Eliane Elias: From Brazil with Chet

I Thought About You (A Tribute To Chet Baker) (available to audition on Spotify)

Elias-ChetEliane Elias long ago made her bones in the jazz hierarchy on the strength of her piano playing, and she’s integrated more singing into her work over the years, tackling selected standards on the pop-jazz scale from Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” to Bill Evans’s “Waltz for Debby.” Interpreting the American Songbook as a singer means one thing for theatrical performers (most of the great standards started as show tunes, after all) and often something entirely different for artists in jazz, where improvisation and complex rhythms take precedence over lyrical focus. Singers who had a command of both, like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, represent the elite, and less accomplished vocalists have to add a unique sound or skill set to help them hold an audience beyond their instrument-loving fan base.

Elias achieves this in three ways on her new album, I Thought About You (Concord Jazz). First, by making it a tribute to Chet Baker, the iconic trumpeter who helped establish the west-coast cool school in the late 50’s and who also sang in a straightforward, unadorned way, she confirms herself as a member of the vocals-as-a-second-language crowd. Along with her mastery of the bossa nova- swing hookups first popularized by saxophonist Stan Getz’s work with João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Elias’s voice evokes the Sound From Ipanema. Her accent, still heavily Brazilian after over 30 years on the international jazz scene, will evoke Astrud Gilberto to the casual, older jazz-pop fan unfamiliar with Elias’s sound. This vocal style elevates mood over dynamic expression and tends to work best on smoke-filled downtempo ballads like Raye and DePaul’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is, ” recorded by Baker on 1955’s Chet Baker Sings and Plays with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman & Strings. The contrast with a theatrical standard like Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Room,” which follows the ballad, couldn’t be more striking, with a vocals-and-bass-only first refrain (Elias leaves off the introductory verse) that emphasizes the distracting thickness and emotional restraint of Elias’s voice. On other songs, Elias’s singing conveys a sweet youthfulness that makes mid-tempo swingers like “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” come across with just the right attitude.

The second bag Elias brings to the Songbook party is her playing and that of her guests. In fact, if this site weren’t about vocals, I would just be describing Elias’s singing as a wash—a sometimes yes, sometimes no feature of an album full of great arrangements and great playing. With stellar support from guitarists Steve Cardenas and Oscar Castro-Neves, drummers Victor Lewis and Rafael Barata, and percussionist Marivaldo Dos Santos, not to mention a guest spot by (former husband) Randy Brecker and terrific bass and production by (current husband) Marc Johnson, I Thought About You is an enjoyable listen you’ll return to in different states of mind and at different times of the day, a cool-school pop institution built on a rock-solid foundation. Listen to Elias’s swinging solo on the bossa-built version of the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” the interplay between Elias, Cardenas, and Johnson on Rodgers and Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love,” or the solos in the breakneck tempo chosen for Styne, Comden, and Green’s “Just in Time,” and you’re hearing the work of established virtuosos who can illustrate the full possibilities of the work that keeps these composers celebrated.

Finally, it’s these great songs that Elias, via Baker, uses to support her well established but limited vocal prowess. The Songbook fan will know every one of them, even if they don’t know Baker’s work. And they’re some of the best of the best, which helps ensure that by the time you’re done with the CD, capped by Elias’s innocently read treatment of Frank Loesser’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” (also recently covered by Molly Ringwald and Jane Monheit), you’re fully into the vibe that Elias has created with her star team—a tribute album that stands on its own as a testament to great songs and great playing with vocal nuance in a supporting but sometimes perfectly cast role.

Performance: B-; Arrangements: A; Overall: B+

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Author: Rusty Cutchin

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