Carlos Lyra, Composer Who Brought Finesse to Bossa Nova, Dies at 90

Carlos Lyra, a Brazilian composer, singer and guitarist whose cool, meticulous melodies helped give structure and power to bossa nova, the samba-inflected jazz style that became a worldwide phenomenon in the early 1960s, died on Dec. 16 in Rio de Janeiro. He was 90.

His daughter, the singer Kay Lyra, said the cause of his death, in a hospital, was sepsis.

Alongside Antônio Carlos Jobim, Mr. Lyra was widely considered among the greatest composers of bossa nova. Mr. Jobim once called him “a great melodist, harmonist, king of rhythm, of syncopation, of swing” and “singular, without equal.”

Mr. Lyra was part of a loose circle of musicians who in the 1950s began looking for ways to blend the traditional samba sounds of Brazil with American jazz and European classical influences. They often gathered at the Plaza Hotel in Rio, not far from the Copacabana beach, to discuss music and hash out ideas.

One of those musicians, the singer and guitarist João Gilberto, included three of Mr. Lyra’s compositions — “Maria Ninguém” (“Maria Nobody”), “Lobo Bobo” (“Foolish Wolf”) and “Saudade Fêz um Samba” (“Saudade Made a Samba”) — on his “Chega de Saudade” (1959), which has often been called the first bossa nova album. Mr. Lyra released his own first album a year later, titled simply “Carlos Lyra: Bossa Nova.”

Inspired by the West Coast jazz of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and others, Mr. Lyra brought a relaxed sophistication to his work, as well as an exacting standard for musical precision.

“He threw a lot of songs away,” his daughter said. “He only kept the good ones, he told me.”

He frequently wrote with a lyricist — originally Ronaldo Bôscoli and then, beginning in the early 1960s, Vinícius de Moraes, who wrote the original Portuguese lyrics to “The Girl From Ipanema,” perhaps the most famous bossa nova song.

Mr. Lyra joined Mr. Gilberto, Mr. Jobim, Sérgio Mendes and other Brazilian artists in the famed 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York that helped introduce bossa nova to American audiences. Jazz artists like Miles Davis and Erroll Garner sat in the audience, as did record executives, and several of the performers (though not Mr. Lyra) later signed contracts with U.S. labels.

Many of bossa nova’s leading lights were either just writers or just performers; Mr. Lyra was among the few who were both. Glowingly charismatic onstage, with a rich baritone voice, he captured audiences around Brazil and, in the mid-1960s, the United States, when he spent two years touring with the saxophonist Stan Getz, the leading American exponent of bossa nova.

Mr. Lyra also differed from his fellow bossa nova musicians in his politics. Most were apolitical or leaned to the right; Mr. Lyra was an outspoken leftist who joined the Communist Party and helped found the People’s Center for Culture, a gathering place in Rio de Janeiro for progressive students and artists.

He wrote songs (sometimes with his own lyrics, sometimes in collaboration with Mr. de Moraes) that had a social and political inflection, although his messages were increasingly coded after Brazil’s government was overthrown in 1964 during a military coup. His politics nevertheless drove him to choose exile, twice.

“I consider myself politically proletariat,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “I consider myself economically bourgeois. And artistically I consider myself an aristocrat.”

Carlos Eduardo Lyra Barbosa was born on May 11, 1933, in Rio de Janeiro. His father, José Domingos Barbosa, was an officer in the Brazilian Navy. His mother, Helena (Lyra) Barbosa, was a homemaker.

Carlinhos (people called him by that name, the diminutive form of Carlos, throughout his life) was a musically precocious child. His family was replete with amateur artists and musicians, including his mother, who played the music of Debussy and other impressionist composers on the piano.

He studied classical guitar with Moacir Santos, an influential composer and music teacher, and began writing songs in his teens. In 1955, the singer Sylvia Telles recorded his “Menina.”

That early success brought him into contact with other young artists, like Mr. Gilberto, Mr. Jobim, the singer Nara Leão and the composer Roberto Menescal, all of whom played a central role in the formation of bossa nova.

Mr. Lyra left Brazil after the coup in 1964. When he came off the road after his long tour with Mr. Getz, he settled in Mexico City, where he joined many other self-exiled Brazilian artists.

There he met and married Katherine Riddell, an actress known in Brazil under the stage name Kate Lyra. They later divorced.

Along with his daughter, Mr. Lyra is survived by his second wife, Magda Pereira Botafogo; his sister, Maria Helena Lyra Fialho; and his brother, Sérgio.

Mr. Lyra returned to Brazil in the early 1970s. But, finding the right-wing dictatorship still unpalatable, he went into exile again in 1974, this time to Los Angeles. There he underwent primal-scream therapy under Arthur Janov, befriending another famous participant, John Lennon.

Two years later he came back to Brazil for good, settling in Rio de Janeiro. By then the world had moved on, and many of the bossa nova musicians who remained in the country had reached an accommodation with the military government, which in turn promoted their careers — a game that Mr. Lyra declined to play.

But eventually he, too, won acclaim as a national treasure. Among the many celebrations around his 90th birthday was the release of the album “Afeto: Homenagem Carlos Lyra (90 Anos),” or “Affection: Homage to Carlos Lyra (90 Years),” featuring his songs performed by some of Brazil’s leading musicians, including Gilberto Gil, Joyce Moreno and Mônica Salmaso.

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