The song begins with an ungainly, almost menacing melody. Its lyrics are an enigmatic litany: "a stick, a stone, it's the end of the road ... " But the Brazilian classic "Aguas de Março" ("Waters of March") soon blossoms into a thing of ravishing beauty, which may explain why it has become something of a standard both in its original Portuguese and in English.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, Brazil's greatest songwriter and the compositional engine behind the bossa nova explosion, wrote the tune in the early '70s. Hailed by some as a meditation on ecology and by others as a spiritual reflection on changes in nature and life, it's as mysterious as it is beautiful — which may help explain why it has inspired so many radically different interpretations.
"Aguas" is both more experimental and more effusive than the stately sambas and other Carioca classics that populate Jobim's earlier work. His own version preceded a respectful take by Stan Getz and João Gilberto, who'd furnished definitive recordings of his earlier songs. Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 gave it a perky pop interpretation, complete with a sugar-cane vocal
The song is as mysterious as it is beautiful — which may help explain why it has inspired so many radically different interpretations.and frolicsome harp-orchestra interplay. Jobim recorded another version, this time with the great vocalist Elis Regina, in 1974 (more about that in a moment).
A torrent of versions have followed, including renditions by Art Garfunkel (who kicks it folk-rock style), Susannah McCorkle (who alternates expertly between Portuguese and English), Basia (whose jazzy, Polish-accented purr and stacked harmonies twine atop an accelerated tempo), Al Jarreau and Oleta Adams (slathered with easy-listening sax and smooth-jazz syncopations), David Byrne and Marisa Monte (the latter coasting, the former straining), Cassandra Wilson (who takes the melody to sweet new places), Damien Rice (parroting the Jobim-Elis version), Victoria Abril (layering African-style harmonies and Flamenco grooves to striking effect) and many others. Eliane Elias' instrumental piano version, meanwhile, makes an aquatic medley of "March" and another Jobim staple, "Agua de Beber."
It's easy to regard the Jobim-Regina duet (from the 1974 disc Elis & Tom) as the definitive "Aguas de Março." With its intimate, understated arrangement, Jobim's own craggily endearing voice mingling with Regina's peerless one and its atmosphere of spiraling delight — their traded phrases at the song's climax are almost derailed by her bubbling laughter — it is wholly irresistible, capturing the song's longing, darkness and bliss like lightning in a bottle. Still, for my money, there is one version that rivals it.
Rosa Passos, one of the greatest living Brazilian vocalists, is a masterful interpreter of Jobim. She leaps into "Aguas" with polyrhythmic gusto, navigating the see-sawing lyric with wildly adventurous phrasing, touching the melody ever so softly and then letting loose with ebullient streams of scatted notes. Like the best versions of the song, it's an outpouring of misty joy. But it dances unlike any other.
If there's one thing to be gleaned from the many divergent takes on "Waters of March," it's this: The best songs never yield up all their secrets at once; they always invite new voyages.