Tall and tan and young and lovely, "The Girl from Ipanema" meandered along a Rio de Janeiro beachhead and climbed into the collective ear of North America. And there she remains 37 years later, a melancholy beauty riding composer Antonio Carlos Jobim's seductive samba. Figuratively, that "Girl" hung an unforgettable face on bossa nova, Brazil's most conspicuous musical export.

And once again the music is everywhere: at the cinema in Bruno Baretto's breezy Bossa Nova and on the air as a hypnotic backdrop for ads of every stripe. Ah, those tropical chick-a-boom rhythms. The swirl of gut-stringed guitars. Gooey poetry cooed in delicious Portuguese. If the bittersweet flavor of sex could be captured sonically, it would sound just like bossa nova.

Joao Gilberto, who sang the original U.S. radio version of "Ipanema" with his wife Astrud in 1963, has just waxed what he believes to be the finest album of his storied career. Produced by fellow troubadour Caetano Veloso, Joao Voz e Violao is just that: voice and guitar.

This is powerful music at its most elemental. Purring in tones sandpapered by time, Gilberto reinvents delicate pop songs composed by Gilberto Gil, Veloso and Jobim, the Gershwin of bossa nova. Wisps of words float like smoke rings, then disappear, blown away by gently propulsive guitar.

Listeners already down with Gilberto, but curious about the best of the rest should cue up The Story of Bossa Nova, which collects Brazilian 45s that charted at home but somehow missed in the international marketplace. Piloted by Gerald Seligman, an anthologist with impeccable taste, Story winds through bossa's back roads. Those who recognize the dozen Jobim songs may not know these vocalists: among them, Leila Pinheiro, who soars with a confident, jazz-inflected sensibility; bossa nova pioneer Joao Donato, a quick-tongued trickster; and Pery Ribeiro, whose Sinatra-influenced "Ipanema" predated the Gilberto smash.

Of course, it's not only singers who've popularized the beat. From the git-go, instrumentalists embraced bossa nova as well. Jazz musicians in the United States co-opted the bubbling rhythm--and wailed. Meanwhile, south of the equator, Brazilians listened intently to the volatile trumpet-sax tandems emanating from the north.

A few Brazilian bands, in fact, played it both ways, laying down cool bossa nova grooves and decorating them with hot, improvised solos. A staple of the otherwise somnambulistic EZ-listening radio of the '60s was the finest of the Brazilian bossa-jazz combos, pianist Luiz Eca's percolating Tamba 4.

Just re-issued on CD, T4's We and the Sea has taken on cult status as a cocktail classic. Yet beyond We's obvious accessibility, there's music of palpable substance. The elaborate arrangements of Eca, who possesses a light touch akin to Chick Corea's, blend classical precision and jazz flair, laying feathery flute atop a percussive bed of piano and drums. You'll detect not-so-subtle nods to Maurice Ravel as well as piano-jazz exotica a la George Shearing.

"So what's new in bossa nova?" you ask. Flavor of the month is Ciranda by Marcio Faraco, another finger-playing guitarist with a sugar-cured voice murmuring folksongs for city dwellers. It's no sin to sound like Gilberto and Veloso, a pair of godheads--and Faraco does.

And then he doesn't. At times Faraco's reach stretches beyond the Brazilian border, bolstered by a bass and guitar weave that's undeniably jazzy. And when "Flores Pra Lemanja" sways to the romantic grind of accordion, the music wanders from Rio to some Parisian cafe cloaked in star-shine.

The French connection makes sense, since this Brazilian expatriate settled there in 1992. But does that somehow dilute Faraco's music? Has his bossa mutated into something else--Franco nova, perhaps? And what about Arto Lindsay, an American singer-guitarist who grew up in Brazil? Does the fact that he flips causally between English and Portuguese make his bossa nova somehow less authentic?

Of course not. Faraco, Lindsay and every other pilgrim who's swiped a lick from Joao Gilberto's trick bag is playing bossa nova in all its glory. And the subtle magic of bossa nova belongs not only to Brazilians, but--thank goodness--the rest of the world.

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