Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tom Jobim V's Frank Sinatra

A few months ago my friend invited me to a free concert in the city, put on to celebrate the music of the late Brazilian singer Tom Jobim.  Jobim was the guy who composed Garota de Ipanema (known in many English speaking countries as The Girl from Ipanema), which is the second most recorded song of all time behind The Beatles’ Yesterday. He is regarded by many as not only being one of Brazil's most successful recording artists, but also as one of the country's most influential. As you can probably imagine then, the concert held on a sleepy Sunday afternoon was absolutely packed!

Vanessa da Mata
On the day of the event a selection of his most popular hits were interpreted by Grammy award winning singer Vanessa da Mata. Midway through the gig though she walked off stage and old video footage of Jobim singing his signature song Garota de Ipanema was played to the thousands in attendance. Tom Jobim wasn't singing this song alone though, he was duetting with Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

Prior to moving to Brazil, the version sung by Sinatra was the one I was more familiar with. However, the longer I've been here, the more exposure I've had to Jobim’s version. So as each of the singers took turns to sing in their native language, I found myself being intrigued by this collaboration.

 “Listen to Frank Sinatra” said one of my friends a minute into the video. As I turned to look at him I noticed a look of absolute disdain etched into his face. He was not impressed. “Frank Sinatra sounds REALLY shit!” he said, with such a strong emphasis on the word ‘really’ that his opinion sounded so final.  

“Yep” said another of my friends, who affirmed this opinion almost instinctively. As I looked around I noticed that my other friend was also nodding in agreement too; confirming that he also thought Frank sounded ‘REALLY shit’.  Had I not said anything I’m pretty sure everyone would have returned to their zombie-like states to watch the rest of the concert.

“Sorry?” I remarked a little melodramatically, a little bit like when Keanu Reeves tried to sound sincere in The Matrix. 

“Did you just say that you thought Frank Sinatra sounds…shit?”

Of course, I knew the answer to this. I just wanted to hear confirmation.

A young Tom Jobim
“Absolutely” said my friend with an air of superiority, and he was now looking at me like I was a fool for even asking. “Frank Sinatra is just growling (he didn't actually say the word ‘growling’, but from the Exorcist-like noises he was making I’m pretty sure this is what he was getting at), he doesn't sound nearly as good as Jobim”.

“Andrew” he said whilst pointing over to the big screen and almost hitting the woman’s head in front of us.”This is Tom Jobim, one of the greatest singers in the world. Sinatra shouldn't have even tried to sing The Girl From Ipanema with him”.

Now, I’m no big Frank Sinatra fan, but I've always respected him as being one of the all time greats. Of course, I know that Tom Jobim’s version of Garota de Ipanema is for many the definitive, but to hear Sinatra being trashed as if he were Justin Bieber or Will I Am… well this really surprised me!

As the video finished everyone applauded, and Vanessa de Mata reappeared on stage to continue the concert, draped in what looked like a white duvet cover with holes cut out to accommodate her head and arms. No more was said about Frank and Tom until after the concert on the train ride home, where I broached the subject again.

“I’m not saying I don’t like Frank Sinatra” said my friend, “because I do. It’s just that his voice isn't really melodic enough to sing The Girl From Ipanema. Only Tom Jobim can do that well”.

I'm guessing this 'Nothing But The Best' album didn't include
The Girl From Ipanema for the Brazilian version!
The next day in class, I also asked my students for their opinions on the song sung by both artists. Naturally, they unanimously told me that they preferred Jobim’s version. 

“Andrew, the way he sings it is just beautiful” said my first student of the day, before enthusiastically bursting into song. “Olha que coisa mais linda, mais cheia de graca. You see, it’s just more beautiful in Portuguese. It loses something when it’s sung in English. And Andrew, it's a Brazilian song, not an American one”.

In fact, a number of the students I asked that day channeled their inner Glee to sing the first two lines to me, like they WERE actually Tom Jobim!

