Elenco Records – Bossa Nova Masterstrokes

Published:  September 29, 2011
Charlie Rose
Elenco Records – Bossa Nova Masterstrokes

Scene: 1960s swinging Brazil, new found prosperity, the feeling of hope untouched by war or famine.
Sound: A whispered hush with a subdued pluck
Sensation: A comforting sea breeze that forgets the humid day

The golden age of Bossa Nova was born of a common feeling and expressed by an individual who was capturing what he was sensing. Beginning with the native rhythmic Samba and stripped back with cool Jazz sensibility, Bossa Nova was something exciting and original for young musicians from the upscale beach side neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro. The young Carioca (people from Rio) were the image of a new Brazil: sun, sea, parties where tanned women danced until sunrise. They embraced the widening gap between the middle class and the working class favelas. Everyone wanted to be simpatico: which is friendly, nice, agreeable, good natured and carefree. This new natural flair became uniquely Brazilian and the Bossa reflected it.

All images copyright Elenco Records

Joao Gilberto was the Bossa Nova pioneer. He wrote the first Bossa Nova song Bim-Bom looking upon laundresses on the banks of the Sao Fransisco River. He admired their carefree attitude, easy smiles, bright dresses that gave colour to those around them. His musical hallmarks became a stripped back, tempered playful voice and accompanying rhythmic acoustic guitar. A very simple and elegant sound that coupled with romantic lyrics sounded the most natural played by a lone poet/musician. This fresh, refined, Samba sound spread quickly and launched a bona fide craze around the world, changing the face of jazz and elevator lobbies forever.

Bossa Nova started to gain momentum in 1958 with Antonio Carlos Jobim stringing together hits that caught the world off guard. Philips records sent two of North America’s great jazz leaders, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, to record and collaborate with what was happening. Getz met with Gilberto and they started a long and fruitful partnership that brought about Bossa Nova’s biggest hit ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ performed by Astrud Gilberto.

Aloysio de Oliveira started Elenco Records in 1963 because he felt the musicians he had launched worldwide at Philips were starting to become glorified Las Vegas lounge warm-up acts. He saw waning global interest in Bossa Nova and decided to do something about it. Although Elenco was short lived (1963-1968), its legacy is unparalleled in Bossa Nova and it managed to define the look and visual identity of the style through its iconic minimalist black, white and red album covers.

Behind great design is an idea or a feeling of society or context. The way this is expressed and treated can shape the movement itself. This was the case with Elenco records. De Oliveira admired the work of young designer Cesar E Villela from his time at Odeon records, so when he started he gave Villela carte blanche to do, “whatever it wanted with the covers.” Villela gave Elenco a distinct look, feel and style of its own, something unique that made the records stand out from the others in shop windows. To quote Vilella ‘there was a carnivals of colours, we felt the need to change, to simplify the visual.’

Cesar thought about the values of Bossa Nova and what would make the artwork stand out from the colour carnival while still being appealing to the young and wealthy Carioca. “Bossa Nova was simple and light in sound,” says Vilella ,”the covers were just that, modern, clean, economical, just like bossa nova.” The high contrast sobriety of the black and white covers represented the elegance of its consumers, while creating larger than life characters of the artists that performed on the records. The Elenco artwork is simple in style, composition and subject. As with a lot of great art, necessity was the driving force. If you box someone in they find new creative ways to produce a solution that wouldn’t have been there before. With a tight budget Villela simplified the colour palette and worked closely with photographer Chico Pereira solarising photographs and increasing the contrast until they became caricatures.

Have a look at these great examples:

‘A Bossa Nova’ Roberto Menescal, 1967

This playful cover inhibits the effortless class of Elenco’s range. Roberto smiling as clear as day, alongside humanistic penned lettering and rushed fish doodling. It wouldn’t have worked in any other musical style. But the spirit of Brazil at this time allowed Cesar’s great characters to exist with presence. The red dots connect the composition and guide your eye from the spear-fishing crooner to title, then the artists name. As with other Elenco titles simple visual tools such as hair-thin lines section off everything giving the white space the room it needs. The linear text shifts from side to side almost as if the artwork is swaying to and fro, enjoying the music that it holds inside.

‘Maysa’ Maysa Matarazzo, 1964

Maysa Matarazzo is one of Brazil’s great musical figures. She has the same one name pulling power of Kylie, Madonna, Kanye or Elton. She was a singer, composer and actress who recently had a Brazilian TV mini-series made about her life. The songs on this album and guest list make it an undoubted Bossa Nova classic. Villela fills the cover with the singer’s famous name and it slaps you in the face. The strong, heavy-set sans serif with each letter kerned snug next to the next shouts at you, and the lack of colour and the allure of her eyes make it impossible to remove your gaze. Once again Villela masterfully implements the Elenco red dot logotype to guide us to what he wants us to see and when. Whilst holding down the composition the dots invoke a slight Middle Eastern or Indian feel, which while being hip in the mid sixties also adds to the mystery of Maysa’s unshakable stare.

‘Baden Powell Swings with Jimmy Pratt’ Baden Powell, 1963

Baden Powell was one of Brazil’s most talented guitarists. After winning guitar competitions through his youth, Powell started to play as a professsional Jazz guitarist at the age of 15. His 1963 album, with drummer Jimmy Pratt, swings with the confidence of professional musicans at the height of their powers. This is a great example of script lettering and it provides the sleeve art an easy class. It is sad that as one of Elenco’s early releases it is the only artwork set in this handwritten lettering. The title sits well next to Powell strumming his guitar and looks as if it were playing with the dots along with Powell’s music. The dots here exaggerate and accentuate the text, overpowering it and giving it weight. The solarisation and high contrast used in Powell’s portrait creates an iconic image of the artist that holds details which in turn makes it personal and softer.

Villela’s minimalistic approach to Elenco’s artwork was inspired by the work of Piet Mondrian and the writings of Canadian communication academic Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan, noted author who coined the term ‘global village’ years before the internet, said “the excess of detail in an image is visual noise.” De Oliviera also played a pivotal role by giving freedom to Villela and his art department through the clarity of his vision. Elenco played an important part in the graphic modernisation of Brazil. This attention to detail, implementation of enforced strategy and the willingness to take risk, inspired future Brazilian generations and their 1960s peers. Before De Oliviera and Villela’s work at Elenco such integration between product and packaging (or artwork) was rare.

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