Antonio Carlos Jobim talks like a perfect candidate for an American Express commercial. "My face was not too exposed and has been forgotten," claims the Brazilian composer, lyricist, instrumentalist and vocalist whose songs -- including "The Girl From Ipanema," "Desafinado," "One Note Samba" and "Wave" -- are internationally recognized pop standards 23 years after he introduced them to the United States.
Tonight at Constitution Hall, he'll show his worn but warm and boyishly open countenance in Washington for the first time since 1962. But at 58, he is no longer the "illustrious desconsuego -- you say 'unknown' " -- he was at 35, when he strummed guitar alongside Joao Gilberto at Carnegie Hall in the North American debut of their samba style, bossa nova. These days, Jobim tours as he pleases, backed by an 11-piece ensemble including his second wife, Ana, and a daughter, Elizabeth, among five backup singers; his 34-year-old guitarist son, Paulo; and members of Rio de Janeiro's most esteemed musical families.
Returning to the United States last spring after an absence of 19 years, he gave two triumphant concerts at Carnegie Hall, exuding gracious good humor tinged with gentle melancholy as he warbled in English and Portuguese while tinkling at a grand piano. He summoned up all his hits from the bossa nova craze of the early '60s, adding such new compositions as his themes from the film "Gabriela" and "The Waters of March," which Coca-Cola has used worldwide in its advertising. Jobim's sound is still lilting, sensuous and elegantly subdued.
His musical upbringing was ecumenical: He learned piano by ear, then studied with a German professor who had brought 12-tone theory to Rio; he sat at the knees of his uncles, who plucked Spanish classical works and Brazilian folk songs on acoustic guitars; he copied swing band numbers -- by the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington -- on harmonica, in casual jams with other youths in Rio's parks.
Jobim's first major success was the score he wrote with guitarist Luis Bonfa for the Academy Award-winning French movie "Black Orpheus." Then, he says, in 1959, "Joao Gilberto came from Bahia with his guitar, playing a beat which is one of the branches of samba. Suddenly everyone was playing 'ba-ba, pause, ba-ba.' . . . "But I never would have dreamed these local songs in Portuguese, using Carioca Rio natives' slang, would be popular here, and they were! So I left Brazil for the first time in '62 -- I was already 35, couldn't speak English very well and was cold, didn't have the proper clothes. On November 21st we played Carnegie Hall, singing in English because we thought the audience was all American.
"But the place was full of Brazilians, and the critics from Brazil were furious at us. They took the purist position that our bossa nova was North American jazz, which is not true. . . . "
Getz, he says, "added jazzy American accents" to the music. "But on some of his records, at least, Joao Gilberto played guitar, I played piano and the drummer, percussionist and bassist were Brazilian, so the background was authentic. No complaints."
From anyone, apparently. Jobim's cool, classy sound swept this country in the pre-Beatles era and has sold well ever since.
Some of his records, such as "The Wonderful World of Antonio Carlos Jobim" with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the sound track "Gabriela" on RCA -- are collectors' items. The composer favors "Gabriela," a lush suite with vocals by Brazilian singing star Gal Costa, which was arranged and conducted by his countryman Oscar Castro Neves and recorded in Brazil. He's less comfortable with the productions he participated in while living in California.
"It was difficult to find good lyrics in English," Jobim says. "Sometimes the lyrics were not up to the songs, and I was upset because I felt my original lyrics were much better. You say Brazil, and writers here come up with lyrics about black beans and coffee, which are just cliche's. I get very sad; I try to avoid cliche's."
Jobim loves playful language, and admires master craftsmen like Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter. He analyzes "The Waters of March," which Coke amended slightly, with glee.
" 'It's a stick, it's a stone, it's the end of the road,' " he quotes. "This is a song I wrote in the woods, on the bank of a river, and my lyrics use mainly one syllable Anglo-Saxon words -- very few Latin words -- to make things obvious, to give a sense of superreality, to state an affirmation that we've known for the negation. This way you say, 'It's a Coke . . . Coke is it,' you see."
Lighthearted as the songs seem, they require intense concentration to compose.
"The telephone bugs me too much," Jobim complains. "Friends, my kids, everybody interrupts me. To compose 'Gabriela' I had to have lunch at 4 p.m., fall asleep at 6 p.m. and then wake up at 1 a.m. to write when the phone was not ringing. The maestro Villa-Lobos, who I worship, told me when we met, 'The outside ear has nothing to do with the inside ear.' But I don't feel that way. If I'm writing and a streetcar passes by, I put the streetcar in the score."
The plentiful natural and man-made distractions offered by Rio de Janeiro, where Jobim usually resides, may partly account for his recent low profile. But he also cut back on public activities during the reign of Brazil's military government, which harassed and censored popular musicians.
"I was arrested in Brazil in 1970 because I refused to join a world song festival which I won in 1968," he explains. "The censors were not so much against me as against younger guys like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who had to live in exile in London for a while. A dozen of the big names refused to participate in this festival, and we were all confined to house arrest for a time.
"Besides," Jobim says modestly, "I'm not much of a performer . . . It's better to stay home, meditate and compose. Otherwise you write a dozen hits and that's it, you're finished. Now I've been composing like crazy, working much more than I deserve."
At Constitution Hall, Jobim will present some songs so new they're as yet unpublished. "They're about my ecological concerns," he says -- he's an amateur ornithologist -- "and the hardships of the Brazilian Indians trying to survive the changes that civilization brings. But most of my songs are still about love.
"The promoters wanted to call this show a bossa nova revival," Jobim says. "This is a continuation of my work, not a revival. I don't feel any nostalgia for anything."