Last evening’s opening concert of the 2014 Portland Jazz Festival found the pianist and singer Eliane Elias in joyous spirits that led her to, but never quite over, the edge of giddiness. With bassist Marc Johnson, guitarist Graham Dechter and drummer Mauricio Zottarelli, Elias concentrated on music from her and Zottarelli’s native Brazil, with side trips into pieces from her Chet Baker and Bill Evans tribute albums. Throughout, pianism inspired by Bud Powell and Evans was characterized by rhythmic excitement and by harmonies that she seems to deepen year by year.
Elias opened with a Gilberto Gil song whose title my inadequate ear for Portuguese forced me to miss. Dechter helped set up the powerful swing in Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,” which had the first of several Johnson bass solos. Over-amplification of the bass’s low frequencies took a bit of the edge off Johnson’s sound but could not mask the brilliance of his improvisation. Introducing “I Thought About You,” the first of three songs inspired by Baker, Elias explained the trumpeter’s influence in Brazil as bossa nova was developing in the 1950s. Her vocal phrasing, particularly in “Embraceable You,” reflected the way Baker’s singing and playing glided across bar lines. She and Dechter added a nicely worked-out alternate melody to “This Can’t Be Love,” in which the intensity of her piano solo had the audience leaning forward in their seats.
Elias recalled not merely listening to Bill Evans when she was a child but, in an early adventure in ear training, transcribing his solos. After she became bassist Johnson’s wife, she said, he played for her a cassette tape of unpublished, unreleased music that Evans gave him shortly before the pianist died in 1980. She expressed the emotion of that experience by playing a moving unaccompanied version of Cy Coleman’s “I Love My Wife,” which Evans recorded in his 1978 New Conversations album. Evans recorded the piece overdubbing two piano tracks. “I have only one piano tonight,” she said, then employed her technique to come close to making it sound like two. Elias’s solo introduction to “So Danco Samba” coursed through snatches of Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations,” blues riffs, “Liza,” and a series of exchanges with Dechter before Johnson and Zottarelli joined in behind her vocal and a powerful final chorus. Dechter, a member of the band for the past few months, adds harmonic depth and rhythmic thrust. His solo moments were effective and too few.
For Dorival Caymmi’s classic “Rosa Morena,” Elias picked up a wireless microphone, left the piano and made her way to the front of the stage to dance as she sang the song. It was the visual highlight of evening. The festival banned photographs last night. The one above is from an appearance at another festival. It captures the mood. Following “Desafinado,” with its long, riveting solo by Zottarelli, there was a standing ovation. The crowd demanded two encores; first came “The Girl from Ipanema,” then Caymmi’s “Chiclete Com Banana” (“Chewing Gum With Banana”), which had another outing by Zottarelli that swung so hard it inspired Johnson to depart from his customary stolid posture and perform a brief dance of his own. Following “Chiclete” came standing ovation number two.