THE CORNER CLUB: Gil and Jorge

On this edition of The Corner Club (#3), a look at the sparse alchemy of two MPB titans and one incredible jam album.

The premise is so absurdly simple that it might read like a bad joke. Two Brazilian musicians walk into a studio, with nothing but their guitars, a few mics, a percussionist and bassist to keep them company. They record themselves improvising off each other for 78 minutes of music, and call it a night.

Now sure, an hour-long album of two dudes jamming away on their acoustics might not inspire a great deal of confidence. The fact that four of the nine tracks stretch past the 10-minute mark probably isn’t helping. But let’s remember who we’re talking about here.

On one hand, there’s Gilberto Gil, a fearless creative, godfather of the Tropicália movement, a man chosen to serve as Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008, and one of the greatest artists Brazil has ever been graced with. On the other hand, there’s Jorge Ben, a samba-rock godhead with a penchant for sticky melodies; a man so gifted with the pen that Gil swore off writing music the first time he heard Ben’s music; another one of the greatest artists Brazil has ever been graced with.

So with all that in mind, we come to the album itself, Gil e Jorge (Ogum Xangô), a record so juiced up on raw talent that it practically spits in the face of conventional logic.

Gil e Jorge is, at its core, a masterpiece on musical alchemy. It is the sound of two distinctly gifted musicians coming together for a sum greater than their parts, and utilizing their undeniable chemistry to elevate their art. And yes, even though the album is looser and feels more low-stakes than anything the two had ever done before, it is still capital-A Art. Like how the best jam bands feed off the energy of their audience, Gil and Ben spend the entirety of the album feeding off of the others’ power, a mutualistic connection that gets stronger and stronger as they get deeper and deeper into the grooves.

In primarily panning Gil’s voice to the left and Ben’s voice to the right—a stroke of genius by the session engineer—the album sounds like you’re standing in the middle of the action. You’re able to experience the interplay between the pair while still being able to appreciate each artist’s remarkable intuition.

You can hear and feel Gil’s visceral, highly-intonated delivery in your gut, as if he’s exploring the boundaries of human voice in real time. On the other hand, where Ben’s vocal delivery is far more conventional, his sense of rhythm is matchless, and you can feel all these rollicking shifts in his virtuosic guitar work. It allows for all the rapid shifts of a song like “Jurubeba” to sound less overwhelming and more engrossing. Hearing Gilberto Gil toy around with his delivery as he explores the melody is enthralling, as are those delightful moments where Jorge Ben pauses his acoustic soloing to join him.

That interplay is even more powerful on “Morre o Burro, Fica o Homem,” where Ben takes lead vocal, playing straight man as Gil’s wild, improvisatory vocalizations reach their absurdist peak. Even with the pair’s fast and loose guitar work, the rhythm section—with Djalma Corrêa on percussion and Wagner Dias on bass—does a fantastic job of keeping the two perfectly framed, and their work ensures that the entire band runs like a well oiled machine.

Elsewhere, the duo slows the pace, as on the opening “Meu Glorioso São Cristóvão,” where their baton-passing is at its peak. Gil and Ben sound like church-boys in the choir here, hitting their upper registers as they explore the cavernous limits of this hymn for a stunning eight minute call-and-response, filled with Gil’s delightful falsetto wails and Ben’s spoken word passages. The song feels utterly divine, and the cascading melodies only brighten the song’s aura.

They slow down further on the next track, Gilberto Gil’s “Nêga,” a fragmented odyssey where both Gil and Ben seem to diverge on their approaches for a result that ends up all the more satisfying. Where Gil’s vocals couches into the harmony with some gleeful vocalizations, Ben takes a more rhythmic approach, syncopating his delivery and tapping into his inner bluesman, moaning and wailing to his “tropical woman.”

Meanwhile, Gil is spinning himself in a verbal circle, feeling the words “beautiful blue sky and sea” as they work their way through his mouth. It might be some sort of existential spiral on love and heartbreak, but there’s something delightful in Gil and Ben’s attitudes; the pair seems entranced by the rudimentary, mundane joy of throwing phrases at the wall and seeing what sticks.

There are those moments where Gil and Ben just decide to stay in the orbit of a simple melody, which often take them to the most potent places on the album.

One of these moments comes on the terrific penultimate track, a 13-minute behemoth, “Filhos de Gandhi.” With the pair’s guitars and the rhythm section setting down a gentle samba groove, we see a role reversal, with Ben exploring his high register, cooing gently as Gil carries the melody.

As the song buries itself into that swaying cadence, the pair gently tugs at the ropes holding down their original rhythm—from Gil latching onto a mutated version of the original melody about eight minutes in and Ben’s subsequently growling harmonies, to the pair descending into banter as the song gets gradually more and more skeletal. The playfulness is engrossing, and it only grows more so as the time winds on.

And then there’s the album’s most iconic moment, the pairs’ rendition of Ben’s “Taj Mahal,” a song so addictive that Rod Stewart subconsciously stole the melody for his (absolutely atrocious) 1978 hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” after hearing it played at Carnaval that year.

Though most people might be partial to the original, acoustic version from 1972’s Ben or the more popular, disco-inflected version on 1976’s Africa Brasil, it’s this 12-minute deconstruction of the song that I adore the most. Stripping the song down to a racing rhythmic core, the focus here lies directly in moving the song forward, and it makes for a feverish peak on an album of highs.

With the rhythm section setting a tight, unrelinquishing groove, Gil and Ben sound unstoppable here. Ben lays down the age-old love story of Shah-Jahan and his Mumtaz Mahal, chaining the melody to the earth with his gorgeously rich vocals, as Gil takes flight. On a record filled with them, Gil’s sublime vocal acrobatics peak here, harmonizing with Ben as they set for the stratosphere. The song is a masterclass in momentum, deconstructing and rebuilding in mere minutes as if Gil and Ben are toying with us, lifting off and crashing down, over and over again.

It’s a remarkable feat when you think about it. Not only, to carry 12 nonstop minutes of song with such unrestrained, feverish energy that it barely registers by the time it’s over, but to do it with merely a pair of voices, guitars, a bass and a small percussion set?

To call Gil e Jorge a mere “jam” album is to cheapen the artistic genius at play here. Ben and Gil’s instruments, whether voice or guitar, feel viscerally intertwined, where every unspooling melody is met with a musicality that’s tactile enough to move with it. It is truly one of those records that draws the best from its creators, refracting it into something gloriously revelatory.

And that is the greatest triumph of Gil e Jorge; that a record so casually recorded, so loose and relaxed, can sound so immensely spiritual. In the face of convention, precedent and time itself, it sounds utterly transcendental.