After 1976's seminal Estudando o Samba and 2006's Estudando o Pagode, in 2008 Tom Zé let his wild genius run riot on that most canonized of Brazilian musical styles (and movements), the bossa nova. The timing of Estudando a Bossa is hardly casual, for 2008 is the year that the entire country celebrated the 50th anniversary of João Gilberto's recording of "Chega de Saudade." As history goes, that 1958 release would kick-start the bossa nova movement and revolutionize music in Brazil -- and then the world -- forever. Appropriately, all year long in Brazil there were endless tributes to the movement, including a bevy of thematic releases and concerts (many by major artists). No one, however, did it with the intelligence, creativity, and -- most of all -- the irreverence of Tom Zé. Instead of performing new versions of predictable standards, Zé chose to put together a collection of 13 originals, each one referencing (actually, mocking) one famous bossa nova song or moment in its title: "O Céu Desabou" for "Você Abusou," "Outra Insensatez, Poe!" for "Insensatez," "Filho do Pato" for "O Pato." Granted, this is an album that for its full enjoyment requires knowledge not merely of Portuguese, but also of the minutia of the bossa nova movement as it happened in Brazil in the late '50s and early '60s -- the international triumph of the genre is of no concern here. In the hilarious "Jõao Nos Tribunais," Zé claims that the Brazilian Supreme Court should rule that João Gilberto must get copyrights for every song that borrows his distinctive guitar strum (that would mean every bossa nova ever recorded worldwide, of course); in "O Céu Desabou" he offers a compendium of all the absurd criticisms leveled at the genre in its day by the traditionalist music community (best one: "That singer is a ventriloquist"); or conversely, in "Bolero de Platão" he mimics the disdain that the snobbish bossa nova lyricists had for the melodrama of the bolero and other Latin romantic styles.
Musically, Estudando a Bossa is -- obviously -- a bossa nova album...done the Tom Zé way. While songs faithfully keep to a traditional bossa beat, distorted electric guitars and bizarre percussive sounds insert a twist of iconoclastic tropicalismo. Moreover, almost every song features one or more female vocalists, often functioning as a chorus answering Zé's ongoing half-spoken commentary. As is generally the case in his albums, Zé enlists an all-star cast of collaborators for Estudando a Bossa, notably Arnaldo Antunes, who co-wrote several lyrics, and friend and admirer David Byrne (the man responsible for Zé's renaissance in the 1990s and subsequent international reputation), who sings on one track. Even more impressive is the long list of superb female vocalists, whose voices keep this collection lively and variegated: Fernanda Takai, Marina de la Riva, Mônica Salmaso, Mariana Aydar, Zélia Duncan, Fabiana Cozza, Jussara Silveira, Andréia Dias, Tita Lima, Badi Assad, Anellis Assumpção, and Márcia Castro. Remarkably, most of them belong to the newer generations of Brazilian singers, and are 30 to 40 years younger than Zé, who, at 72, remains as committed to revolution in music as he was in 1968. It is precisely this difference in vision, always looking to the future rather than taking shelter in an idealized past, that sets Zé's Estudando a Bossa worlds apart from the myriad bossa nova tributes that are regularly released every year. Make no mistake, Zé loves the bossa nova dearly, and will always be thankful for the musical universes that the genre opened up for him (and many others) when he was a young man. That, however, does not prevent him from realizing the sort of fossilized holy monument the genre seems to have become in Brazil since at least the 1970s, or from responding with an album that is a true cultural and musicologist essay on the genre's birth and myth, filtered through his perennial mischievous intelligence. Rarely is an artist able to combine intellectual exercise and fun so well. If further proof were needed than Tom Zé is to pop music what Marcel Duchamp is to modern art, the brilliant Estudando a Bossa should close the matter -- emphatically.