Leny Andrade, Brazilian signer who fused bossa nova and jazz, dies at 80

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Leny Andrade, a Brazilian singer who helped craft a new genre by fusing the country’s mellow bossa nova sound with jazz influences, including scat improvisations that drew comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, died July 24 at a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. She was 80.

Ms. Andrade died of pneumonia, said a statement by a retirement home for artists in Rio where she had lived. She had undergone treatment for Lewy body dementia.

Ms. Andrade (pronounced ahn-DRA-jay) toured the world, collaborated with musicians in Mexico and Europe and appeared at hallowed jazz venues such as the Blue Note and Birdland in New York, a city where she took up part-time residence beginning in the early 1990s. Her creative moorings, however, remained firmly in Brazil during a six-decade career of performing and recording more than 30 albums.

She sang almost exclusively in Portuguese and worked with some of the country’s top musicians, such as pianist and composer César Camargo Mariano and arranger Francis Hime. She never strayed too far from the foundations of Brazil’s ultra-suave bossa nova and percussive rhythms of samba in interpretations of songs such as “O Cantador” and “Carinhoso” — and the worldwide hit “The Girl From Ipanema” that catapulted singer Astrud Gilberto to fame in the 1960s.

Ms. Andrade’s special touch came by introducing jazz-influenced vocal phrasing — stops, scales and scat riffs — that were inspired by innovators such as Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.

“You may think you know ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’” wrote New York Times music reviewer Stephen Holden in 2008 after a performance at Birdland by Ms. Andrade.

“You haven’t really absorbed it until you’ve heard Ms. Andrade sing it in Portuguese; disgorge might be a better word than sing,” he continued, “since, like everything else she performs, it seems to well up from the center of the earth.”

Ms. Andrade possessed a voice that seemed to carry the soul of smoky clubs and late-night jam sessions, a husky mezzo-soprano that could pivot from world-weary to sultry. She also seemed to think decades of smoking gave an added flavor.

“If she didn’t smoke, she couldn’t sing,” Brazilian songwriter and jazz musician Ivan Lins told NPR.

He recalled a 2002 recording session in which Ms. Andrade was told she couldn’t smoke in the studio. Her first songs came out like “a strangled croak,” he said. “She went outside and smoked two cigarettes.”

“She returned,” he added, “and she sang like a bird.” (She gave up smoking years later.)

Ms. Andrade was often called “the first lady of Brazilian jazz.” Tony Bennett once celebrated her as “one of the greatest improvisers in the world.” Ms. Andrade appeared content to remain in the musical world she created. “I don’t make music for the masses,” she told the Brazilian music site Esquina Musical in 2013.

At the 2008 gig at Birdland, Ms. Andrade shifted into English for a personal take on her art.

“I can sing the sun. I can sing the sea, and the things of art and romance,” she said. “Without romance, there is nothing to do in this life.”

Leny de Andrade Lima was born on Jan. 26, 1943, in Rio and raised by her mother and stepfather in a neighborhood that was a hub for samba.

Ms. Andrade studied piano and singing as a young girl and received a scholarship to the Brazilian Conservatory of Music. She turned away from classical compositions, however, after becoming enamored by bossa nova star Dolores Durán.

Ms. Andrade began performing as a teenager at clubs on Copacabana, a center for the emerging bossa nova sound. Ms. Andrade later received her introduction to jazz as part of the Sérgio Mendes Trio before he formed the internationally popular band Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66.

Ms. Andrade said Mendes refused to play samba. She didn’t like jazz at the time. They ended up “mixing the two,” she said.

Ms. Andrade’s first album, “A Sensação,” (1961) drew from samba traditions. In 1963, her signature blend of jazz and bossa nova began to take shape with the album, “A Arte Maior de Leny Andrade,” as part of a trio that included renowned bossa nova drummer, Milton Banana.

She joined a popular crooner, Pery Ribeiro, to form the group Gemini V in 1965. She later moved to Mexico, where she spent seven years and took a deep interest in the music of love and longing known as bolero. The ballads became a staple of her stage repertoire.

She made her New York debut at the Blue Note in 1983 and later, in the 1990s, caught the attention of U.S. music critics and luminaries such as Bennett and Liza Minnelli, both of whom attended some of her shows. Ms. Andrade went on to play major venues including Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and the Hollywood Bowl.

In 2007, Ms. Andrade won a Latin Grammy Award for “Ao Vivo,” a live album with the pianist Mariano. Paquito D’Rivera, a Cuban American saxophonist, clarinetist and composer, offered a tribute to Ms. Andrade with a 1987 composition, “For Leny.”

“She never forced anything, or insisted on a certain arrangement,” wrote one of her longtime collaborators, jazz guitarist Roni Ben-Hur, in an essay for the public radio station WBGO. “‘Let’s see what happens’ was her modus operandi. Without fear, and doubts.”

Ms. Andrade had no children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In one her last performances onstage, Ms. Andrade sang joined with pianist Gilson Peranzzetta in 2019. She sat in a leather chair, too weak from her declining health and the lingering effects of falls in previous years.

“When I sing,” she said six year earlier, “I embark on a magic carpet out of here. I travel to Mars.”

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