WASHINGTON — João Gilberto, a Brazilian guitarist and singer who helped define the subtle, swaying, and quietly sensuous style of music known as bossa nova, which became a worldwide craze in the 1960s, died July 6 at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 88.
His son, João Marcelo Gilberto, announced the death on social media but did not provide a cause. His father had been in declining physical and mental health for several years.
Mr. Gilberto began his musical career in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that he developed the distinctive understated vocals and syncopated rhythms that would become known as bossa nova. (Loosely translated, the term means ‘‘new wave’’ or ‘‘new trend.")
But it wasn’t until he joined forces with composer and performer Antonio Carlos Jobim that the wave began to crest. His 1958 recording of Jobim’s ‘‘Chega de Saudade,’’ sung in an intimate style without vibrato, became Mr. Gilberto’s signature tune and launched the bossa nova movement. Singing in Portuguese, he conveyed a mood of both longing in regret in the lyrics by Vinicius de Moraes, roughly translated, in part, as:
But if she comes back, if she comes back
What a beautiful thing, what a crazy thing
For there are less fish swimming in the sea
Than the kisses I'll give you
‘‘All I can say is that it was like the first time I heard Charlie Parker,’’ Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves told the Los Angeles Times in 2003. ‘‘It changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil. Once we heard what João was doing with the guitar and the voice, we all had to find a way to figure out how he did it.’’
Derived from Brazil’s traditional samba music and the melodic cool jazz of the 1950s, bossa nova gained further exposure in a 1959 film, ‘‘Black Orpheus,’’ with a soundtrack by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa. American jazz musicians soon adopted the new style, and in 1962 guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz recorded ‘‘Jazz Samba.’’ The album spent more than a year on the pop charts, reaching No. 1.
In 1963, Mr. Gilberto and Getz recorded an album, ‘‘Getz/Gilberto,’’ that was released a year later. The first voice heard on the album’s most famous song, Jobim’s ‘‘The Girl From Ipanema,’’ is that of Mr. Gilberto.
He sets a tone of breezy, sun-dappled nonchalance that is picked up in an English-language verse sung by Mr. Gilberto’s wife at the time, Astrud Gilberto, and later by Getz’s soaring tenor saxophone. The song became an international hit. The ‘‘Getz/Gilberto’’ album sold more than 1 million copies and received several Grammys, including Album of the Year.
‘‘João probably single-handedly did more for Antonio Carlos Jobim than any other artist could have done,’’ record producer Tommy LiPuma, who made an album with Mr. Gilberto in the 1970s, told the Los Angeles Times. ‘‘Nobody knew what to do with those songs like he knew what to do with them. I've never heard anybody do them as well or interpret them in the manner he has.’’
A follow-up album, ‘‘Getz/Gilberto II,’’ was released in 1966, but Mr. Gilberto was never comfortable with the fame that came his way. He sometimes stopped his performances if audience members were speaking or canceled engagements if a club or concert hall was too noisy.
‘‘When I sing, I think of a clear, open space and I'm going to play sound in it,’’ Mr. Gilberto told the New York Times in 1968. ‘‘It is as if I'm writing on a blank piece of paper. It has to be very quiet for me to produce the sounds I'm thinking of. If there are other sounds around, the notes I want won’t have the same vibrations.’’
Mr. Gilberto ‘‘carries reserve to an unusual extreme for a performer,’’ Times critic John S. Wilson wrote in 1968, but he ‘‘has gauged his art so skillfully that the listener is caught up in the mood and the effect becomes almost hypnotic.’’
Mr. Gilberto released four more albums in the 1970s and had a reunion with Getz in 1976 that was recorded but not issued until 2016.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born June 10, 1931, in the Brazilian state of Bahia. His father was a prosperous businessman.
Mr. Gilberto was captivated from an early age by what he heard on the radio — from the American music of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra to traditional Brazilian music.
He began singing in groups in Bahia’s capital of Salvador and later in Rio de Janeiro, but he was often late or absent and was ultimately fired. For several years, he stayed with friends and relatives, not holding a job and smoking huge amounts of marijuana.
After his family briefly sent him to a psychiatric hospital, he stopped using drugs and eventually began performing at a club in the city of Porto Alegre. He practiced long hours in his sister’s bathroom, learning to sing softly without vibrato while developing a complex, finger-picking style of guitar playing.
By 1956, he had returned to Rio de Janeiro, where he teamed up with Jobim.
His marriage to Astrud Gilberto (nee Weinert) ended in divorce. In 1965, he married Heloísa Maria Buarque de Hollanda, a singer known as Miúcha. They later separated.
He leaves a son from his first marriage; a daughter, singer Bebel Gilberto, from his second marriage; and a daughter from another relationship.