Walk into the JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell this weekend, and you’ll find yourself in a candlelit club with the sensuous voice of today’s Brazilian jazz: Eliane Elias.
Elias’ inimitable smooth voice and her masterful piano skills have brought her to huge venues like the Hollywood Bowl. But her two-night, four-show run in the intimate setting of the JAS Café is a throwback to her early days in the land that birthed bossa nova.
A classically trained pianist from Sao Paolo, Elias brings her virtuosic skills to Brazilian jazz and uses her voice to craft a unique sound that blends genres and crosses cultures.
She started studying piano at age 7 and seemed bound for a classical career. But that was the ‘60s in Brazil, and bossa nova was taking the world by storm. She was enthralled with it, and by the time she was a teenager she was teaching piano and improvisation among the vanguard of Brazilian jazz. At 17, she was tapped to work with the singer/songwriter Toquinho and the legendary Antonio Carlos Jobim.
“When I was very young I had the opportunity to meet Jobim,” she recalls. “So Brazilian jazz came to me, not second hand, but came to me from working with the creators of the bossa nova. It was fantastic.”
They would do shows around the country — month-long stints in Buenos Aires, Santiago and elsewhere — and she quickly learned the skills of not only performance, but composition, arrangement and production.
“I got that feeling of communicating with the audience in a certain way,” she says. “I came to appreciate how to bring the music to the people and get people excited to hear it.”
She came to New York in the ‘80s and her solo career has since produced 20 albums, multiple Grammy nominations, a collaboration with Herbie Hancock and a steady stream of international tours.
Elias plays the JAS Café at the Little Nell on Friday, Feb. 8 and Saturday, Feb. 9, continuing the pop-up club’s winter-long presentation of international jazz talents.
“She lights up a room,” says Jazz Aspen Snowmass founder and president Jim Horowitz. “She has an incendiary talent.”
Any description of Elias’ voice is sure to include words like “sexy” and “sultry.” Asked what she makes of those kinds of characterizations, she says, “I take that as a compliment! But it’s not something I try to do.”
The coolness of her sound and the romance in her voice, she says, is inherent to the Brazilian jazz sound that shaped her.
“That beauty is the nature of the music,” Elias explains. “But it’s something I feel, too. I am a romantic. I am someone who likes to make things beautiful, so I do my best to bring that to the music.”
An Elias set is as likely to include her original compositions and bossa nova standards as as it to cover hits from The Doors, Stevie Wonder and Dave Brubeck – all of whom she interpreted on her 2011 album, “Light My Fire.”
She is at ease blending Brazil’s rhythms with the American jazz idiom and pop songs in her cool and breezy style.
Among her formidable backing band is Elias’ husband, Marc Johnson, with whom she’s been playing for 27 years. They work improvisation into their sets and feed off of one another’s creative energy on stage.
“We all get to improvise but the rhythms are really contagious,” she says. “I’m singing the entire show and playing piano, and bringing music from different parts of Brazil, music beyond the bossa nova.”
She plays songs and styles from outside the familiar Rio-based jazz, including music with roots in Bahia and northern Brazil.
Elias and her band are continent-hopping globetrotters. But, she says, they don’t need to adjust their shows for different countries and cultures.
“It’s a fun, fun show to listen to,” she explains. “We play all over the world and this show is really one that has captured people’s attention.”
The centerpiece of Elias’ show is her transcendent voice. She plays it effectively like an instrument, and has found it speaks an international language.
“When I sing in Portuguese I used to think, ‘Oh, people aren’t going to know what I’m talking about,’ but you’d be surprised,” she says. “They are touched by it. They get it. They get the feeling of it everywhere — in Asia, in Europe, in South America and in the United States. Music is such an incredible, universal language. It gets to people, it just does.”
Feb. 8 & 9
7 & 9 p.m.
at the JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell
JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell
Here are four artists upcoming in this winter’s lineup from Jazz Aspen Snowmass in the JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell, continuing the season’s international theme.
“We’ve invited a lot of musicians here that are from all over the world,” says Jazz Aspen Snowmass founder and president Jim Horowitz. “But they perform jazz through the prism of their own culture. It’s one of the interesting things about jazz — it’s like the joker in a card game.”
Feb. 15 to 17
Stigers is at the forefront of the new generation of American jazz vocalists. He played sold-out shows at the JAS Café last winter, showcasing his famously mercurial style. The 47-year-old notoriously bought back masters of a pop record he’d recorded years ago from his label, as he was on his way to becoming the next Michael Bolton. Instead, he’s embraced a singular creative jazz style. “He’ll do a standard jazz tune, then he’ll turn around and do Annie Lennox and the Beatles,” says Horowitz.
Monty Alexander: Harlem Kingston Express
Feb. 28 to March 2
“This show is really going to be a barn burner,” promises Horowitz. It blends jazz and Caribbean music, with Alexander playing with two rhythm sections — one reggae and one jazz-based. A Frank Sinatra protégé, the Jamaica-born band leader bounces between the two styles intermittently within songs. Locals may remember his set from Jazz Aspen’s 2011 June Fest, when Toots and the Maytals’ rhythm section filled in as his reggae band.
March 15 & 16
A master of the Hammond B-3 organ, Monaco plays a high-energy, swinging soul jazz show that blends elements of funk, rock and R&B. “It’s like a runaway train,” says Horowitz. “It’s funky and greasy. A lot of people think the Hammond B-3 is something Widespread Panic invented, but it has its roots in soul jazz.”
March 29 & 30
A Cuban jazz outfit with an energetic take on Afro-Cuban rumba, Pedrito Martinez and his bandmates have quickly ascended the world music ranks since emigrating to New York. “What’s really amazing about this band is that they sing in tight four-part harmonies while they’re wailing on their instruments,” says Horowitz, who discovered them at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “It has this driving, percussive rhythm.”