With some 25 albums and a couple of Grammy awards behind her, jazz pianist Eliane Elias hasn’t run out of surprises. The latest was her brand new album Music from Man of La Mancha (reviewed here), recorded in 1995 at the urging of the Broadway show’s composer Mitch Leigh but released only now.
The other night at Birdland, Elias and her quartet drew on that album as well as the Brazilian jazz for which she’s better known and a few standards, treating a crowd in her adopted home town of New York City to a sparkling set of warm-blooded jazz.
Elias is a master of infusing improvisational virtuosity into the spirit of a song. Her silky alto vocals brought a cool tropical shade to a couple of tunes from her Grammy-winning 2015 Made in Brazil album. The band made the choppy beat of “Sambou Sambou,” from 2017’s Dance of Time (also a Latin Jazz Grammy winner), both exciting and enveloping, with a melodic upper-register solo from superb bassist Marc Johnson.
A languid “Light My Fire” erupted into an effervescent piano solo, then merged into a rough-and-tumble and truly fiery original tune that featured a thunderous drum solo from Tiago Michelin and amazingly fleet-fingered bass work from Johnson. Elias made “Embraceable You” soft and sensuous with gorgeous piano fills between her vocal lines and a brilliant, cavorting solo that launched the familiar song into higher dimensions.
Both Johnson (who is also Elias’s husband) and percussionist Manolo Badrena contributed their talents to the Music from Man of La Mancha album, with its smoking jazz versions of nine songs from the musical. At Birdland the band gave “To Each His Dulcinea” a driving, rhythmically complex energy. “The Impossible Dream” with its sizzling piano solo got the biggest applause of the evening. Finally, Elias’s half-tongue-in-cheek but incredibly inventive arrangement of “A Little Gossip” opened with drums and percussion, flowed into a simple statement of the melody, then flowered into fluid soloing with a half-time interlude featuring Johnson.
The encore medley began with “Girl from Ipanema.” Being by Jobim, Brazil’s most famous songwriter, this standard is an obvious choice for a musician from that country, but far from sounding clichéd, Elias’s version helped send us into the night simultaneously jazzed and relaxed. Her tour schedule includes upcoming dates at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, Dakota in Minneapolis, and Scullers Jazz Club in Boston. Songs from Man of La Mancha is now available.