Not since World War II has jazz played a major role in popular culture. Jazz was mainstream during the swing era; back then, jazz improvisers like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were pop stars. But from the mid-'40s on, jazz has tended to appeal to a select audience. Nonetheless, post-'40s jazz will, on occasion, find its way into popular culture, and that is exactly what happened when bossa nova exploded commercially in the early '60s. This good-to-excellent compilation, which Brazilian producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro assembled for RCA/BMG's Brazilian division, takes a pleasing look at a form of jazz that managed to reach Billboard's pop charts during a rock & roll/soul era. However, Focus on Bossa Nova doesn't limit itself to the '60s; the CD spans 1959-1999, and listeners are exposed to 40 years of bossa nova history. The oldest track is Alaide Costa's 1959 recording of "Minha Saudade" and the most recent is Gal Costa's 1999 version of "The Girl From Ipanema" (which is arguably bossa nova's national anthem). If one defines bossa nova as a fusion of cool jazz and samba, most of the tracks fit that definition -- from Johnny Alfa's 1977 version of "O Barquinho" to Yana Purim's lovely Portuguese-language interpretation of the Billy Eckstine hit "I Apologize," this compilation usually has the sort of subtlety and softness one expects from bossa nova. However, bossa nova purists might question the inclusion of trombonist Raul DeSouza's "A Vontade Mesmo," which has an aggressive, exuberant hard bop/samba outlook; this 1965 pearl isn't really bossa nova, although it is a fine example of Brazilian jazz. But more often that not, this compilation adheres to a bossa nova theme -- and even when it doesn't, the results are still enjoyable.
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AllMusic Review by Alex Henderson