The Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias must occasionally glance at the tour schedule of Diana Krall (two nights at the Albert Hall) and wonder why her star hasn’t risen quite so high. They are two glamorous women playing jazz with a breezy hipness. Elias’s voice is characterful if small compared with Krall’s, but as an improvising pianist she puts the Canadian in the shade.
Still, six sold-out shows at Ronnie Scott’s is no small achievement and Elias arrived trailing accolades for her new album, Dance of Time. Her career has mixed South American rhythms with North American jazz, but her first set was rooted firmly in the southern hemisphere.
The opener, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Somewhere in the Hills, the first of many sambas, set the tone. Elias’s percussive left hand propelled the rhythms, her right hand embellishing the tune with intricate bebop and bravura flourishes. Drums, guitar and the double bass of her husband, Marc Johnson, added supple support and the music seemed to float. Sambou Sambou introduced Caribbean grooves, which would have inspired dancing in any audience that wasn’t seated and still digesting its dinner.
Elias wears her artistry lightly. Others with her pianistic skills might flaunt it on grand technocratic opuses. Instead, João Gilberto’s O Pato (The Duck) is a pop song about the singing adventures of assorted park life. It nonetheless found room for an elegant bowed bass solo from Johnson. The guitarist Rubens de La Corte offered discreet melodic support while the drummer Rafael Barata was all brushed precision.
Amid the sambas, there were gentler moments too. Elias’s tender love song Little Paradise showed off her writing talents. A guitar solo opened You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me, once a staple for Frank Sinatra. Yet as the set progressed the intensity increased, Elias introducing rolling blues and gospel chords, sparking funky interplay between piano and bass. The uptempo samba Coisa Feita developed a giddy momentum, with Barata unleashing a bravura solo on drums.
Thanks to the sunny contours of Brazilian music and those soft-focus album sleeves, there are some who still dismiss Elias as jazz-lite. A show such as this demonstrates how wrong they are.
Jazz: Eliane Elias at Ronnie Scott’s, W1 ★★★★☆