Djavan: Luz (1982) and Lilas (1984)
Two early '80s Djavan records that somehow sound both dated and absolutely genius.
Djavan’s 1976 debut album (my review: A Voz, o Violão, a Música de Djavan) showed that he could spin utterly catchy, sophisticated pop hits based on samba forms. The following year, his self-titled sophomore effort, Djavan (Spotify), found the Brazilian singer-songwriter going deeper into Brazil melodically and harmonically, even as he sometimes eschewed the samba itself. By the third and fourth albums, Alumbramento (1979) and Seduzir (1980), Djavan was firmly in what could be called the pop mainstream—but it was a musical universe of his own creation: songs crafted like jewels, a strong serving of Brazil or the exotic, but just as much owed to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and others outside the country.
By the time 1982 came around, the hipper listeners in the United States had noticed. Djavan found keyboardist Ronnie Foster working as a producer of high quality pop music in LA after spending the 1970s making cult-classic jazz-funk records on Blue Note. Using top studio musicians—and CTI’s jazz flautist Hubert Laws—Foster produced Luz (1982), the songwriter’s most cohesive, catchy and pop-oriented collection of tunes yet. The arrangements didn’t sound like jazz, of course—but like the late 70s work of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro, it was very high quality pop music. Anyway, Luz is one of the few perfect albums of that era, and I can recommend all of it unreservedly. Stevie Wonder makes a cameo on “Samurai,” the opening track, playing chromatic harmonica.
By 1984, the Brazilian Boogie craze—which was a hip reaction to the excesses of disco records that put catchy hooks and melodies forward—was slowing down, and we’ve got the emergence of a sound that exemplifies mid-80s pretty much everywhere in the world: synths on top of synths, drum machines, and compression. Like Luz, Lilaswas produced by Ronnie Foster. It might take a moment to get over the shock to your ears, but we’ve probably got enough distance from the time to get to nostalgia pretty quickly. The songs on Lilas are also brilliant, and there isn’t a bad track on this one, either.
Important to keep in mind that, around 1984, the music production world was walking a tightrope between sounds that were hip and happy electronic and those which would become cold, smooth, inorganic, disposable plastic. Unfortunately, tightropes were tiny, and there was a lot of cocaine. This perfect mix only seemed possible in the early 80s— note that you can hear Djavan’s acoustic guitar and live drums.
Quincy Jones got a chance to hear some of the tunes recorded at the Luz session, and he promptly bought the rights to them. Unfortunately, it was by then 1987, and good taste had just left the building (and would be AWOL for at least a decade). The vocalese group Manhattan Transfer sang English lyrics to some of these (“Sina” became “Soul Food to Go”) on their Brazil record. I don’t even want to link that; even telling you about it was probably a mistake. Just listen to the perfect Djavan records.