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Exploring the mysteries of bossa nova

Rosa Passos is one of the purest interpreters of bossa nova and a well-regarded composer in her own right. Rosa Passos is one of the purest interpreters of bossa nova and a well-regarded composer in her own right.
Email|Print| Text size + By Siddhartha Mitter
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2007

From rock to electronica to regional traditional rhythms, musical exports of Brazil are as varied as befits that country's size and diversity. Still, one style above all has come to symbolize the Brazilian sensibility. There's no sound more quintessentially cool than bossa nova, the quietly seductive distillation of samba and jazz that first took form in the late 1950s.

And in Rosa Passos, who visits the Berklee Performance Center tomorrow for a rare North American concert, bossa nova has one of its purest interpreters, a scholar of the genre's classic songbook and an acclaimed composer in her own right.

Born in Bahia in 1952, Passos got turned on to bossa nova in her early teens at the height of the music's initial creative explosion behind the work of such masters as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, and especially her idol, João Gilberto.

"João Gilberto was responsible for showing me my whole musical way of life," she says from her home in Brasilia. "I used to study piano from the age of 6. But when I first heard João Gilberto, I went crazy. I discovered that I wanted to play like that for the rest of my life."

She took up the guitar and learned to emulate Gilberto's uncanny - and at the time, unorthodox - singing style, subtle and nearly conversational. By the time she released her own first album in 1979, Brazilian reviewers marveled at her "small" voice - not a criticism in bossa nova, a music of nuance and balance where belting has no place.

Though she's been a presence on the Brazilian scene all along, Passos is newly achieving global exposure through a record deal with Sony and several exquisite releases. One, "Amorosa," is an homage to Gilberto and a response to his 1977 album "Amoroso," with several of the same songs in new arrangements, as well as a new item, "Essa é pr'o João," ("This Is for João") in which she thanks him "for the lesson of your dissonant chords, of your perfect singing."

While that album features multiple instrumentations, including some occasionally overbearing strings, Passos's latest release, "Rosa," is a stripped-down solo record of great purity in which she accompanies herself simply on the acoustic guitar on a mix of classic and original works.

" 'Rosa' was very special to me because it was the challenge of perfection," she says. "To do the right things at the right times, to find the right feelings for each song. It was a very special moment for me. I was on my own and it felt like I was showing the whole world my insides."

The ability to convey vulnerability with elegance and restraint is a hallmark of bossa nova that shines in Passos's interpretations. Each song is satisfying in its own right yet leaves open a sense of possibility, an alluring incompleteness that makes room for mystery and sensuality.

"Bossa nova is at the same time very simple and very sophisticated," Passos says. And in this character resides its continued appeal, not just to listeners who still find joy in chestnuts like "The Girl From Ipanema," but to interpreters who find those songs still fertile for new explorations.

"To me bossa nova is full of surprises," Passos says. "It's a very big field where one can always find new ways to sing very special songs, or give fresh interpretations to a classic. It's a very big universe. You are always learning how to reach new levels of the music."

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