John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“The Girl From Ipanema”

The perfect bossa nova by Stan Getz and company, it’s a blast of warmth in a freezing time.

By - Jan 14th, 2015 04:05 pm
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The southern hemisphere is enjoying the weather that I am missing right now. Let your imagination travel south 5368.54 miles, the distance from here to Rio de Janeiro. Not a snow shovel in sight.

In Ipanema, a neighborhood in Rio, there was a bar/cafe called Veloso. In the early sixties a real girl from Ipanema named Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (Please don’t ask me to pronounce this) passed by every day on the way to the beach inspiring wolf whistles and, more importantly, one of the most beautiful and mysterious bossa novas ever.

The version of “The Girl From Ipanema” we are most familiar with was recorded in far off New York by Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao Gilberto and his wife Astrud Gilberto. To say a moment like this will never happen again is a massive understatement. History has moved past that moment when a gentle and sinuous melody, set to lilting and seductive jazz chords could get to number four on the charts. About the only recognizable thing left from that song that survives in today’s atmosphere of hysteria and titillation is the innuendo, though done nowadays with much less subtlety.

The bossa nova craze started with this song and that recording. It had a golden moment that more or less coincided with the British Invasion. Our borders were less secure then, maybe it’s time to loosen them again. Often written off as lounge music, the same criticism was leveled against Burt Bacharach and Hal David. It seems insane to dismiss whole genres of music that aren’t jazzercize, but if these critics feel that way, so be it. It’s a much happier lounge without them.

Speaking of things that are kind of loungy, here’s a video no one will mistake for anything contemporary. In it, the adorable Astrud, who looks younger than the girl in the title, sings the song in a ski chalet with a slightly out of place looking Getz. The clip is taken from a downscale Hammer Films epic called Get Yourself A College Girl. I’m not sure there ever was a time when co-eds all hung out in skimpy outfits more suitable to the beach to dig a jazz combo and watch the snowflakes fall. But it is a pleasant fantasy.

This is one those songs that strike me as a verifiable case of divine intervention. With such an other-worldly quality it’s hard to conceive of it being written by a human. But it was, so I am happily forced to reassess my sinking opinion of mankind. We could use a few more upward adjustments — so let’s turn up the bossa nova and turn down the news for a little while.

This song was written by Jobim with Brazilian lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes. The English lyrics were written by Norman Gimbel. They describe an infatuation so wistful the slightest beach breeze might carry it away:


Tall and tan and young and lovely

The girl from Ipanema goes walking

And when she passes, each one she passes

Goes “A-a-a-h”


When she walks, she’s like a samba

That swings so cool and sways so gentle

That when she passes, each one she passes

Goes “A-a-a-h”


Oh, but I watch her so sadly

How can I tell her I love her

Yes, I would give my heart gladly

But each day as she walks to the sea

She looks straight ahead, not at me


Tall and tan and young and lovely

The girl from Ipanema goes walking

And when she passes, I smile

But she doesn’t see

She just doesn’t see

© Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes — English lyrics by Norman Gimbel

If you count measures, this is almost a by-the-book Tin Pan Alley structure. Two eight bar verses, but then the bridge expands to sixteen, twice the length you would expect. When it gets back to the last verse it’s the standard eight again.

The verses are fairly simple harmonically and melodically, the radical departure comes in the bridge. I count no less than four key changes and odd ones at that. It’s all tied up in a neat bow at the end, seamlessly returning to the original key. I’m more convinced every time I hear the long sweeping melody that lays over these chords that Jobim left this mortal plane for just a moment and was in direct contact with a higher being. I’m an OK musician, and play my share of fairly tricky songs, but this one always flummoxes me. I get to that middle section and my confidence gets a bit shaky. Definitely not for beginners — unless you are from Brazil. The cool cats on this record pull it off with stunning ease.

The least ruffled is Astrud. She was chosen to sing the English verses that follows her husband’s perfect intro simply because she was the only one there that spoke the language. She then set a new standard for unflappable cool with her performance. Her voice is childlike, with little or no vibrato, an effect that would’ve made it sound loungey anyway. There is innocence and magic in her reading and God knows there had to be a million crushes launched when it hit the airwaves.

In an ideal world, a little further down the evolutionary line, music might be closer to our everyday lives, not just the universal language, as it is now, but the only language. For the time being, we reside on a lower plane and must be witness to man’s everyday cruelty. But there are signs emanating from the beach in Rio that we can do better.



0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “The Girl From Ipanema””

  1. Anonymous says:

    thanks for the eloquent, much-appreciated tropical intervention

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Girl From Ipanema is a classic, and under-appreciated!

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