João Donato, a Brazilian composer, musician and producer who pioneered bossa nova and continued to pollinate the music across the Americas, died Monday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 88 years old.
Mr. Donato he was in the circle of Rio de Janeiro musicians, including Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and guitarist Luiz Bonfá, who developed the subtle swing and harmonic sophistication of bossa nova in the mid-1950s.
But Signor Donato did not limit himself to any genre. In a recording career that spanned the 1950s into the current decade, he has released nearly three dozen albums as a leader and has collaborated with a diverse range of artists on many more. Although he was best known as a keyboardist, he was also a singer, accordionist and trombonist.
As a pianist, Signor Donato was known for his blend of a lively, restless and syncopated, harmonically intricate left hand with relaxed and confident right hand melodies. As a composer, producer and arranger, I have constantly – and playfully – melded and expanded idioms and styles of production. Once he mentioned that he had one “greedy for extravagant ideas.”
Signor Donato played MPB (as Brazilian popular music is widely known; the letters stand for “música popular brasileira”), jazz, funk, salsa, American pop, and Pan-American hybrids that were entirely his own. I have worked with generations of Brazilian musicians, including singer and movie star Carmen Miranda; the singers Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Marisa Monte; and the rapper Marcelo D2.
He has also recorded with Eddie Palmieri, Michael Franks, Mongo Santamaría and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. All his life, he has been looking for new rhythms.
The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said on Twitter: “João Donato saw music in everything. He innovated, he went through samba, bossa nova, jazz, forró, and in the mix of rhythm he built something unique. He continued to create and innovate until the very end”.
João Donato de Oliveira Neto was born on August 17, 1934 in Rio Branco, capital of the state of Acre. He started playing the accordion and writing songs as a child. In 1945 he moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro, where he began performing professionally as a teenager.
Mr. Donato began leading his own bands in the early 1950s while also working as a sideman. He played accordion on Luiz Bonfá’s first album, released in 1955, as part of a studio band that also included Antonio Carlos Jobim. Mr. Jobim produced Mr. Donato’s debut album, “Chá Dançante” (1956), and Mr. Donato wrote songs with João Gilberto, including “Minha Saudade”, which has become a Brazilian standard.
But by the late 1950s, Signor Donato’s favorite style had become so complex that audiences complained they couldn’t dance to it, and he was having trouble finding work in Brazil. He took a job supporting Carmen Miranda at a Lake Tahoe resort and moved to the United States.
In the early 1960s, he was embraced by Latin and jazz musicians. He has recorded with Cal Tjader, Astrud Gilberto (passed away in June), Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría and Eddie Palmieri. (He played trombone in Mr. Palmieri’s La Perfecta, a salsa brass band that Mr. Palmieri called “trombanga.”)
Vibraphonist Dave Pike has recorded an entire album of Mr. Donato’s compositions, “Bossa Nova Carnival,” in 1962, and saxophonist Bud Shank put Donato at the head of his 1965 album, Bud Shank and his Brazilian friends. “This is João Donato’s baby,” Mr. Shank wrote in the liner notes. “I have entrusted all the problems to him and I just relax and play.”
In his albums for US labels, Signor Donato has drawn on jazz and Caribbean influences as well as Brazilian ones. His seminal 1970 album, “To the bad Donato,” was a radical departure towards funk, fusing Brazilian-rooted melodies and rhythms with electric keyboards and wah-wah guitars. Keyboardist and arranger Eumir Deodato, who worked with Mr. Donato on that album, had a worldwide Brazilian funk hit with his version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).“
Donato returned to Brazil in 1973. There, a the friend convinced him record songs with lyrics rather than solely instrumentals, including his own modest but earnest voice. His tuneful and breezy 1973 album, “Quem E Quem,” It wasn’t an instant hit, but has been widely praised over the years; In 2007, the Brazilian Rolling Stone included it among the 100 best Brazilian albums.
Signor Donato’s new lyricists included two of the leading figures in the decidedly eclectic Brazilian cultural movement known as tropicália: Caetano Veloso, who put Portuguese lyrics into “O Sapo” (“The Frog”) to turn it into “To Ra”, and Gilberto Gil, who provided lyrics for many of the songs on Mr. Donato’s 1975 album, “Commonplace”. Signor Donato has also written songs with lyrics by his younger brother, Lysias Ênio Oliveira.
For the next two decades, Donato recorded almost entirely as a sideman. Singer Gal Costa recorded “To Ra” for his 1974 album, “Cantar”, and hired Signor Donato as arranger and bandleader for that album and its subsequent tour.
Signor Donato has also recorded extensively with leading Brazilian musicians such as Jorge Ben, João Bosco, Chico Buarque and Martinho da Vila. He continued to play his own music and released a live album, “Leilíadas,” in 1986. But he didn’t return to making his own studio albums until “Coisas Tao Simples” (“Such Simple Things”), released in 1994, although he continued to work in session with songwriters including Bebel Gilberto and Marissa Monte.
The albums that Signor Donato made after resuming his solo career were unpredictable and diverse. Some have reverted to his bossa nova-jazz fusions; some singers present, including Wanda Sá, Paula Morelenbaum, Maria Tita and Joyce. Others had titles that reflected Signor Donato’s penchant for musical hybrids, such as “Bluchanga” (2017) and “Sambolero” (2010), which won a Latin Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album. He also received a Latin Grammy for his lifetime achievement in 2010.
In 2017, Donato released an album of synthesizer-focused funk, “Synthesize love”, with his son, João Donato, known professionally as Donatinho, surviving him. Other survivors include his wife, Ivone Belém, and her daughters, yodel and Giovanna Donato. I lived in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2021, Mr. Donato partnered with jazz is deadthe Los Angeles-based project of Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, on the album Jazz is dead 7. In 2022 he released “Serotonin”, a breezy pop-jazz album with his electric piano and clavinet.
On Twitter, Mr. Veloso summed up Mr. Donato’s music admiringly. It was, he wrote he, “The highest result of extreme complexity in extreme simplicity.”
Ana Ionova contributed report.