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Next-generation Brazilian diva

September 01, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It was all about Bebel Gilberto on Monday night at UCLA's Royce Hall. From the first notes of "Simplesmente" to her insistence that the audience take to the aisles to join in a final burst of samba, the rapidly rising Brazilian singing star was the center of attention. And with good reason.

In the middle of a semicircle of six musicians, Gilberto -- a small but potent package of performing dynamite -- was in constant motion. Making dramatic points with gestures of her mobile hands and arms, interspersing animated skipping with brisk samba steps, constantly interacting with her players, often speaking directly to members of her entranced audience, she brought each of her songs visually alive.

It was an extraordinary, even liberating performance from an artist who has experienced both the pleasures and the perils of an extraordinary genetic blessing. Her father is the influential bossa nova singer-guitarist Joao Gilberto, her mother is the popular singer Miucha and her uncle is songwriter Chico Buarque. Making her recording debut at 7 (with her mother), she has been releasing CDs under her own name since the mid-'80s.

But it was not until her album "Tanto Tempo" in 2000 that Gilberto reached a wider audience in the U.S. Her subsequent album, "Bebel Gilberto," released this year, moved beyond the electronic orientation of the first CD and included nine original songs.

Her Royce Hall appearance revealed an equally significant live-performance transition. In a Hollywood Bowl concert three years ago, Gilberto's diva presence, still emerging, often seemed outsized by both the stage and the venue. Not so at Royce, where there was never a moment's doubt about either her comfortable command of the stage or the communicative powers of her musicality.

Gilberto's tune list included songs from her two latest CDs, including Buarque's lovely "Samba e Amor," the old '60s hit by Marcos Valle "So Nice (Summer Samba)," Caetano Veloso's "Baby," Buarque's stirring "Aganju" and her own well-crafted, co-written "All Around," "Simplesmente" and "River Song." Tonally reminiscent of her mother's sound, Gilberto's warm and affecting voice also possesses the in-your-ear intimacy of her father's singing, even in the midst of a roaring samba rhythm, and adds a new, captivating presentation that is her own. With those qualities, the unfamiliar aspects of her material -- and the unfamiliar language -- were quickly set aside.

Gilberto was aided by a musically symbiotic back-up ensemble. Pedro "Baby" Gomes provided unerring guitar support. Saxophonist-flutist Paulo Levi, bassist Masa Shimizu and keyboardist David Boyle added atmospheric sound and texture. And the rhythm team of percussionist Davi Viera and drummer Magrus kept the spirit of Brazil vividly alive.

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