João Gilberto died Saturday at age 88. (1980s photo by Dario Zalis/Contexto/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Pop music critic

There’s no such thing as perfect music. We’re reminded of that fact whenever someone gets close. João Gilberto, the bossa nova mapmaker who died on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro at 88, spent the greatest years of his musical life right there, singing softly to the edge.

His voice was one of the most intimate sounds of the 20th century — more melodic than a sigh, more rhythmic than chitchat, only just barely. Every syllable that appeared on his lips carried an air of effortlessness, but Gilberto had worked hard to locate that sacred place where a human breath becomes music. It gave his ballads their focus, their circumspection, their secret rigor. Were it not for Gilberto’s mindfulness, the big-time sensuality of bossa nova probably would have hit this planet like a satin pillow. Instead, the sound went off like a noiseless bomb in Brazil, changing the nation’s musical identity in an overnight kind of way. Over here in the United States, bossa nova became a full-blown phenomenon with the runaway success of Gilberto’s 1964 album with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.

But in the years that followed, Gilberto’s bossa nova cooled from a craze into a mystery. How could such clean, legible music feel so utterly unknowable? Fellow bossa nova architect Antônio Carlos Jobim once reportedly explained that the fundamental grace of a João Gilberto performance exists in the tension between mouth and fingertips. “He was pulling the guitar in one way and singing the other way,” Jobim said. “It created a third thing that was profound.”

Go back and listen to Gilberto sing his signature lullaby “Chega de Saudade” — in 1959, in 2000, or anytime in between — and that profound third force has the quiet power of nature itself. It’s as if this music is bound by the same tiny, subatomic force that prevents our material reality from floating apart.

Gilberto’s most astonishing album landed during that cooling period, a self-titled thing from 1973 that found him gently singing the songs of his most extroverted followers, including Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Even better were Gilberto’s original compositions, largely constructed from nonverbal hums and mumbles that seemed to be expounding the meaning of life. With these songs, the maestro figured out how to freight the breeze with an impossible amount of information. Instead of sweet nothings, sweet everything.

Here in the 21st century, we’re plugging little ear buds into our heads, inviting our music to shake the air inside of us. Intimacy feels like music’s most exciting frontier. Gilberto has already been there. The music he leaves behind becomes a prophecy, a map, a guiding force that we’re still only beginning to understand.