Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias has been intertwining the two, to varying degrees, through most of her career, and during her first set at SPACE she very nearly erased lines separating them. For whether she was playing up-tempo fare (most of the time) or occasional ballads, she combined the rhythmic lilt of Brazilian samba and bossa nova with the robust spirit and harmonic intricacies of contemporary jazz improvisation.
True, Elias worked within mainstream expression, leaving experimentation to others. But perhaps it’s best to regard her as a longtime champion of the music of her native country, proselytizing for it around the world, and quite effectively so.
Indeed, the youthful enthusiasm and unabashed ebullience of her show at SPACE ran counter to what one might expect from an artist who has been touring the world for decades. Judging by this night, Elias still brings a sense of discovery to her Brazil-meets-jazz metier.
Much of the evening’s repertoire came from “Dance of Time,” Elias’ latest album, starting with the joyous “Sambou Sambou” (which Elias translated as “You Dance to the Samba”). Its composer, the prolific Brazilian songwriter-pianist Joao Donato, made a belated Chicago debut as a septuagenarian in 2007, leading a trio in a buoyant performance at the now-long-gone HotHouse; and he returned the following year to participate in singer-guitarist Paulinho Garcia’s massive bossa nova concert in Millennium Park.
“Sambou Sambou” captures the puckish, playful facet of those Donato appearances, Elias emphasizing the point with the bright timbre of her vocals, the silvery tone of her pianism and the easy bounce of her rhythms. It was impossible not to smile during this performance.
Elsewhere in the program, Elias answered her throaty vocals with melodic piano commentary in the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You,” produced an avalanche of keyboard sound in “Coisa Feita” (“Silver Sandal”) and provided an all-too-rare moment of quiet in her own “By Hand” (“Em Maos”).
The tour de force came toward the end, in Jobim’s “Desafinado,” reconceived here as a vast fantasia built on multiple sections and several tempo changes. Elias’ lush opening piano solo revealed her conversance with the musical vocabularies of two stylistically far-flung masters: Art Tatum and Bill Evans. Once Elias’ collaborators joined the instrumental texture, the trio offered rigorous jazz improvisation, with Johnson’s cellolike bass solo as surprising as it was poetic.
Asking the audience to sing “ahhh” at the appropriate moments in Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema,” which Elias offered as an encore, may not have been the most original idea of the night. Yet there was something disarming about hearing a packed house deliver that famous sigh in unison, as if to underscore the universality of Brazilian sounds of a certain era.
Ultimately, this music never goes out of date. In Elias’ hands, it can seem almost new.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.