Five decades ago the first recording featuring the bossa nova beat created by guitarist João Gilberto was released in Brazil. The record wasn’t by an artist who’s now commonly associated with the style, but rather by a slightly mannered samba singer named Elizeth Cardoso. Her album Cançao do Amor Demais (“Song for an Excessive Love”) was released on the tiny Festa label, with only 2,000 pressed, and it didn’t exactly burn up the charts. But the songs on it were composed by the new partnership of pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinícius de Moraes, and with time they would all become classics.

Two of the tracks, including “Chega de Saudade,” featured Gilberto on guitar, but the arrangements downplayed the bossa nova rhythm. Later that same year Gilberto recorded the song himself, in a radically stripped-down arrangement. His sophisticated guitar playing–he articulated gorgeous chords with a deft rhythmic touch–was front and center, as was his restrained, whispery singing.

His voice confused most listeners at the time, both because of its unusual tone and because his singing was rigorously syncopated and rhythmically complex. According to Ruy Castro’s superb book Bossa Nova, Álvaro Ramos, the sales manager of São Paulo’s biggest music retailer, complained, “Why do you record singers who’ve got a head cold?”

Of course, within a year bossa nova was becoming a sensation, and as the genre celebrates its 50th anniversary it remains the sound most people identify most closely with Brazil. Celebrations are happening all over the globe, and Chicago is hosting a big party this Thursday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Local singer and guitarist Paulinho Garcia, a Brazilian native who’s one of the most knowledgeable and skilled bossa nova practitioners in town, leads a group he’s calling Orchestra Brazzilli, which includes saxophonist Greg Fishman, the Hawk String Quartet, Polish singer Grazyna Auguscik, and several others.

But the real treat is the presence of brilliant pianist João Donato (pictured), another of the original architects of the bossa nova sound. Last March he brought his terrific trio to the HotHouse for a witty, sharp performance. As I wrote in a preview in the Reader at the time:

“Brazilian pianist João Donato never stuck with any single bag long enough to get famous like his old cohorts João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Although he was a key architect of bossa nova, he was also a huge fan of the west-coast jazz of Stan Kenton, propulsive Afro-Cuban music, and older Brazilian forms such as choro (he got his start playing accordion with flutist Altamiro Carrilho). His reputation for experimentation with rhythm and harmony lost him gigs at home, so in 1959 he moved to the U.S., where he lived for 14 years, working extensively with folks like Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente. His discography, which spans nearly six decades, touches on everything from psychedelic-tinged funk to sophisticated pop and straight jazz–the classic 1975 album Lugar Comum (Dubas Musica) with Gilberto Gil sounds like the work of a Brazilian Shuggie Otis.”

These days Donato seems to relish his position as an originator of bossa nova, and his recent recordings have favored a largely acoustic, straight-bossa sound, colored by his love of jazz improvisation. On last year’s wonderful Uma Tarde com Bud Shank e João Donato (Biscoito Fino) he juggled bossa classics and jazz standards in a collaboration with one of the American saxophonists who’d rivaled Stan Getz as an adapter of bossa nova for the jazz setting. Donato is playing with his superb working trio–drummer Robertinho Silva and bassist Luiz Alves–but ought to collaborate with some of the other musicians present as well.

The free concert begins at 6:30 PM on Thursday, July 24.

Today’s playlist:

Pat Metheny, Day Trip (Nonesuch)
Motorpsycho, Little Lucid Moments (Rune Grammofon)
Terrestre, Secondary Inspection (Static)
Joe Fiedler, The Crab (Clean Feed)
Ron Blake, Shayari (Mack Avenue)