Sergio Mendes and Eliane Elias at The Music Center at Strathmore

Sergio Mendes and Eliane Elias ruled the stage Friday night as part of Strathmore’s Jazz Samba Project festival, celebrating Brazilian bossa nova music. Both Elias and Mendez performed some early bossa nova with greater emphasis on how the genre quickly morphed into the more free-wheeling jazz/samba embraced by american jazz musicians.

Sergio Mendes.
Sergio Mendes.

According to Dr. Bryann McCann, who gave a terrific pre-concert lecture on the origins and development of bossa nova, the genre got its start through the collaboration between

Antonio Carlos Jobim, lyricist Vincicius de Morais and singer and guitarist Joao Giberto. Giberto’s 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade,”used complex chords without ornamentation, instead emphasizing the rhythm and shifting harmonies as well as the syncopated colloquial Portuguese speech patterns found in northern Brazil. In another change from contemporary Brazilian music, Giberto used a very soft voice, almost whispering in the listener’s ear as his vocals skipped along the rhythm.

Bossa nova, roughly translated as “the new wave”quickly grew in popularity.  Jazz musicians such as Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker and Keeter Betts began improvising on the basic samba beat found in bossa nova.  Over the years, bossa nova, also called jazz samba has incorporated many new sounds including rap, as demonstrated in H2O’s contributions to Mendes’ set.

Eliane Elias’piano and vocals were in the pocket. Her trio of outstanding musicians including Graham Dechter on guitar, Marc Johnson on bass and Rafael Barata on drums kept pace with her vigorous piano. Emerging almost 20 years after the origins of bossa nova, her performance, while rooted in bossa nova emphasized more of a melange of styles, most noticeably incorporating more of a jazz sound. Her set included many standards written by Jobim, including “Rosa Morenaand “Garota De Ipanema as well as her own compositions from some of her 23 albums. Some performers sound better live while others seem best in studio recordings. Although Elias’set was full of energy and drive, her voice was not showcased in the best possible light. She comes across much better in the recorded version of the same songs. Guitarist Dechter took center stage and seemed to float through each complicated chord. Johnson’s jazz bass was exceptional. Barata kept his drum kit appropriately moderated except when he was performing stunning solos.

Sergio Mendes, jazz/samba’s most well-known ambassador, led a set of musicians that filled hall with rich sound. While Mendes was certainly a presence, he acted mostly as a band leader rather than a front man. His trio of singers, Gracinha Leporace, Katie Hampton, and Ayana Williams, took center stage. A few early bossa nova songs, including “The Girl from Ipanemareceived deserved standing ovations. The audience really leapt into the groove as soon as Mendes and his band began playing numbers from his first hit album in the US, Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. Songs that made him a household name, such as “The Look of Love,” “A Stick a Stone,” “Never Gonna Let You Go”and “The Fool on the Hill”remain as relevant and loved today as they were when first recorded.  The first bar of each number was enough to bring the audience to their feet.

Eliane Elias.
Eliane Elias.

Excitement bubbled over whenever percussionist GIBI or Scott Mayo (keyboards/horns/vocals) took center stage. GIIBI drew the audience in with demonstrations of artistry on what are often thought of as “simple” instruments such as the tambourine and what appeared to be spoons. His infectious spirit was constant throughout the evening as he added many special moments even while in the background. Scott Mayo was a surprise with his outstanding saxophone work, break-dancing and ability to sing a duet with Katie Hampton which included horn breaks. Rapper H2O jumped in whenever he felt it appropriate. The unsung heroes of this ensemble were Kleber Jorge on guitar and Hussain Jiffry on bass.Their playing formed a stable foundation they stood without hijinks on opposite sides of the stage.

Mendes has, throughout his career, collaborated with, and covered songs of, other artists, many whose styles are far from his roots. Just a few examples are The Beatles, Justin Timberlake, Herb Alpert, Pharoahe Monch, The Black Eyed Peas, Erykah Badu, Black Thought, India.Arie, John Legend, Justin Ti and Will.I.Am. Whether in English or Portuguese, influenced by samba, jazz, funk or blues, Mendes and his band kept the audience exuberant as he moved from hit to hit. It is doubtful that any recording could bring forth the same energy.

Running time:  Two hours and 25 minutes. with one 20-minute intermission.

Sergio Mendes and Eliane Elias played for one night only, July 6, 2014 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda. For future events at Strathmore, check their calendar of events.


Sergio Mendes’ website.

Elaine Elias’ website.


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