João Donato, a Brazilian composer, musician and producer who was a pioneer of bossa nova and who went on to cross-pollinate music across the Americas, died on Monday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 88.
Mr. Donato was in the coterie of Rio de Janeiro musicians — among them Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and the guitarist Luiz Bonfá — who developed the subtle swing and harmonic sophistication of bossa nova in the mid-1950s.
But Mr. Donato didn’t confine himself to any genre. In a recording career that extended from the 1950s into the current decade, he released some three dozen albums as a leader and collaborated with a wide range of artists on many more. Although he was best known as a keyboardist, he was also a singer, accordionist and trombonist.
As a pianist, Mr. Donato was known for his blend of a frisky, restlessly syncopated, harmonically intricate left hand with relaxed, sure-footed right-hand melodies. As a composer, producer and arranger, he constantly — and playfully — fused and stretched idioms and production styles. He once said he had a “sweet tooth for funky ideas.”
Mr. Donato played MPB (as Brazilian popular music is widely known; the letters stand for “música popular brasileira”), jazz, funk, salsa, American pop and pan-American hybrids that were entirely his own. He worked with generations of Brazilian musicians, including the singer and movie star Carmen Miranda; the singers Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Marisa Monte; and the rapper Marcelo D2.
The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said on Twitter: “João Donato saw music in everything. He innovated, he passed through samba, bossa nova, jazz, forró, and in the mixture of rhythm built something unique. He kept creating and innovating until the end.”
João Donato de Oliveira Neto was born on Aug. 17, 1934, in Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre. He began playing accordion and writing songs as a child. In 1945, he moved with his family to Rio de Janeiro, where he began performing professionally in his teens.
Mr. Donato began leading his own groups in the early 1950s while also working as a sideman. He played accordion on Luiz Bonfá’s first album, released in 1955, as part of a studio band that also included Antonio Carlos Jobim. Mr. Jobim produced Mr. Donato’s debut album, “Chá Dançante” (1956), and Mr. Donato wrote songs with João Gilberto, including “Minha Saudade,” which became a Brazilian standard.
But by the end of the 1950s, Mr. Donato’s preferred style had grown so complex that audiences complained that they couldn’t dance to it, and he had difficulty finding work in Brazil. He accepted a job backing Carmen Miranda at a Lake Tahoe resort, and relocated to the United States.
As the 1960s began, he was welcomed by Latin and jazz musicians. He recorded with Cal Tjader, Astrud Gilberto (who died in June), Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría and Eddie Palmieri. (He played trombone in Mr. Palmieri’s La Perfecta, a brassy salsa band Mr. Palmieri called a “trombanga.”)
The vibraphonist Dave Pike recorded an entire album of Mr. Donato’s compositions, “Bossa Nova Carnival,” in 1962, and the saxophonist Bud Shank put Mr. Donato in charge of his 1965 album, “Bud Shank & His Brazilian Friends.” “This is João Donato’s baby,” Mr. Shank wrote in the liner notes. “I’ve turned all the problems over to him and I just relax and play.”
On his own albums for U.S. labels, Mr. Donato drew on jazz and Caribbean influences as well as Brazilian ones. His pivotal 1970 album, “A Bad Donato,” was a radical turn toward funk, merging Brazilian-rooted melodies and rhythms with electric keyboards and wah-wah guitars. The keyboardist and arranger Eumir Deodato, who worked with Mr. Donato on that album, went on to have a worldwide Brazilian funk hit with his version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).”
Mr. Donato returned to Brazil in 1973. There, a friend persuaded him to record songs with lyrics rather than solely instrumentals, including his own modest but earnest vocals. His tuneful, easygoing 1973 album, “Quem É Quem,” was not an immediate hit, but it has been widely praised over the years; in 2007, Brazilian Rolling Stone placed it among the 100 greatest Brazilian albums.
Mr. Donato’s new lyricists included two of the leading figures in the determinedly eclectic Brazilian cultural movement known as tropicália: Caetano Veloso, who put Portuguese lyrics to “O Sapo” (“The Frog”) to turn it into “A Rã,” and Gilberto Gil, who supplied lyrics for many of the songs on Mr. Donato’s 1975 album, “Lugar Comum.” Mr. Donato also wrote songs with lyrics by his younger brother, Lysias Ênio Oliveira.
For the next two decades, Mr. Donato recorded almost entirely as a sideman. The singer Gal Costa recorded “A Rã” for her 1974 album, “Cantar,” and hired Mr. Donato as an arranger and bandleader for that album and her subsequent tour.
Mr. Donato also recorded extensively with important Brazilian musicians like Jorge Ben, João Bosco, Chico Buarque and Martinho da Vila. He continued to perform his own music and released a live album, “Leilíadas,” in 1986. But he didn’t return to making his own studio albums until “Coisas Tao Simples” (“Such Simple Things”), released in 1994, even as he continued to do session work with songwriters including Bebel Gilberto and Marisa Monte.
The albums Mr. Donato made after resuming his solo career were unpredictable and diverse. Some returned to his bossa nova-jazz fusions; some featured singers, including Wanda Sá, Paula Morelenbaum, Maria Tita and Joyce. Others had titles reflecting Mr. Donato’s fondness for musical hybrids, like “Bluchanga” (2017) and “Sambolero” (2010), which won a Latin Grammy Award for best Latin jazz album. He also received a Latin Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2010.
In 2017, Mr. Donato made an album of synthesizer-centered funk, “Sintetizamor,” with his son, João Donato, known professionally as Donatinho, who survives him. Other survivors include his wife, Ivone Belém, and his daughters, Jodel and Joana Donato. He lived in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2021, Mr. Donato collaborated with Jazz Is Dead, the Los Angeles-based project of Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, on the album “Jazz Is Dead 7.” In 2022 he released “Serotonina,” an easygoing pop-jazz album featuring his electric piano and clavinet.
On Twitter, Mr. Veloso summed up Mr. Donato’s music admiringly. It was, he wrote, “the highest achievement of extreme complexity in extreme simplicity.”
Ana Ionova contributed reporting.