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João Donato de Oliveira Neto is a Brazilian jazz and bossa nova pianist from Brazil, probably best known for his numerous albums as bandleader in the idiom. He first worked with Altamiro Carrilho, and went on to perform with other masters of the idiom such as Tom Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, as well as a host of others.
João Donato de Oliveira Neto was born in Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre, Brazil, on August 17, 1934. His father, also called João Donato, was a pilot and in his leisure hours liked to play the mandolin at home. His mother sang and the eldest sister, Eneyda, turned out to be a pianist. The youngest, Lysias, was more inclined to letters and became the main partner in his brother’s compositions.
João’s first instrument was an accordion, on which he composed his first piece, the waltz “Nini”, at the age of eight. Before his 12th birthday, his father gave him 24 and 120-bass accordions. In 1945, Donato senior was transferred and the family had to leave Rio Branco heading to Rio de Janeiro.
The musical circuit consisted of parties at the schools of Tijuca and neighboring areas. He tried his luck on TV on Ary Barroso’s talent search program. Intransigent, Ary emphatically refused to hear him, with the allegation that he “did not like child prodigies”. Luckily, there were more attentive ears.
Becoming a professional in 1949, at the age of 15, Donato’s resume already showed the mythological jam-sessions held at singer Dick Farney’s place and at the Sinatra-Farney Fan Club, of which he was a member. Johnny Alf, Nora Ney, Dóris Monteiro, Paulo Moura and even Jô Soares, on bongos, were among the components of these vitaminized jams.
On his first recording date, joining flutist Altamiro Carrilho’s band, Donato plays accordion on the two tracks of the 78 RPM: Ernesto Nazareth’s “Brejeiro”, and “Feliz aniversário”, by Altamiro himself. Soon after he migrates to violinist Fafá Lemos’ band, as a substitute for Chiquinho do Acordeon.
From 1953, now as a piano player, Donato begins to lead his own instrumental groups, – Donato e seu Conjunto, Donato Trio, the group Os Namorados – with whom he launches on 78 RPM instrumental versions of American and Brazilian music standards (such as “Tenderly”, a Nat King Cole hit) and (“Se acaso você chegasse”, by Lupicinio Rodrigues, a samba composer from the state of Rio Grande do Sul).
Three years later, Odeon assigns a novice arranger to carry out the musical direction of “Chá Dançante” (1956), Donato and his band’s first LP album. A certain Antonio Carlos Jobim – who later on would have an airport named after him – would be the director of this pilot son’s album. The repertoire chosen by Jobim was to really take off at any debutants’ ball: “No rancho fundo” (Lamartine Babo – Ary Barroso), “Carinhoso” (Pixinguinha – João de Barro), “Baião” (Luiz Gonzaga – Humberto), “Peguei um Ita no norte” (Dorival Caymmi).
Afterwards, Donato spends two years in São Paulo. Back in Rio, the Bossa Nova had broken out. João Gilberto himself said here and there that he had picked up his revolutionary guitar beat while watching Donato play the piano. In that same year 1958, he records “Minha saudade” and “Mambinho”, written in partnership between the two Joãos, Donato and Gilberto.
Invited by Nanai (a former member of the band Os Namorados) he leaves Brazil for a six-week season at a casino in Lake Tahoe (Nevada). Donato contextualised the influence of Jazz, integrated Caribbean music into the orchestras of Mongo Santamaría, Johnny Martinez, Cal Tjader and Tito Puente. He even went on tour with João Gilberto around Europe.
1962, time to return to Brazil. Just in time to compose two classic, ever fashionable set pieces of the Brazilian instrumental music – “Muito à vontade” (1962) and “A Bossa muito moderna de João Donato” (1963), both with Polydor, reissued in the early 2000s on CD by Dubas. Donato at the piano, Milton Banana on drums, Tião Neto on bass and Amaury Rodrigues, percussion.
On the CD reissue liner notes for “Muito à vontade”, journalist Ruy Castro wrote: “it was his first album at the piano and actually the first real one, with nine of his compositions among the 12 tracks (...). Donato, who was living in the United States during the Bossa Nova boom, was already a legend among the younger musicians – to some, for the stories they heard, he would be something like the curupira (in Brazilian folklore, a bogey-man whose feet point backwards) or the water snake. This album widened their new horizons and put Donato back into a movement that, without knowing it, he had helped to create”. Here we find: “Muito à vontade”, “Minha saudade”, “Sambou, sambou”, “Jodel”.