I guess the reason I wrote the blog is because I’d not really thought about someone’s culture playing such a significant role in the interpretation of music. For me, the English version by Sinatra is the definitive version. Yet over here in the land where Jobim is regarded both so highly and affectionately, it makes sense that his version is appreciated to the extent it is. And got me thinking, is the song more beautiful when Jobim sings it to when Sinatra sings it? Does it sound better in Portuguese? Is Jobim’s version better because it’s the most famous song to have come out of Brazil, and therefore culturally important enough not to have been sung by anyone else other than a Brazilian? Music is so subjective, but I really didn’t think the music of ol’ blue eyes was! 


  1. Oi Andrew, blz! Achei muito legal seu blog! O show da Vanessa deve ter sido muito bom também. Mas deixa eu tentar responder suas perguntas da forma como eu vejo, e desculpa se é em português, pq meu inglês tá horrível rs. Eu acho que a cultura é sim muito importante pra interpretar essa música, e isso faz toda diferença quando se fala que o Tom Jobim canta melhor ela. É claro que o Sinatra é foda e canta muito, e a letra em inglês também é bonita, mas se vc for analisar só isso então tanto faz mesmo escolher quem é melhor que o outro, fica a gosto do freguês. Esse é o lado atemporal da beleza da musica. Mas ela também tem uma beleza histórica que só é experimentada pelo brasileiro. Por exemplo, faz parte da estética da bossa nova, como movimento, o cantar baixinho, quase sussurrando, quase falando, bem em oposição aos cantores antigos da época, que só faziam sucesso se tivessem uma voz potente como a do Frank Sinatra. Além disso a letra em português tem um gostinho a mais da poesia do Vinícius. Então, nesse sentido faz mais sentido dizer que a versão do Tom Jobim é melhor. O gosto pode ser sim muito subjetivo, mas o valor artístico da letra/interpretação é muitíssimo maior pros brasileiros. Talvez seja isso que seus alunos estivessem tentando te dizer, mesmo que seja cantando várias vezes o começo da música, pra ver se esse sentimento chega por osmose no gringo. Acho que é isso. Ó, dá só uma olhada nessa versão improvisada http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGnqyIfyXOI. A Elis tem uma voz tão potente quanto a do Sinatra, mas tem horas na música que ela canta bem no estilo bossa nova. E até tira um sarro da versão gringa rsrs. Abraços e continua escrevendo mais sobre os tupiniquins!

  2. Ah! e concordo, falar que a versão do Sinatra é shit é falta de bom gosto. É que narciso acha feio o que não é espelho, como se diz aqui.

    1. Muito obrigado por seu comentário Takeshi, and you are right. The two styles of singing are very different. I had never thought about comparing them until I saw the Vanessa de Mata concert.

      And thanks for sharing the Elis Regina version, I really like her!

  3. There are some important differences between them.

    Sinatra is not called "The Voice" for no reason... He's one of the greatest crooners humanity has produced. He has an extraordinary voice, but his real great plus is his personality, which he projects when he sings. THAT makes his performances so special.

    Jobin has a sweet, gentle way of singing and a beautiful voice too.

    But in this case, the poet makes the biggest difference.

    In Sinatra's song and performance we visualize a blue guy who was rejected/not noticed by a beautiful woman. He's sad and one can almost perceive some self-pity from a lost love while he sips a scotch in a NYC nightclub.

    The Brazilian lyrics, by Vinicius, passes the image of someone sitting at a sidewalk table, sipping beer and having a good time with friends when that stunning gal walks by, swinging those marvelous hips, on the way to the sea. And she is oblivious of the admiration and desire she creates when she passes by... No sadness, no lost love, just admiration and a natural unfulfilled desire.

    It is a 'culture' thing...

  4. Hey Jose,

    Sadness Vs Admiration is an interesting take on this one, and the importance of their personalities is something I'd not really thought too much about.
    Thanks for the comment!