“Less is more” goes the maxim, and nowhere has this concept been better understood than in Japan. The Japanese value an aesthetic called shibumi, which has no equivalent in English. The word refers to the understated elegance that pervades in the art and architecture of the island nation: the simple beauty of a ceramic tea bowl, or the quiet sophistication of a stone lantern.
Shibumi may be the best way to describe the 1964 Grammy-winning masterpiece Getz/Gilberto. The album’s eight songs, which include the iconic “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado,” are a fusion of two musical worlds. The legendary collaboration between American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian musicians João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim produced a work of sexy simplicity that epitomizes the shibumi aesthetic, which happens to be making a comeback in today’s style.
Composer/pianist Jobim and singer/guitarist Gilberto were the pioneers of the Brazilian bossa nova style that developed in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Portuguese for “new trend,” bossa nova is a more subdued, percussion-less take on the traditional Afro-Brazilian samba. Casual and unobtrusive melodies and gentle rhythm give bossa nova its cool, relaxed feeling — like a stroll down a sandy beach in Rio.
Bossa nova struck a chord with American listeners when it reached the U.S. in the early ’60s. It was therefore no surprise that when saxophonist Getz — who had already experimented with Brazilian music on his album Jazz Samba — teamed up with Gilberto and Jobim, their work became one of jazz’s best-selling albums.
Performing Jobim’s songs is the soft-voiced Gilberto, who also strums along on the guitar. Getz’s saxophone improvisations on Jobim’s pieces reveal the entire scope of rhythmic and melodic possibilities contained in the ostensibly simple melodies — the range of complexity beneath the shibumi.
Joining the team on the album’s two hit singles was Gilberto’s wife at the time, singer Astrud Gilberto, who sang the English translations of “Girl from Ipanema” and “Corcovado.” One line from the latter is a perfect lyrical representation of the unobtrusive beauty of shibumi: “Quiet nights of quiet stars / Quiet chords from my guitar / Floating on the silence that surrounds us.”
Astrud’s sensuous voice with its “exotic” Brazilian accent typified the sophistication of the ’60s. Yet until very recently, the stylish and classy early years of the decade went overlooked. Any mention of the ’60s conjures images of psychedelic drugs, hippies, rock‘n’roll and Woodstock. But this sort of youth counterculture that emerged in the late ’60s had little to do with the more adult “Mad Men” era, as the early ’60s have come to be called. In fact, AMC’s hit TV show is largely responsible for rekindling America’s recent interest in the more mature modernist chic of the period.
As depicted in “Mad Men,” shibumi was a dominant feature in the look and feel of the early ’60s. The bichromatic or trichromatic paintings of Mark Rothko — one of which adorns the wall of Bert Cooper’s office in “Mad Men” — and the steel-and-glass skyscrapers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe capture the unassuming appeal of the shibumi aesthetic. In fact, Mies van der Rohe was famous for embracing the mantra “less is more” in his approach to architecture.
This philosophy has been absorbed into the fashions of today and explains the resurging popularity of trim suits, slim-fitting cocktail dresses and well-groomed hairstyles. Even the demand for IKEA’s streamlined minimalist furniture has something to do with the shibumi renaissance.
Getz/Gilberto, then, is the perfect musical expression of this style. The album is the antithesis of the loud and crazy rock of The Beatles, with a thousand screaming girls running after them. The synthesis of American jazz and Brazilian bossa nova created softer, quieter and more stylish music — something you could sip a cocktail to.