Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Pois É”
written by Jeff Fuller
One sometimes thinks of musical artistry in terms of large-scale forms like symphonies, concertos, operas and the like. But artistry of the highest quality also frequently inhabits small-form pieces like songs. As a composer, I know that I put as much effort into shorter pieces as longer pieces, spending hours or even days on details of pitch selection, harmonic colors and the musical expression of the lyrics. These are the things that matter in my songs.
A short song that matters, in my opinion, is “Pois É,” a collaboration between two Brazilian masters: composer Antonio Carlo Jobim and lyricist/poet, Chico Buarque. I first encountered this song on a CD entitled “Elis & Tom,” recorded in 1974 by vocalist Elis Regina and the composer, whose 14 beautiful, classic songs are arranged in a small group setting performed with subtlety, clarity and brilliance.
To be fair, one could almost choose any song by Antonio Carlos Jobim as a “song that matters.” His opus spans the range from such wildly popular tunes as “Girl From Ipanema,” to his film scores, to numerous sambas and bossa novas, to such poignant masterpieces as “Retrato Em Branco e Preto,” also with Chico Buarque.
Musically, “Pois É” is like an entire symphony in 1 minute, 43 seconds! On the CD, it is played through only once, and that is enough. To my mind, the song represents a perfect wedding of melody, harmony and form to the structure and content of the lyrics. Like so many Brazilian songs, Buarque’s words aren’t just love song lyrics; they are deep and valid poetry. (Thanks to my colleague, Isabella Mendes, for help with the translation.)
Pois é, fica o dito e o redito
por não dito e é dificil dizer
que ainda é bonito cantar
o que me restou de ti
Daí nosso mais-que-perfeito
está desfeito e o que me parecia
tão direito Caiu desse jeito
Então disfarçar minha dor
já não consigo dizer: que
nós somos bons amigos
É muita mentira para mim
Enfim hoje na solidão
ainda custo a entender
como o amor foi tão injusto
pra quem só lhe foi dedicação
Pois é, então
So be it, what was said and re-said,
was not really said, and I can’t
say that it’s pretty to sing what’s
left of you in me.
Moreover, our ‘more-than-perfect’
is undone: what seemed to me
to be so right fell this way
And so, to disguise my pain
I cannot just say:
we are good friends,
It’s too much of a lie to me.
Finally, today in solitude it still hurts
To understand how love was
so unfair to someone for whom it was
So be it, then …
This is a very sad song, one that moves me and resonates in my heart through my own relational challenges. Even after hearing the song scores of times, Elis Regina brings tears to my eyes as she voices these poignant, intimate personal thoughts — from more-than-perfect euphoria to ultimate resignation: “pois é” (“so be it, alas”). What puts this song over the top for me is that Jobim’s melody, harmony and form perfectly match the arch of the lyrics. His musical decisions genuinely express this journey, the rise and fall of a relationship which was once so sweet and which has dissolved into something else.
The 34-measure form is a masterful 4-part structure, utilizing an unsteady, wavering 2-note melodic phrase repeated over a shifting chromatic harmony. The melodic tones are not explicitly chordal: they are the 13ths, 9ths and 11ths of the chords. The harmony modulates dramatically upward in 4ths, resulting in a twice-transposed melodic sequence, mixing a dark minor mode with a more hopeful dominant 9th sound (Fmin9-Bb9; Bbmin9-Eb9; Ebmin9-Ab9). Ultimately in measure 24 – at the crux of the lyrics – the harmony dissolves into a poignant descending chromatic chord sequence that inevitably comes to rest on a final Ebsus9 harmony, as if we have hit rock bottom. But then the final two chords on “Pois é, então”—exactly how the song began—remain unresolved, leaving the tonality open to question while tracing the entire arc of both the lyrics and the song.
The inner voices as played on the piano and guitar are daringly chromatic, rising from the +5, 6, m7 to ma7 of each minor tonality, before beginning their inevitable descent (which matches the tension of the lyrics so well).
I am always drawn to composers who are daring and try things no one has tried before. They are the ones who willingly force conflict and resolution upon their actual musical choices, and thereby create something new. “Pois É”, in its own small way, represents a microcosm of Jobim’s macro-musical world, an artistic masterpiece and, for me, a brief journey into my heart and soul.
Jeff Fuller is a jazz bassist, composer, and educator based in New Haven, Connecticut. Follow his musical adventures on www.jefffuller.net.