Tonight’s few-frills piano trio gig swirled with invention, pulse and history lived. Marc Johnson was the bass player, alongside drummer Pat LaBarbera, in pianist Bill Evans’ last rhythm section; the legendary jazz impressionist died in 1980. Johnson and LaBarbera sustained Evans’ final years at a creative high, and tonight’s performance resonated with the stealthy rhythms, group interplay and gossamer textures that were the late pianist’s hallmark.
But with Johnson’s marital partner, Eliane Elias, playing piano this was never going to be a retread of a particular niche of the jazz heritage. Elias’s style-crossing career has Brazilian roots – she was born in São Paulo – but 30 years in New York have given her an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz. Husky-voiced bossas and light-touch sambas yield to sharp, dazzling runs, impressionist voicings suspended in time, two-handed tremolos, angular abstractions and, at this gig, even a four-to-the-floor bar-room shuffle.
The first set mixed a Brazilian dalliance into the songbook repertoire and added originals from a newly released album. Two floating chords opened, a tumbledown run set the tempo, cuing the standard “Everything I Love” at a nippy pace. There was counterpoint bass and an understated pulse, breaks and exchanges and then a Bill Evans original, “Five”, with Elias adding a tough edge to this soulful and oddly asymmetric theme.
As the set progressed, the trio presented a fluttery tribute to nature – “B is for Butterfly” – a brace of husky, rough-at-the-edges vocals and the genre-bending “Sirens of Titan” a showcase for Johnson’s bowed bass. As the evening wore on, Elias came increasingly to the fore, her ideas teeming with dexterity and rhythmic independence over a palette of influences. The set ended with a tribute to another jazz great, Bud Powell. “Bowing to Bud” opened as an angular, unaccompanied, fingers-flying celebration and was eased out as fragments over a mid-tempo lope.
The second set gave the songbook repertoire precedence. “Autumn Leaves” was obliquely stated, there was Gershwin as a samba and Kern at a romp. Elias was on fire and in command, twisting and turning and putting her stamp on “Desafinado”. Johnson, alongside LaBarbera, played his role to perfection and delivered a solo highlight on “Nardis”.