“A Bossa muito moderna” introduces some originally instrumental themes which, many years later (and with lyrics added), would be mandatory in every Brazilian pop music songbook. Among them “Índio perdido”, that would become “Lugar comum”, when Gilberto Gil wrote its lyrics. Gil is also a partner in the lyrics that would make “Villa Grazia” become “Bananeira”. The we have “Silk Stop”,the original theme upon which Martinho da Vila would write “Gaiolas Abertas”. The influence of Cuban music is evident in “Bluchanga”, from the time when Donato played with Mongo Santamaría.
Afterwards Donato packs his bags and returns to the USA. This time, the season would last for almost a decade. He worked with Nelson Riddle, Herbie Mann, Chet Baker, Cal Tjader, Bud Shank, Armando Peraza, etc. Alongside João Gilberto, Jobim, Moacir Santos, Eumir Deodato, Sérgio Mendes and Astrud Gilberto, Donato was a key player for the team that would really make Brazil internationally recognized for its music.
“Piano of João Donato: The new sound of Brazil” (1965) and “Donato / Deodato” (1973) were released by RCA and Muse Records but were not released in Brazil at the time. However, the album that better represents the second American season is “A Bad Donato” (1970), recorded for Blue Thumb, a California-based label, and relaunched on CD by Dubas. Recorded in Los Angeles, “A Bad Donato” condenses funk, psychedelia, soul music, Afro-Cuban sounds and jazz fusion. A groovy, poisoned-sound dancing Donato, – highly wired with the Californian dream’s experimentalism - considered as one of the 100 best albums of all times by the Rolling Stone magazine.
Christmas of 1972, Donato was back in Rio and visited composer Marcos Valle. There he met singer Agostinho dos Santos, who suggested to Donato that he should work on lyrics for his songs. This opened the flood gates for Donato’s irresistible themes to receive the status of popular song. Valle took the chance to invite him to record a new album in Brazil, with its repertoire taken from this new collection on songs. João was back, absolutely reinvented.
Donato tells journalist Lia Baron how it happened: “I was going to record an instrumental in a few days and Agostinho dos Santos said: ‘Are you recording playing the piano again? Everybody has heard it before. If I were you, I’d record singing”. Suggestion accepted, Donato is no longer an exclusive instrumentalist and becomes a full member of the Musica Popular Brasileira - BRAZILIAN POP MUSIC. In addition to Gil, Martinho and Lysias, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Cazuza, Arnaldo Antunes, Aldir Blanc, Paulo César Pinheiro, Ronaldo Bastos, Abel Silva, Geraldo Carneiro and even the poet Haroldo de Campos and phono audiologist and writer Pedro Bloch became João’s partners.
“Quem é quem”, released by EMI in 1973 includes the tracks “Terremoto”, “Chorou, chorou” (both with lyrics by Paulo César Pinheiro”), “Até quem sabe” (with Lysias), “Cadê Jodel?” (with Marcos Valle). Even Dorival Caymmi contributes an unpublished, “Cala a boca, Menino”. In a letter to João Gilberto, on September 13, 1973, Donato cannot hide his enthusiasm: “It’s my best recorded work to date, taking into account the time it took, which explains the maximum care given to everything on it. And the outcome is an album that I find simply adorable”. It was also considered as one of the 100 best albums in all times by the Rolling Stone magazine. In 2008 “Quem é Quem” was the subject of a TV program entirely dedicated to him by Canal Brasil, presented by Charles Gavin; and of a book written by producer and musician Kassin.
The next album, “Lugar comum” (1975), on Philips, continues with a Donato as vocalist, with most of the repertoire consisting of former instrumental themes now with lyrics. There are partnerships with Caetano Veloso (“Naturalmente”), Gutemberg Guarabyra (“Ê menina”) and Rubens Confete (“Xangô é de Baê”) and eight songs with Gil, among them, “Tudo tem”, “A bruxa de mentira”, “Deixei recado”, “Que besteira”, “Emoriô” and at least two standards to any anthology of popular song: the title-track and “Bananeira”.
