A Brazilian-Latin-jazz interpretation of Man of La Mancha? And why not? There’s a heavy Spanish flavor to Mitch Leigh’s songs from the 1964 Broadway musical, along with plenty of spicy harmonic meat for inventive Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias and her combo to sink their chops into. Given that Leigh himself commissioned these all-instrumental recordings from Elias, a multiple-Grammy winning pianist/singer/arranger, the project seems a natural.
Recorded back in 1995 but released now for the first time, this Man of La Mancha features two different combos. Accompanied by bassist Marc Johnson, drummer Satoshi Takeishi, and percussionist Manolo Badrena, the pianist goes full-tilt from the start, with dense and intense rhythms, indeed a florid, Lisztian intricacy, on “To Each His Dulcinea.” One listen to Elias’s substitutions on the theme and you know she’s playing with a full quiver of creativity as well as a twinkle in her eye.
“Dulcinea” is one of the most beautiful tunes in all of musical theater. Jazzing up this power ballad at first struck me as a little corrupting, but Elias’s ruby-cool touch on the (exquisitely recorded) piano, backed this time by bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, ultimately make it a winning jazz track even if some of the romance of the song gets lost in scattered clouds of improvisational virtuosity. She then fills out the slighter but still lovely “What Does He Want of Me?” with a dead-brilliant piano solo over an energetic bossa nova beat.
After disjointing the jaunty rhythms of “The Barber’s Song” into something likably avant-garde, Elias corrals her arrangement into a straight-ahead groove fueled by Badrena’s percussion. This ditty may not be one of the show’s best-known, but for some reason it’s been stuck in my head since I was a child; Elias’s version replants it in lusher soil.
The weird time signature of “It’s All the Same” translates here into something somewhat experimental. But there’s a surprising amount of experimentation in the original score, especially in the time signatures, though it’s disguised by severe tunefulness. This rendition denudes the song of most its dark passion, leaving an interesting and (for a while) toe-tapping listen that’s quite far from Leigh’s original. It features an admirably fluid bass solo. By the end of its seven-plus minutes it creates a new and full sonic world.
There’s darkness aplenty in “I’m Only Thinking of Him,” whose memorably quirky melody lends itself well to driving Latin-jazz fertilization. One of my favorite of the nine tracks, it displays Elias’s facility with slotting ear-tweaking substitutions into solid rhythms. And her take on the title track takes advantage of the song’s contrasting colors – major and minor keys, tragic and triumphant. The song’s martial quality works nicely with the track’s extended drum and percussion solo.
The show’s biggest hit, “The Impossible Dream,” gets an easygoing Latin lilt and rich improvisations on the melody. Instead of spatial drama, the song becomes a colorful flower garden. Closing out the album, a scherzo-like “A Little Gossip” features drums and percussion, a sensitive bass solo, and a joyful piano rave-up.