Brazilian breezin’

Tania Maria is one of the leading lights of jazz-inflected Brazilian music.

Tania Maria (photo credit: PR)
Tania Maria
(photo credit: PR)
Tania Maria turned 68 on Monday, but you’d never know it if you saw her doing her thing on stage. The Brazilian pianist-vocalist will perform at Zappa Herzliya on May 19 (doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.) and at Heichal Hatarbut in Rishon Lezion on May 21 (9:30 p.m.), and the audiences will no doubt be blown away by her persona.
Maria has been one of the leading lights of jazz-inflected Brazilian music for nigh on half a century, and she retains her youthful exuberance and irrepressible style of delivery. And she had the best of starts. Her father was a gifted amateur guitarist and encouraged his talented daughter to play music from an early age. Maria duly began tickling the ivories at the age of seven, and by the time she was 13 she was fronting a paternally organized ensemble. She accumulated invaluable stage time, performing in clubs and at dances and even landed some live radio spots. She made further learning curve progress by participating in weekend jam sessions, organized by her dad.
Maria quickly became a fixture on the Brazilian music scene, imbibing the rhythms and melodies of local genres such as samba and chorinho (an amalgam of Afro-Brazilian music and European dance styles such as the polka and waltz), as well as Western elements from jazz and pop music.
Today, Maria is known as the preeminent Brazilian pianist-vocalist, although her singing endeavor began serendipitously.
She had a gig together with the band she led as a teenager, and the lead vocalist failed to turn up.
“My father told me I had to sing,” Maria recalls. “So I did. I was around 15 years old.”
It may have been youthful insouciance that helped Maria to take the plunge in fearless fashion, but she got through her first piano-vocals gig in one piece, and she has been filling that position with great success ever since.
“I didn’t have a very big [vocal] repertoire,” she says with a chuckle. “I sang everything that came into my mind and my heart that night, and from that time I started to sing.”
Few would question Maria’s ability to move people with her emotive and exciting vocal delivery but, more than 50 years after that first dual role foray, she still considers herself something of a backseat singer.
“Still today, if you ask me if I am a piano player or a singer, I would say I am a piano player that sings,” she declares.
Seeing American jazz great Nat King Cole sing and play piano on TV with seemingly consummate ease also inspired the Brazilian teenager’s newfound career intent.
Maria may have had an early kickoff to her musical career but, in fact, she had other professional designs.
“I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she notes.
She took law courses, but thankfully for her millions of fans across the globe, harsh reality put a stop to that.
“I didn’t have the money to carry on paying for my studies,” Maria laughs. “I didn’t play music for four years.”
In fact, it was not really a tough decision.
“My father wanted me to play music, but my mother was against it,” she recalls. “I thought that the only way for me to be happy was to do music. I am still happy.”
So it was back to the stage for Maria.
Her debut recording was not long in coming, with Apresentamos hitting the record stores in 1969. That was followed by Olha Quem Chega in 1971, and a subsequent move to France propelled the Brazilian onto center stage in Europe.
Her global profile rose several more notches after American jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd, who had a penchant for Latin rhythms, caught her act in Australia and was taken with her now trademark freewheeling spirit and her polished instrumental skills. He recommended her to the founder of Concord Records, and the rest is history.
Over the last four-plus decades, Maria has graced practically every leading jazz festival and important music venue in the world and has released around 30 albums as leader. She has mixed it with a long roll call of jazz luminaries, although she does not consider herself a proponent of the genre per se.
“I don’t do jazz. But I do improvisations that are very close to jazz,” she observes.
She may not see herself as a bona fide member of the jazz fraternity, but she certainly embodies the requisite spirit.
“I have been listening to jazz since I was little. I love to dream. I love to go on the stage. I think the only the place you can go with the capacity and sentiment of improvisation is on the stage. Improvisation makes you free, and I like to be free,” she says.
Anyone who has seen Maria’s unbridled act live or listened to some of her recorded output can attest to that.
It is a sure bet that Maria’s audiences in Herzliya and Rishon Lezion will be, at the very least, enthused by her fearless approach and effervescent personality, if not completely swept away.
“When I play music, I feel like I am flying,” she says.
Prepare for takeoff.
For tickets and more information: Rishon Lezion (03) 948-8666; Herzliya *9080; www. zappa