Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Back to Bossa with Eliane Elias

Bossa Nova Stories
By Eliane Elias
Blue Note Records

Throughout Calle 54, Fernando Trueba’s exceptional Latin jazz performance documentary, only one woman is seen on-screen. At least Eliane Elias made the most of her appearance, giving the film a power-shot of elegant glamour, as she leads her own trio in a performance of a Baden Powell tune. Now Elias unapologetically embraces that alluring image with her latest CD, Bossa Nova Stories, a set of romantic Bossa standards and arrangements, featuring lush strings and her own vocals.

Elias has dazzling technique at the piano, but this CD is more about flirtation and seduction, starting with the all-time Bossa classic, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema.” While the string arrangements follow the style of Jobim’s 1970’s CTI sessions, Elias’s caressing vocals never let the song of unrequited love feel too melancholy. Growing up in a musical Brazilian family, Elias actually knew Jobim as a teenager, so it is not surprising he is well represented on Stories with three tunes. His nearly-as-famous “Desafinado” gets a similar orchestral treatment, but more space is allotted to Elias’s piano statements, while the gentle swinger “Chega de Saudade” features Elias and her trio of drummer Paulo Baraga and bassist (and husband) Marc Johnson (of Bill Evans Trio fame), along with Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves.

In addition to Bossa standards, Elias also recasts a number of traditional jazz standards as Bossas. Harry Warren’s “The More I See You” might be her strongest vocal of the set, thanks to the nicely suggestive turn she gives to the lyrics. The Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” likewise has a pleasingly sultry Diana Krall-esque vibe.

Two prestigious musicians well versed in Brazilian musical idioms also lend their talents to Stories. Representing contemporary Brazilian music, Ivan Lins appears as a composer and guest vocalist (briefly) on the dreamy “I’m Not Alone (Who Loves You).” Though not the first jazz harmonica player, Toots Thielemans is certainly considered the greatest and in recent years he has frequently explored the possibilities of Brazilian music. His wistful sound is instantly recognizable on “Estate (Summer)” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman,” given a legitimate jazz treatment by Elias and her group.

In more or less confining herself to the Bossa, Elias can only range so far in terms of tone and tempo here, but it makes for an effective mood-setter. Elias is a wonderful pianist and her vocals are surprisingly strong throughout the session. Recorded at London’s storied Abbey Road Studios, Stories is a well-crafted showcase for her talents that should prove popular with the Starbucks set, given its consistently warm and appealing sound.

(Photo Credit: Fernando Louza)