Carlos Lyra, the composer who brought subtlety to Bossa Nova, dies at 90

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He often wrote with a lyricist: originally Ronaldo Bôscoli and then, starting 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 famous 1962 performance at Carnegie Hall in New York which helped introduce bossa nova to the American public. Jazz artists such as Miles Davis and Erroll Garner sat in the audience, as did record executives, and many of the artists (though not Mr. Lyra) later signed contracts with U.S. labels.

Many of the protagonists of bossa nova were simply writers or simply artists; Mr. Lyra was among the few to have both. Exceptionally charismatic on stage, with a rich baritone voice, he captivated audiences in Brazil and, in the mid-1960s, in the United States, when he spent two years touring with saxophonist Stan Getz, America’s first exponent of bossa nova.

Mr. Lyra also differed from his fellow bossa nova musicians in his politics. Most of him were apolitical or right-leaning; 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 de Moraes) that had a social and political inflection, although his messages were increasingly codified after the Brazilian government was overthrown in 1964 during a military coup . However, his politics pushed 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, short for Carlos, his entire life) was a musically precocious child. His family was full of artists and amateur 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 as a teenager. In 1955 the singer Sylvia Telles recorded her “Menina”.

That initial success brought him into contact with other young artists, such as 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 1964 coup. When he left the road after his extensive 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 by 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 Sergio.

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

Two years later he returned permanently to Brazil, settling in Rio de Janeiro. By then the world had moved on, and many of the country’s remaining bossa nova musicians had reached an agreement with the military government, which in turn promoted their careers, a game Mr. Lyra refused to play.

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