Composed by Jobim, Jon Hendricks and Newton Mendonca, 'One Note Samba' has appeared on countless records and on several by Jobim himself. This particular version -- off Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd's groundbreaking 1962 album 'Jazz Samba' -- includes Jobim on rhythm guitar. 'Jazz Samba' laid the groundwork for the subsequent 'Getz/Gilberto' breakthrough. And while there are many great versions of this classic bossa nova song, this instrumental version of 'One Note Samba' emphasizes the jazz and samba roots of bossa nova.
One of the few compositions penned by Gilberto, the song's opening verse is basically repeating the title a few dozen times with different phrasing. The second verse essentially says something to the effect that "this is all I have to say." It's playful and perhaps a little too truthful if you consider how ambivalent Gilberto feels about appearing in public.
The compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim (with various collaborators) dominate this list; but the genius of the maestro wasn't simply his writing, he was a brilliant arranger as well. The title track to his 1967 album, 'Wave' shows another side of bossa nova, one with a full string section sweetening the sound and gentle horns providing echoing harmonies. On the surface, the arrangement sounds so smooth that it is almost easy listening -- but if you listen to how the instruments all fit together, you quickly realize a genius was at work.
There are countless versions of 'Triste' (which means "sad") out there, but what puts Jobim and singer Elis Regina's version -- from the landmark 1974 collaboration 'Elis & Tom' -- at the head of the pack is the vulnerability this powerhouse singer gives to this bossa nova song. The featured small backing band was a bunch of relative unknowns at the time, but the guitar work of Oscar Castro-Neves stands out as just a little bit funky, adding a unexpected wrinkle to the song.
Also known as 'Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars,' this song captures the romance of the Brazilian night. Rio is famous for its nightlife, but one imagines Vinicius de Moraes sitting on his balcony writing under the stars as the crickets chirped. The song tells of climbing the Corcovado in Rio -- which is the mountain with the giant statue of Christ at the top -- and basks in the romance of two lovers looking out over the twinkling lights above and below. Although there are many classic versions, there is none better than this one from 'Getz/Gilberto.' Astrud (Gilberto's wife) never sounded lovelier.
There is probably no sadder song in the bossa nova canon than 'Insensatez' ('How Insensitive'). Composed by Jobim and de Moraes, this gem first appeared on the 1963 album 'The Composer of Desifinado Plays.' If there was ever a break up song this one is it, with its sad melody and plaintive harmonies. The lyrics are about the end of a romance, for the narrator could get himself to admit his love for a woman. This version is instrumental, with Jobim tapping out the melody in a slow simple line that conveys the heart-wrenching sadness of a breakup.
'Waters of March'
Yet another song penned by Jobim, 'Waters of March' (or 'Aguas de Marco') has been interpreted countless times -- with Jobim appearing on classic versions such as the one featured on Astrud Gilberto's 1965 debut album. However, this classic version done for 1974 collaboration with Elis Regina sticks out the most. One of the great voices of Brazil, the late-Regina could convey a rainbow of emotions with her voice, which made her ideal for the less-is-more aesthetic that often highlighted this style. In collaborative album, the two play a game of cat and mouse -- with the lightest of playful touches.
The title here means "slightly out of tune" or "off key," which the song is -- bossa novas have a gentle rhythmic drive and typically soft delivery but there is a slight dischord to the playing (called flattened 5ths by musicians) that gives the music its tension. Like all the classic bossa nova songs, there are many versions of this track. Two, however, stand out: the instrumental version beautifully arranged by Jobim, and an early version by Joao Gilberto. Getz's also had a hit with this song on 'Getz/Gilberto.'
'Chega de Saudade'
Also known as 'No More Blues,' 'Chega de Saudade' was part of that fruitful collaboration between Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes; however, the definitive performance of the song is by Joao Gilberto on a 1958 single (with 'Bim Bom' on the b-side) -- which started the entire bossa nova revolution. In this bossa nova song, you can hear the music's signature guitar rhythm and Jobim's love of strings, as well a happier version of Gilberto, which suites the song perfectly. To call this song anything less than definitive would be a mistake.
About a girl walking down the street in the Ipanema neighborhood of Rio, this bossa nova song transpired after Jobim and de Moraes spotted a beautiful while sitting in a sidewalk café. On the classic 'Getz/Gilberto' effort, the first verse features Gilberto singing in Portuguese, Astrid coming in for the second in English and then Getz solo-ing in the third. There are countless great versions of this song, but the 'Getz/Gilberto' one is undoubtedly, the world's most recognized bossa nova.