Elias Revisits Brazilian Classics at Birdland in NYC
Dressed in a black, spangly cocktail dress and black satin arm warmers, the Brazilian-born pianist/singer Eliane Elias was a sight to see at her April 7 performance at Birdland in New York. Still gorgeous at 55, Elias wasn�t seated at the venue's Yamaha grand for more than 10 seconds before she began flinging her long blond tresses around her shoulders and pumping out infectious rhythms.
Her first song of the night was �Ladeira Da Pregui�a (Laziness Hill),� a Gilberto Gil samba that took off like a locomotive, with a driving rhythm that was all about syncopation. It was the beginning of a week-long stay at Birdland for Elias and her quartet: her highly accomplished bassist (and husband) Marc Johnson, guitarist Rubens De La Corte (playing fingerstyle on a hollow-body guitar), and Brazilian percussion ace Rafael Barata on drums.
Elias, currently touring in support of her new album Made In Brazil (Concord Jazz), concentrated on staples of the Brazilian repertoire that are clearly nostalgic for her. A master of many styles, she has been a top-tier jazz pianist since emigrating to the United States in 1981 and joining supergroup Steps Ahead the following year. She added vocals later in her career, calling upon a slender, vibrato-less alto inspired by the great bossa nova vocalists.
Her new album is hardly her first go-round with the great Brazilian songwriters. Her 1990 album, Eliane Elias Plays Jobim—a trio record with Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez—offered inspired jazz interpretations that showcased her classical training and improvisatory flair. She returned to her roots again with a vocal album, 1998�s Eliane Elias Sings Jobim (Blue Note), and more recently with 2008�s Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note).
Made In Brazil combines classics from the bossa nova era (and earlier) by Jobim, Roberto Menescal and Ary Barroso with a half a dozen new songs by Elias, sometimes writing with Johnson; many of the tracks include a string section.
Seeing Elias live, however, with just a quartet (and sans the lush strings), one feels closer to her real rhythmic fire. Introducing Jobim�s �Chega De Saudade,� the tune that launched the bossa nova revolution in 1958, she told the capacity crowd how the maestro had discovered her playing in a jazz trio in her native São Paulo at the age of 17.
With that tune and Barroso�s iconic �Aquarela Do Brasil� (also known as simply �Brazil�), one could see firsthand the musical qualities that so impressed Jobim, such as the high-velocity right-hand runs against a rock-solid left-handed rhythmic base. In the elemental jazz setting of Birdland, Elias brought the audience into an intimate encounter with her melodic invention, rhythmic control and fluid technique.
One of the best things about the album and Elias� current show is her musical tribute to Barroso, whose songs for Carmen Miranda in the 1940s helped popularize Brazilian music internationally. She performed another Barroso hit, �No Tabuleiro Da Baiana,� a melody as tantalizing as the Bahian delicacies described in the lyrics.
Elias� approach was simple and persuasive: She put the song first, wielding her unaffected alto simply in its service. Only later, deeper into the song, did she display her fiery technique as pianist and arranger, at one point mixing things up delightfully by changing time signatures for a couple of measures before returning to the samba beat. �The rhythm,� she told the audience, �comes naturally—I�m Brazilian.�
The enthused crowd demanded two encores: Jobim�s haunting ballad �Fotografia,� followed by a medley of Gershwin�s �Liza� (a staple of Elias� repertoire) and an energetic �So Danço Samba.�
Johnson�s lyrical melodic solos were an integral ingredient: His excellent tone and facility on the upright bass was as impressive as his spouse�s keyboard prowess. He formed a prodigious rhythm section with his sure-footed colleagues De La Corte and Barata.
No song spoke more eloquently of Elias� love for her homeland than her hushed rendition of the sublime Jobim ballad �Por Causa De Você,� also known as �Don�t Ever Go Away.� Her singing voice, restrained throughout the evening, rarely rose above a murmur. But it was sincere, and from the heart.