Tania Maria returns to her roots

Boston Globe, August 17, 2006

Tania Maria has the soul of a rebel but peace in her heart.

At 58, and with more than 20 albums to her name, the pianist and singer has accumulated the wisdom and discography of a senior musician. Brazilian by birth, expatriate by choice, she’s conducted a long-running and sophisticated conversation between Brazilian music and North American jazz, whether or not people were listening.

“I’ve never been popular,” Tania Maria says on the phone from her apartment in Paris. “I mix modern Brazilian music with jazz, and I’ve been appreciated by people who knew music and were curious about this mix. But it’s true that I’ve never been commercial.”

Maria, who lived 15 years in New York earlier in her career, is reintroducing herself to Americans on a tour behind her elegant new album, “Intimidade,” on the distinguished Blue Note label. She is at the Regattabar this weekend.

“Intimidade” finds Maria playing piano in the percussive mode of a Randy Weston or Cedar Walton. She sings mostly in Portuguese, her deep, slightly raspy tone perfect for the softening and swallowing of consonants that makes a Brazilian accent so alluring. A whole sub- conversation occurs in the rhythm section, between the steady shuffles of percussionist Mestre Carneiro and bassist Eddie Gomez, who maintains the spine.

” `Intimidade’ is one of the simplest records I’ve made, and that’s what I wanted,” Maria says. “I went back to some of my roots.” Indeed, more than some of its predecessors, the album’s sound is permeated by Brazilian rhythms like the samba and the less- famous, but historically significant, choro. This fast-paced style, present on “Chorinho Brasileiro,” is a popular music from her youth akin to ragtime, Maria explains. “It’s the sort of music I heard at the time, but reimagined as a mature woman, with a lot of love,”’ she says.

Maria’s journey began in a working-class family in Brazil’s far north. She found her musical inspirations among her father’s collection of jazz records. “We didn’t have much money for records, but I still heard a lot. Nat King Cole was considered a crooner, but to me he was first of all a great pianist. I was 11 or 12 and I wanted to some day play like him. And he had such elegance. I always thought music was something very noble, and he thrilled me.”

She also cites as influences Oscar Peterson, for his version of “West Side Story,” and the great, onetime Miles Davis sideman, Wynton Kelly. However, her taste for improvisation and somewhat more angular sounds than were the Brazilian norm at the time put her at a disadvantage on the local music scene. “Jazz wasn’t something that positive,” she explains. “The country had its own music, which was very beautiful, and when I would start improvising, people thought I was a little pretentious or sold out to American styles.”

Maria also observes that she was the first woman of color to record as a professional pianist in Brazil, which was not, she says, to everyone’s taste. All these factors combined led her to leave Brazil for France, and later New York, where she found the creative atmosphere she was seeking.

“I was happy for the chance to come to the birthplace of jazz, to see what was happening,” she says. “I was very well received. I was in my 30s, and it was a huge opportunity to be among all the great masters of jazz, and to just hear jazz in the street.”

In New York and Paris, where she moved back during the ’90s, Maria found the creative space to match her whimsy. She perfected a number of jazz techniques, becoming adept at scatting, and advanced her preoccupation with rhythm-driven jazz piano.

“You’ve noticed that my piano style is percussive,” she says. “I’m fascinated by rhythm. There’s so much more to explore, rhythms renew themselves every day. Harmony, less so. And as for melody, it’s not easy to find a new one anymore.”

Drummer Rick Sebastian, who recorded several albums with Maria in the 1990s and is taking part in the current tour, says he discovered through playing with her the similarities between Brazilian rhythms and those of his native New Orleans.

“That’s a reason we hit it off so well,” he says. “The rhythms fit together hand in glove.”

With her glamorous hairstyles, playful nature, and frequent descent into hushed and sultry tones, it might be too stereotypical to label Maria a free spirit. Yet clearly, that is what she is.

“I’m passionate about this idea of freedom, which leaves the artist room to express an opinion, and express oneself even beyond the music,” she says.

At the same time, she speaks and sings with the casual ease of a fully matured personality. Her music might be billed serious fun, well-considered rather than flighty.

“I’ve run around a lot, and made myself tired just to get to the same place,” Maria says. “Now I take life with a lot more calm. Music is so much a part of my life, it’s like a dear companion. And the closest companions never cause you worry.”