The name evokes a sound, an atmosphere, a rhythm. His traits, natural, essential, simple, are like the river-dweller rowing a canoe down the Rio Acre who whistled a tune and unwittingly awakened the first musical inklings in the seven-year-old boy sitting there on the riverbank. Four decades later, the grown man and eternal child would ask Gilberto Gil to write the lyrics for the melody he had held in his heart for so long that it had become his own. “The edge of the sea, a common place, the start of a journey, to another edge of space…”
Composer, pianist, accordionist, and arranger from the state of Acre, João Donato has been a key force in Brazilian music since the 1950s, when he was active in the Carioca scene (in regional choro, vocal groups, radio stations, and nightclubs) as one of the founders of bossa nova.
He shared an interest with his young friends Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, and Johnny Alf in the inventive harmonies of jazz, the desire to create a different kind of samba, and a certain nonconformity with the melodramatic style in many of that time´s songs.
Yet in 1959, shortly after the modernizing wave he helped to create began to part the waters, Donato (who had teamed up with João Gilberto and had his first LP produced by Tom Jobim) moved to the United States, where he joined the bands of Mongo Santamaría, Johnny Martinez, Cal Tjader, and Tito Puente. As a result, a Latino accent seeped into his bossa nova.
During a tentative return to Rio de Janeiro in 1962, he recorded Muito à vontade and A bossa muito moderna. An unsigned text on the back cover of Muito à vontade curiously defined the “Donatian” way of playing, observing the “highly original jeu of his left hand, which is to his right hand, what Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes: a valuable assistant and indispensable complement”, meanwhile highlighting the “generous rhythmic sense, making listeners ‘swing’ to the slightest phrase”.
Brazil would have to wait ten more years for this swing to return once and for all, before which the pianist moved back to the United States in 1962, working with Stan Getz, Chet Baker, and Sérgio Mendes and launching Bud Shank, Donato, and Rosinha de Valença, Piano of João Donato: The New Sound of Brazil (orchestrated by Claus Ogerman), A Bad Donato (co-arranged by Eumir Deodato), and Donato/Deodato. The psychedelic A Bad Donato gained traction and was listed among the “100 best Brazilian music albums” by Rolling Stone in 2007.
Back in Brazil, in 1973, Donato listened to Agostinho dos Santos (“you should make a singing record”) and promptly followed the advice, distributing melodies among lyricists (his brother Lysias Ênio, Paulo César Pinheiro, Geraldo Carneiro, etc.) and making Quem é quem (Who´s Who), another album that would make the “100 best” list.
What strikes one´s ears in Quem é quem is the Afro-Bahian accent, further blending into Donato´s hybrid swing. On this note, around this time, Gal Costa became one of his main interpreters, to the point of entrusting him with the musical direction of her show Cantar (1974); Donato and Caetano Veloso launched their fruitful partnership; and of the twelve themes from the essential Lugar comum (Common Place) (1975), no fewer than eight were set to lyrics by Gil, who became one of his most constant collaborators.
So, it was not until the 1970s that Donato (long cultivated by the “initiates”) appeared as the author of one of the most cohesive playlists in Brazilian popular music and ventured out across various forms of performance by countless singers. In the credits from 1970s recordings, for example, with performers like Alaíde Costa, Clara Nunes, Emílio Santiago, Fagner, Milton Nascimento, Nana Caymmi, Nara Leão, and Os Tincoãs, we find his name orchestrating or playing piano, organ, or even… (!) trombone.
All these varied paths further fueled Donato´s imagination, and in 1977 he conceived the collective experimental triple album Gozando a existência (Enjoying existence). An amazing list of collaborators embarked on the dream: from Gal to Vinícius de Moraes, Alaíde to Djavan, Erasmo Carlos to Dori Caymmi, Dominguinhos to Quarteto em Cy, Beth Carvalho to Nelson Angelo and Jackson do Pandeiro. The studio sessions started and proceeded until the freewheeling party atmosphere displeased the recording company, which shelved what it considered an “exotic” enterprise. Anxious fans were unable to hear what survived of this corporate pruning until more than 40 years later, in 2018.
In the 1980s, although his list of partners never stopped growing (Abel Silva, Cazuza, Chico Buarque, Martinho da Vila, Moraes Moreira) and his creations were hits in voices like Gal (always), ngela Rô-Rô, and Zizi Possi, the composer´s discs were limited to the live recording of a series of instrumental odes to his muse of that period, in Leilíadas (1986).
Everything changed with Coisas tão simples (Such simple things) in 1996. Since then, the tireless Donato has launched more than 20 CDs, from previously unrecorded work to rerecorded pieces; in the studio or live; acoustic or electronic; in duets (with his son Donatinho or Joyce, with Paulo Moura or Paula Morelenbaum), as a quartet (alongside Carlos Lyra, Marcos Valle, and Roberto Menescal); or solo performances. Not to mention the songbooks dedicated to his authorial work (the book and the albums – one of them with the Japanese singer Lisa Ono), and in the DVD Donatural, in the tour with Cuban Chucho Valdés…
Homages to the artist have abounded in the 21st century. This vast list features the creation of the João Donato Institute; a special Grammy award for Musical Excellence; another for best Latino jazz album of 2010 (Sambolero); a documentary miniseries; an art workshop baptized in his name in Rio Branco; and tributes in the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater and the Rock in Rio festival, where it was obvious that Donato is cultivated by the new generations (Céu, Fernanda Takai, Marcelo D2, Mariana Aydar, Roberta Sá etc.)
Just imagine how exciting it was for this young recording company to have launched the LP Síntese do Lance in 2021, in a historic encounter between Donato and Jards Macalé, produced by Sylvio Fraga, Marlon Sette, and Pepê Monnerat, and to see it nominated for the Latin Grammy Award for Best MPB Album of 2022.
In agreement with critic Tárik de Souza when he writes that Síntese is the “meeting of two legendary iconoclasts”, suffice it to recall that both composers launched disconcertingly literal LPs: in 1973, Donato released Who´s Who from the Outeiro da Glória hilltop overlooking Rio; in 1974, Macalé launched Learning to swim in the waters of Guanabara Bay.
But the memory of that coincidence does not worry Rocinante, no matter how zealous we are of our vinyl records. After all, Donato and Macalé are now well-behaved elderly gents. At most, they would pose naked for the record cover.