Eliane Elias’ Own Brand of Personality in Bossa Nova, Bebop and Other Jazz Music at the Baalbeck International Festival

Nelida Nassar  08.28.2013

The Baalbeck International Festival temporarily moved its premises from the “city of gods’” temples of Bacchus and Jupiter to a renovated 19th century silk factory in Saud el-Bauchrieh, in the suburbs of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. This change was the result of uncertainties related to the war in Syria. The main silk weaving room was elegantly transformed by Jean Louis Mainguy into a series of unfolding moments, reminiscent of the colonnades of the Temple of Jupiter, that were lined with banners highlighting past festival performances while the main stage backdrop was a reconstitution of the entryway to the Temple of  Bacchus.

This year’s festival was peppered with difficulties, starting with the cancellation of the opening event by opera star Renee Fleming, followed by the postponement of Assi Al Ghalani’s concert to 2014, as well as Marianne Faithful’s absence due to an injury. The festival’s executive committee displayed courage, perseverance and wisdom in making difficult decisions and deserves many kudos. The artist Eliane Elias was greeted with great relief, expectations and enthusiasm when she stepped onto the stage, launching the 2013 Festival.

Elias, a pianist, composer, and arranger, came to not just to play for the audience; she also played for and with her trio – Marc Johnson, bass; Rubens de La Corte, guitar, and Rafael Barata, drums – and played for herself. The result was a unique and impressive performance. Elias has a beautiful, lush vocal timbre with smoky-low to middle-upper register, infused with blues, a wonderful intonation, and imposing stage presence. She sang straight-up music with no pretention, working her magic in front of and behind the microphone, at times managing to dramatically reduce her voice to a subtle near-whisper, producing a kind of nasal vocal characteristic of caboblo, a folk tradition of northeastern Brazil. She also riffed off the rest of the band, and the vibe of the audience, in real time. Things only broke down when from time to time she forgot who her real audience was.

Playing for the Audience
Aware of the critical conditions under which she was performing – the recent bombing of the northern city of Tripoli that claimed the life of numerous people and injured many others – Elias selected soothing yet melancholic music to engage and warm up her fans. From the first notes of Gilberto Gil’s Ladeira da Preguiça (‘Steep Street of Laziness’), she transported them to the Dois de Julho, the traditional poor slave neighborhood in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’s Chega de Saudade (‘Enough Longing’, though the Portuguese word saudade carries with it a more complex meaning) followed. The mixture of lyrical samba and jazz, which is often considered to be the first bossa nova music, along with some structural elements borrowed from choro, set the mood of the evening. The concert gained in energy as it proceeded, with the Gershwins’ popular romantic tune Embraceable You and then an homage to Bill Evans and Chet Baker. Elias is a proficient and emotive performer, and her repertoire was about women, love, longing, youth, and poetry.

Elias continued the concert with Donato/Veloso’s A Ra (‘The frog’); Ary Barroso’s Isto aqui o que é, (‘That Here, That Is’); Donato/ Gil’s humouristic Bananeira (‘Banana’, banana yes, banana no)Next came a brilliant jazz and second beat carriers samba version of Jobim / Vinicius de Moraes’s Só danço samba. The concert then toned down with Dorival Caymmi’s Rosa Morena; Jobim / Mendonça’s Desafinado  (‘Out of Tune,” or “Off Key’) using challenging, almost dissonant melody lines featuring Elias’ fast tempo, instrumental virtuosity, improvisation and excellent combination of harmonious structure and melody.

Playing with and for the Band
Elias and her trio can really swing thanks to her stellar piano work. Guitarist de La Corte played his instrument with underlying vocals, taking several rhythmic layers from samba music, and specifically the tamborin, applying it to the picking hand. His fingering and heady strumming rounded out a plush sound complemented by flourishes of Johnson’s cello. Like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, her collaborators for three years after Elias met them at the age of 17, she used the piano as a stylistic bridge between the bossa nova and jazz, in particular bebop, enabling a cross pollination between the two. Barata on bass drum played his characteristic continuous eighths on the high-hat (mimicking the samba Panderio), tapping of the rim or doing “rim clicks” in a clave pattern of “1- and 3- and 1” beat. Johnson’s lush bass accompaniment, associated with the lounge music typical of North America’s interpretation of bossa nova, gave her music a unique sound. She navigated the lyrical structure format of two verses followed by a bridge as brilliantly as the single lyrical verse that is simply repeated.

Playing for Herself
Jazz is characterized by democratic creativity, interaction and collaboration, and this concert focused on Elias and her interpretation of the music rather than on the composers of the music. A natural consequence of this mindset was that Elias and her trio did not play only for the audience, but also for each other. What happened was that the complexity of certain technical moves, awe-inspiring to those in the know, was lost on the audience at large.

Elias’ improvisation skills are legendary: her practice of acting and improvising in the moment and in response to the stimulus of her immediate environment. At the Baalbeck International Festival, she shone with her fresh, soaring and strong vocals, altering melodies, harmonies or time signatures at will depending upon her own unique perspective, interactions with her trio, and the response of the audience. When it worked, the result was a magical performance and a delighted crowd that called for and was treated to several encores.

The Elias-Barata duo of piano and drum created modern approaches, further developing their suave and sensual style of music, using a bossa nova rhythm to convey a nightclub feeling in Jobim / de Moraes’s A garota de Ipanema (‘The Girl from Ipanema’),the ultimate cliché of elevator music and symbol of the entire lounge revival of the ’90s, and in the rhythmical Mardi Gras Gordurinha’s Chiclete con Banana (‘Chewing Gum with bananas’).

The festival’s amplification system presented some technical difficulties with an echo beat. One also regretted the absence of side screens that would have enhanced the ability of those in the back rows to view the performer and the band.

Nevertheless, Elias excelled in the sophisticated use of the seventh and extended chords of bossa nova rhythm with its swaying rather than swinging feel, placing it somewhere between the samba’s “side to side” rhythm moves and the “front to back” jazz moves. She epitomizes Thelonious Monk’s words: “I say, play your own way. Don’t play what the public want  you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you doing  – even if it does take them fifteen, twenty years.

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