Music means Beauty which belongs to Love.
There’s a popular Brazilian quote “Quem canta seus males espanta” (Who sings throws sadness away) that cannot describe Brazil in any other more accurate way. The largest country in South America, and home to the world’s many priceless possessions—the Amazon forest, Copacabana beach, soccer and Pelé, Brazilian coffee, Rio carnival, Carmen Miranda, and Paolo Coelho, among many others— would not be what it is without its inherent samba, bossa nova and Brazilian music. Indeed, across the world, the word Brazil easily emanates a smile on the face, painting colorful sceneries of vibrant people who live for happiness, beauty, love and music.
Such is the passion that one of Brazil’s most prominent songwriters and musicians, Ivan Lins, delivers to audiences worldwide. Crossing over more than 50 years of monumental success in music writing, Ivan has swept the hearts of many remarkable artists: Patti Austin, Terence Blanchard, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, David Benoit, Shirley Horn, Toots Thielemans, Al Jarreau, Manhattan Transfer, Take 6, New York Voices, Sting, Diana Krall, Diane Schuur, Barbara Streisand; and of course, the best Brazilian musicians Sergio Mendes, Caetano Veloso, Ronaldo Monteiro, Dudu Falcão, Celso Viáfora, Martinho da Vila, Aldir Blanc, Chico Buarque, Nei Lopes, Chico César, just to name a few, who have either recorded his songs or collaborated with him. From his first hit, Madalena recorded by Elis Regina in 1970, Ivan swiftly garnered multiple awards: in 1981, a Grammy for best jazz instrumental arrangement with George Benson for the song Dinorah, Dinorah; in 1982, the same award with the recording of Quincy Jones for the song Velas; and in 2004, the Grammy for best pop singer by Sting for She Walks This Earth; and another Grammy for Best Brazilian Music Album, among many more Latin Grammy awards.
Last November 1-7, Ivan, together with the impeccable Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin, just completed a full Japan tour in Tokyo, Nagoya, Tsukuba and Osaka. Needless to say, meeting Ivan at the Blue Note Tokyo for the trio’s 2-set show on November 2nd was like being showered by thousands of colorful bouquets falling from the sky. Still fit, debonair, and stylishly charming with his magnetic smile and laughter, Ivan never fails to exude that honest rapture his wide eyes speak of when relating his life story from his supple childhood at two years old, listening to American children songs, to his “obligatory” university years as a Chemical Engineering student, and finally, his big break in writing music, performing onstage, and having the entire world sing and record his array of beautiful melodies.
(Ivan Lins): “Since I was small, around two to five years old, when I went with my parents to Boston, and lived there for about three years, I remembered listening to a lot of children’s songs and standard American songs. So, in fact, I learned American music even before Brazilian music. American children songs that time had very simple melodies. I’m always impressed by melodies. I believe I am a melodist more than a “harmony” person. I started from writing simple melodies but accompany them with sophisticated chords.”
While Ivan was constantly pressured by his strict father to take up a “more professional” course in college, music had never left his heart.
“We had a piano at home. My two sisters played the piano, so I was listening to the piano all the time. My father also played the piano. Then, I heard an incredible Brazilian piano player playing bossa nova jazz and I fell instantly in love with the music and his performance. I thought, Oh my God, I want to be like that guy. I’m going to learn the piano.
Naturally, it wasn’t so easy. My father didn’t want me to be a musician. I tried to express my wish but he was a tough guy. He said, ‘Don’t be a musician. Use it as a hobby but you need a REAL profession.’ So, I said OK, I’ll finish my degree in Chemical Engineering, then I’ll think of what I really want to be.”
It was a rough compromise for Ivan. While in college, he pursued writing songs and sending them to festivals, which consequently, paved the inevitable road to his grand success as a musician.
“During the 60’s I would send my songs to festivals even when I was still in the university. My father said ‘OK, you can write songs but just as a hobby.’ But, in 1970 my song won in a festival that Elis Regina recorded, Madalena. That’s when I decided I would do full-time songwriting. I was doing music and studying at the same time. My father was really upset for almost a year. But, later he had to recognize that I could do something with music. My mother never complained though. She was always very musical. She used to play the piano, too, like my father. So, gradually, I developed my musical direction. The very first musician I admired was Luiz Eça of the Tamba Trio, the instrumental music popular in 1963. I was only playing piano then, not writing songs yet. When I started writing, I began to admire Carlos Lyra, then Antonio Carlos Jobim who I consider one of my masters.