On the text he prepared for the CD reissue of “Lugar comum”, on the Dubas label, Donato revisits one summer day in the 70’s, at Caetano’s home. He had become closer to the group of Bahian stars and had even been the musical director of Gal Costa’s show “Cantar”, recorded on album the previous year: “Everybody was there: Bethânia, Gal, Caetano with Dedé and Moreno (...). They had my two albums “Muito à vontade” and “A bossa muito moderna” and I always teased them, challenging them to make up some lyrics. When this melody started playing, Gil improvised “bananeira não sei / bananeira sei lá (...)”. Then I said: “quintal do seu olhar”. And he said: “olhar do coração. It was just like ping-pong on the second part”.
Remember the tour to Europe Donato made with João Gilberto, soon after the first American season? Well, it was in a small Italian village that the banana tree was planted. Donato explains: “The first lyrics to my songs appeared as part of those already recorded instrumental themes, which I thought never would have words. “Bananeira” was “Villa Grazia”, the name of the small inn where we stayed at Lucca, in Italy, supporting João Gilberto in a residency (...). Ninety percent of my instrumental songs have changed their names, because of the lyrics being added”.
After that period time, almost twenty years passed without Donato recording. The mainstream of the time seemed not to absorb what, luckily, the pop artists started to see in the 90’s. João’s return to the album world happened in 1996 (he had released only the live instrumental album, “Leilíadas”, on Philips, in 86), with the album “Coisas tão simples”, produced by João Augusto, for EMI. The album brought us “Doralinda”, a partnership with Cazuza, in addition to new collaborations with Lysias (“Fonte da saudade”), Norman Gimbel (“Everyday”), Toshiro Ono (“Summer of temptation”).
Ever since, Donato has been launching his albums mainly with three independent labels: On Almir Chediak ‘s Lumiar: “Café com pão” (with drummer Eloir de Moraes, 1997); “Só danço samba” (1999); the three volumes of the Songbook collection (1999), along with “Remando na raia” (2001), a meeting with Emilio Santiago (2003) and the reencounter with Maria Tita (2006). For Deckdisc, he made “Ê Lalá Lay-Ê” (2001), “Managarroba” (2002) and the instrumental “O piano de João Donato”, produced by rock singer Rafael Ramos, in addition to the album recorded with Wanda Sá (2003).
For Biscoito Fino, he recorded the instrumental meetings with Paulo Moura (“Dois panos pra manga”, 2006) and Bud Shank (“Uma tarde com”, this also on DVD). Donato also made the DVD “Donatural” (2005), for Biscoito Fino where he hosts – on a live recording at the Espaço Sérgio Porto, in Rio – several generations of partners: from Gilberto Gil to DJ Marcelinho da Lua; from Emilio Santiago to Marcelo D2; from Leila Pinheiro to Joyce, even Ângela Rô Rô and his own son Donatinho, wild on keyboards and samplers.
In 2007, the American writer Allen Thayer writes, among the twelve pages he wrote about João for Wax Poetics, the New York Jazz magazine: “João Donato deserves a place among the legends of Brazilian music, alongside Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto, Dorival Caymmi, Ary Barroso and many others, despite his (...) experimentation with several genres of music turning any attempt to classify him into a challenge”.
In turn, blogger Alexandre Carvalho dos Santos is not concerned with classification. On a text posted on the internet, he suggests Donato’s music as a form for healing depression: “I recommend a João Donato gig not only to someone who is interested in first class music, an impressive pianist and a selection of historic compositions. I recommend it to anyone who needs an anti-depressive, an acupuncture session or any such other form of deep relaxation. I had my dose on a Sunday evening, from a show in São Paulo. A perfect timing to start a week believing that happiness exists, in spite of your boss”. In 2010, Sambolero, credited as the João Donato Trio, earned the Latin Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album at the 10th Latin Grammy Awards.
João Donato lives in the Urca neighborhood, in Rio. He is married to journalist Ivone Belém. He is the father of Jodel, Joana and Donatinho.
- "Discovering João Donato" - a comprehensive site on Donato as well as a pictorial discography. João Donato himself contributes items to this website.