Eliane Elias’s current album Made in Brazil (Concord Jazz, 2015) is a lush affair. An orchestra provides a luxurious atmosphere on over half the songs. Guest vocalists add further layers and Take 6 contributes its brand of vocal jazz. Guitarists, drummers, percussionists, bass players all chime in throughout; a cast of thousands! Well, maybe not quite that many.
In contrast, Elias’ performance Thursday evening a Dazzle was a much more intimate affair. Her performance on the house grand piano and her vocals were accompanied only by a sympathetic, yet powerful two-man rhythm section. Husband Marc Johnson wielded the acoustic bass and fellow Brazilian compatriot Rafael Barata handled the drums. The classic jazz trio format meant the focus was squarely on Elias and her playing and singing.
And it turns out, that’s all that was really needed. Elias commanded the performance in every respect, not just with her playing and singing, but with between song banter, obvious leadership of the band and pure joy of playing. She smiled throughout the evening and it was obvious she wasn’t merely happy to be on stage, but was genuinely delighted.
Elias is first and foremost a piano player. Her playing Thursday evening was simply mesmerizing. With her Brazilian heritage, it wasn’t surprising to hear strains of the country’s rich musical legacy grace her playing. But she draws on much more than the sultry sounds of Brazil. Her knowledge of straight ahead American jazz is undeniable, permeating her music. An additional and significant aspect of her style is that it is deeply bluesy. All of these ingredients were blended with the kind of virtuosity that makes the most intricate and complicated passages seem as casual as sipping a cup of coffee. And yet, sometimes she threw her whole body into her solos; her long hair bouncing in time, her spike heeled feet working the pedals. She sang on about half of the songs, providing an extra touch of intimacy that playing, alone, no matter how enticing, can’t quite reach.
Her selection of material reflected her range of influences. The sounds of Brazil were, of course, well represented with covers of well known Brazilian tunes as well as her original compositions. She opened the set with “Ladeira da Preguiça” by Gilberto Gil. Next up was “Brasil,” a tune from 1939 and, according to Elias, a Brazilian anthem. Also in the set was Elias’ composition “Incendiano.” She paid homage to the jazz cannon with a vocal treatment of “Tangerine” and instrumental versions of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “You and the Night and the Music.”
Elias’ husband Marc Johnson is a jazz star in his own right, with many recordings under his own name and an extensive career as a sideman, most notably as Bill Evans’ last bassist. Inspired by discussing Johnson’s résumé with the audience, Elias played an extended solo dedicated to Evans that conveyed a similar lyricism and intensity as Evans often did. Besides providing a solid foundation all night long for Elias, Johnson played a couple solos, one of which was based heavily on John Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965). Another solo was so rhythmic, syncopated and, generally, catchy, jumping up to dance very nearly started to sound like a good idea.
Drummer Rafael Barata was equally exciting, taking one of his solos with his bare hands before grabbing a mallet, then moving to drumsticks to ratchet up the intensity as the solo unfolded. He was not just adept, but continually inventive as the rhythms moved from various Brazilian modes through jazz standards and back again.
Throughout her recording career, which goes back to the 1980s, her albums have always featured numerous photographs of Elias which emphasize her stylish good looks. For her concert Thursday, she appeared in a little black dress with her trademark flowing blond hair. In short, at age 55, she looked great. And that, of course, made the intimacy of the occasion all the better.