Not gonna make you wait on this one. No beating around the bush, no hemming and hawing – well OK, a little – but the simple truth is that Brazilian jazz icon Eliane Elias' newest album, Bossa Nova Stories, is one of the best I've heard in a long time.
It's a new issue on the Blue Note label commemorating fifty years of Bossa Nova, and I can't imagine a better choice to celebrate the musical heritage of Brazil. Pianist/singer Elias has spent the last couple of decades establishing herself as one of the stars of the genre.
A classically-trained piano virtuoso who's equally adept at performing jazz, she became known earlier in her career as one of the few individuals to have best-selling albums in both genres at the same time. But she didn't stop there. While continuing to build her résumé as a member – and leader - of some of the best groups around, she also added singing to her arsenal of weapons. Not surprisingly, she proved to be very, very good. Her warm, rich and full voice, along with her natural affinity for the material, gave her the ability to delight and entertain listeners, and she's become one of the most popular performers around.
To commemorate fifty years of Bossa Nova, Elias and her producers have put together a 14-track collection that throws a pretty wide net over a lot of different musical – er – fish. Included are some nice performances on the Brazilian standards you'd expect, such as "Girl From Ipanema" and "Desafinado," along with some lesser-known pieces, such as "Falsa Baiana," a tricky little vocal exercise that Elias handles flawlessly.
Many of the tracks showcase the instrumental side, and not just Elias' keyboard. On a number of the pieces she's backed by a lush orchestral sound, while on others the focus is on smaller and more intimate groups. Among her accompanists are guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves and drummer Paulo Braga, along with her regular collaborator – and husband – bassist Marc Johnson.
Even legendary jazz harmonica master Toots Thielemans shows up on a couple of tracks, notably in support of Elias' outstanding performance of Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman." It's one of several non-Brazilian tunes that are included here and given a Latin treatment; among them "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and one of my favorite standards, "The More I See You."
The inclusion of Latin versions of jazz standards might seem a little odd in a collection devoted to Bossa Nova's fiftieth birthday, but when the result is this delightful it's easy to forgive. And I would guess that it might make it more accessible to those who are a little new to Brazilian jazz, which is probably the purpose.
In any case, it's an outstanding album — highly recommended, and not just for newbies.