Singing came later in my career. First, I learned the piano just by myself with a jazz bossa nova trio, then, slowly, I would write songs for other people. I never thought I would sing. Some lyricist told me to sing because everybody who is songwriting is doing the same thing, he said. I was a bad singer but I practiced. I didn’t take vocal lessons either. I just learned by myself, just like the piano. I have always been a self-learner.”
It was like a Cinderella story when a huge golden star just drops on your lap one day. That’s how it turned out for Ivan when he suddenly got a call from one of America’s most important music producers.
“The Brazilian percussionist Paulinho Da Costa was living in the US in the 70’s. I met him a long time ago, and also played together with him. It so happened that Sergio Mendez called him to live in the US. Paulinho brought my albums to the US, and introduced them to Quincy Jones. Quincy fell in love with my songs. One day, he called me direct from L.A., and invited me to come to L.A. and work together with him. That was during the late 1979, and in January the following year, I immediately flew to L.A. Quincy and I started our collaboration. Before I knew it, I was writing songs for so many popular singers like Barbra Streisand, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, and so on. Quincy helped spread my music across the US and Europe from the 80’s and onwards.”
The 80’s and 90’s waved an unstoppable current for Ivan. Not only songwriting and singing in Brazil, he also founded the record label Velas with his friend and partner Vitor Martins, which established promising names in Brazilian music, and influenced many recording companies in the country. By the end of the 1990’s, Ivan had recorded over 30 albums, many with high caliber artists, and became a landmark of Brazilian music. His natural direction for honest interpretation also led him to the forefront of political activism, especially during Brazil’s conflict with military dictatorship.
“The 80’s were the best times. Music was played on radio everywhere, so it easily reached more people, whether in Brazil or any other part of the world. From the 1990’s, Internet arrived, and things gradually changed. I suppose it was the same thing for Japan. I had been coming to Japan since 1988, and although I feel nothing has changed, I imagine the Internet age has also altered many cultural aspects.”
Ivan has always carried his irresistible romance with Japan since his first trip by invitation of Blue Note Tokyo. The magic of the country has never left him.
“I must be coming to Japan more than 15-20 times (laughing), either through Blue Note tours or festivals or events. I have played at the Blue Note Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Motion Blue Yokohama. On my first trip to Japan, I remember being very impressed and surprised by what I saw. The more I visited the country, the more I developed fondness for it. I remember in 2002, just before the Soccer World Cup (that Brazil won), I visited the Yokohama stadium to watch soccer. I was so impressed by the crowd. I came with my wife that time and we both said that we could probably live here. Japan is really a very special country in this world. I used to say that Japan is an island, another piece of planet that fell down on our planet, with a totally different air. I have always admired the sense of respect, discipline, efficiency, and very organized system. I am also an organized person, so that’s why I thought I could live here (laughs). I don’t feel a change in the country since 1988, perhaps, the youngsters have changed a bit because of Internet and globalization, with the people becoming more daring now—dressing up more freely in fantasy attire, or exhibiting less conservative behavior. But, Brazilian artists still love to come here and many Japanese love Brazilian music. The Japanese audience pays so much attention during the concert, then when the concert is over, they show so much amazing warmth that makes me feel so loved.”
At the Blue Note Tokyo performance last November 2nd, Ivan kept the audience swaying and smiling with his famous renditions of Velas (Içadas), Beyond the Storm (Depois dos Temporais), Dinorah, Dinorah, and Harlequim, the collaborative studio album with the incredible Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour, that earned the 1986 Grammy award for Best Arrangement on an Instrumental. Surely, Ivan continues to walk this earth both with grace and electricity, and Japan should not be far from his path of persistent adventures.
Recap of Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin featuring Ivan Lins at Blue Note Tokyo November 2, 2019.
With special gratitude to Blue Note Tokyo, João Lins and Tielle Mello.