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Eliane Elias: Made in Brazil - Swung at Birdland

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Eliane Elias is a paradox. An artist of rare talent, experience, and range, she is a keyboard master with few peers whose deep musicality transcends genre. An astonishing singer, composer, arranger, and songwriter, her performances are celebrated for their swing, lyricism, and unique sound. Elias is also a beautiful woman with long blond hair who's been known to kick off her stiletto heels to play the piano barefoot. I expect some people will have difficulty reconciling the pin-up cover of Made in Brazil with the brilliance inside. After all, nobody that sexy can be that serious. Right?

Wrong.

This was evident the other night when, in support of this, her 23rd album, Elias made a tour stop at New York's Birdland. I created the Nite & Disk column years ago to compare a CD and its performance, but in this case—aside from the basic musicians and material—they are nearly incomparable. This is because the recording leans toward jazz-infused pop, with a Brazilian flair, while the performance exemplifies how spontaneous improvisation can blow the roof off a jazz joint.

Much of the pop-ness is supplied by the seven string tracks that were arranged and recorded in London. The best of these is the magnificent introduction to Elias' own "A Sorte do Amor" ("The Luck of Love"), the standout ballad on the CD; this section is so beautiful that it's used on the promotional video. There's also some lively pizzicato on "Rio," but mostly the strings are as subtle and neutral as any synth pad. They meld nicely with Elias' softer textures, but are very different from the sizzling-hot performance of Elias on piano, Fender Rhodes, and vocals, and her longtime collaborators Marc Johnson on bass, Rubens de la Corte on guitar, and Rafael Barata on drums.

This group took no prisoners with her "Incendiando," which Elias explained grew out of "Light my Fire." Live, it was full of heat and surprise, with Elias rocking both piano and Fender Rhodes and mischievously changing it up, while Johnson and Barata delivered smoking fast solos with all kinds of dazzling trading. "Does it catch fire at the end?" Elias asked, as if there were any doubt. Other songs in that first set weren't on the record at all, including Dorival Caymmi's classic "Rosa Morena," which inspired some sexy twerking; and a "Liza" encore that became an exuberant version of "So Danco Samba."

Similarly, the record features terrific guest vocalists who were not onstage. These include Mark Kibble and/or Take 6 whose silken harmonies grace three of the tracks (Kibble and Elias are particularly good together on her "Incendiando"). The Brazilian R&B star, Ed Motta contributes his soulfulness to Elias' composition, "Vida," while Amanda Brecker, her talented daughter with ex-husband Randy Brecker and a rising star on her own, croons some lovely backup on another original, "Some Enchanted Place." There's also a sweetly intimate duet between Elias and Roberto Menescal on his 1963 hit, "Voce."

Of course the CD lacks the grinning and dancing that make the live performance such a delight, but it's a very fine record on its own. It contains six Elias originals and six Brazilian classics, including what Elias calls "the first international song," Ary Barroso's "Aquarela do Brasil" (aka just "Brazil"). Composed in 1939, this lively tune first went global in a 1942 Disney movie called "Saludos Amigos," and then was widely covered, including by the fruit-hatted Carioca icon, Carmen Miranda. The song acquired some menace when Terry Gilliam used it in his 1985 apocalyptic movie, Brazil. Elias' versions, both recorded and live, restore its lighthearted swing and sense of loving tribute to her native country. The Barroso closer "No Tauleiro da Baiana," is less well-known but no less infectious; at Birdland, its trio version highlights the swing that underpins everything Elias does. Even her ballads have pulse.

Other recorded classics include Jobim's "Aguas de Marco" ("Waters of March"), which beats out "Girl from Ipanema" as his most-covered composition. It still mystifies me that, despite being a certifiable Jobim nut for most of my life, I've never liked this tune (a distinctly minority opinion, it seems). The only version I ever really enjoyed was the studio duet between Elis Regina and Jobim on their 1975 Elis & Tom record (video on YouTube) where their joyous personal interaction transcends the restrictiveness I've always heard in that song.

That's why it was such a delight to hear Elias' arrangement on the CD—its funky beat and Take 6's ascending lines crack open the claustrophobic repetition and introduce brand new colors. And while we're on harmony, we must pay tribute to Elias' signature modulations, in which she raises and lowers keys in unexpected places to create a kind of floating effect, even as she digs deep into the rhythm. Her lyrics are also splendid (see, for example, "Searching") and—surprise!—so are Marc Johnson's, as in the witty and irresistibly danceable "Driving Ambition." A contrasting track is "Vida," where Marcos Teixeira's electric bass works so well with Ed Motta's R&B voice; this is followed by a beautifully unadorned Jobim medley which is enhanced by Elias' celestial touch on Fender.

By now it should be obvious that the CD and the live performance are each superb in their own ways. It's too bad the New York Times sent their cabaret guy to cover them, who didn't quite "get" what was going on live (although his characterization of the record as "make-out music with a beat" wasn't that far off). Elias' description is better: "this is music of the world with Brazilian DNA." And most importantly, she declares her intention "to spread love, happiness, and hope"—something she has always communicated, whether live or digitally, in Brazil, New York, or anywhere else.

Track Listing: Brasil (Aqualera do Brasil); Você; Aguas de Marco (Waters of March); Searching; Some Enchanted Evening; Incendiando; Vida (If Not For You); Este Seu Olhar/Promessas; Driving Ambition; Rio; A Sorte du Amor (The Luck of Love); No Tabuleiro da Baiana

Personnel: Eliane Elias: vocals, piano, keyboards; Take 6: vocals (3); Mark Kibble: vocals (3, 6, 9); Amanda Brecker: vocals (4); Ed Motta: vocals (7); Roberto Menescal: vocals (2), guitar (2, 10); Marcus Teixeira: guitar (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Marcelo Mariano: electric bass (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Marc Johnson: acoustic bass (2, 4, 5, 8, 10, 11); Edu Riberio: drums (1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 12); Rafael Barata: drums (2, 4, 5, 10); Mauro Refosco: percussion (1, 3, 5, 7, 9); Marivaldo dos Santos: percussion (5, 9); Rob Mathes: orchestral arrangement
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