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Bossa Nova Pioneer With A Flair For JazzCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Baden Powells best known contribution to Brazilian music arrived with the advent of the bossa nova movement in the late-50s, but his musical reach extended beyond that celebrated form to take in a potent cocktail of jazz, ethnic and classical influences, all anchored in his Afro-Brazilian roots.
He was born Roberto Baden Powell de Aquino in a small town in the state of Rio De Janeiro, and moved to the city with his family as a child. His grandfather was a famous abolitionist who once ran an orchestra of slave musicians prior to abolition in 1888, and his father was a shoemaker and a part-time musician with an admiration for the British, reflected in his naming his son after the founder of the Boy Scouts.
Powell studied Spanish guitarists like Tarrega and Segovia with his teacher in Rio, and has also identified Django Reinhardt and Barney Kessel as his major influences. His finger-style playing on acoustic guitar built on the earlier example of Paulinho Noguiera, but he was able to develop his approach in a distinctive and original fashion.
He proved to be a gifted student. As a teenager, he was featured on radio broadcasts, and began playing at dances and parties, and in numerous studio sessions. He co-wrote the famous Samba Triste with Billy Blanco in 1959, and was playing regularly at the Bar Plaza in Copacabana when he met Antonio Carlos Jobim, who in turn introduced him to his principal collaborator of the 1960s, the composer and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes.
They played a central role in the development of bossa nova, an immensely popular style based on traditional samba rhythms, often fused with jazz or pop. Their collaboration was a very successful one, and included numerous hits among their fifty or so songs. Powells lithe, inventive acoustic guitar work was ideally suited to the form, and helped establish the guitarist as one of the most important musicians in Brazil.
He joined the artistic exodus from his native country which followed in the wake of the military coup of 1964, and settled in Paris, where he was able to work with many prominent American jazz musicians, including saxophonist Stan Getz, another artist who profited from the bossa nova craze, and pianist Thelonious Monk, associations which helped bring his music to audiences in the USA.
His sensuous samba tune Samba da Benção was featured in Claude Lelouchs classic film A Man and a Woman in 1966, and his reputation continued to grow. The late Joachim Berendt persuaded the guitarist to make some recordings under his own name, and his dazzling finger-style playing on recordings like Tristeza On Guitar (1966) and Poema On Guitar (1968) helped establish his standing as a major figure. He made many more recordings in the ensuing decades.
He became a regular on the club and festival circuit, wearing his trademark roll-neck sweaters, but his personal fortunes did not prosper as they should have, largely as a consequence of his drinking problems. He moved to Baden-Baden in Germany in 1983, perhaps lured by the coincidence of names, and continued to tour clubs and festivals in Europe, Japan and the United States.
In 1988, he returned to Brazil, but musical fashions had changed, and he found himself a somewhat marginal figure in his homeland by that time, with a greater reputation abroad. He became an evangelical Christian in 1998, and moderated the overt sensuality of much of his music.
He died of pneumonia and multiple organ failure, and is survived by his wife and two sons.