During a recent trip to Brazil, I twice delivered a lecture titled "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," which is based on the second chapter of my book Listen to This. (Last year I made a little video explaining the conceit, with the help of Ethan Iverson, Rebecca Ringle, and Tyondai Braxton.) The descending chromatic pattern that anchors the narrative is hardly foreign to the great tradition of Brazilian popular music; in my essay I cite Peter Williams's study The Chromatic Fourth, which includes Tom Jobim's "Corvocado" in the rich lineage of lamento-style patterns, such as Purcell's "When I am laid in earth," above. Here's the famous version of "Corcovado" with Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto, and Stan Getz:
You can go further back than bossa nova, though. When I gave the talk in Rio, at the Instituto Moreira Salles, I played a bit of Pixinguinha's "Desprezado," recorded 1919-20, with its ragtime-style downward-stepping voices:
As I noted in an earlier post, the IMS has a major online resource related to Pixinguinha, who might be considered the Duke Ellington of Brazilian popular music. It also has an archive of his papers and possessions, which I was able to look at briefly — piles of elegantly notated scores, not to mention his hat, his flute, and, perhaps most importantly, his hip flask. (Last year I tentatively identified Pixinguinha as a co-inventor of the James Bond vamp.)
When I met the guitarist and administrator Arthur Nestrovski in São Paulo — he presently serves as the artistic director of the São Paulo State Symphony — he suggested that Jobim's "Águas de Março" — "Waters of March" — could serve as an even better example for my talk. Indeed, Nestrovski told me he'd once written an essay comparing that legendary song with "When I am laid in earth." Jobim begins with a dominant-seventh chord in third inversion, meaning that the seventh is in the bass. Then the bass note keeps falling by half-steps, in a fabulously seductive motion. Here is Elis Regina:
But everyone I met in Brazil seemed to have a different idea. At Abril Publishing, in São Paulo, I talked to João Gabriel Santana de Lima, editor of Bravo! magazine, who brought up Jobim's "Insensatez." This song is derived from the great chromatic sigh of Chopin's E-minor Prelude:
Thinking of Jobim and Purcell together, I can't help pairing the "Samba on One Note," here played by Baden Powell—
—with the Fantasia upon One Note:
All this music was echoing in my head as I flew home from Rio — departing, of course, from Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport.