz knowledge but enough taste to leave bossa novas uncluttered, he brought his own remarkable introductions and arrangements of Jobím’s “Wave” and Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil.” At the best points of the set they both gave off an intense affection for the songs, and you could grasp it more clearly without other musicians around them.

Gal Costa and Romero Lubambo will perform through Sunday at the Blue Note, 131 West 3rd Street, West Village,

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