For unknown reasons, Tania Maria seems to escape people’s notice when they’re talking about the living greats of either j*zz (I know I’m not supposed to use that word) or Brazilian music. She’s been around for a long time, and has countless fans all over the world for both her piano technique and her smoky, deep-voiced singing. But she’s somehow never really on anyone’s list. Rather than go into the whys and wherefores of this, let’s just talk about how Tempo makes her case quite clear. It’s a simple record: just Maria with the legendary Eddie Gomez on bass, just eight songs in 49 minutes, just melody and rhythm and interplay and imagination. Yet it sets the standard so far this year for improvisational music.
Let’s jump straight to “Yeah Man,” an original by Maria. It’s a rollicking sort of thing with stride lines, at least at first, with a melody and attack strongly reminiscent of early Thelonious Monk. Tania’s playing is confident and strong – she’s been in this game too long to be a will-o-the-wisp – and she tends to sing along with her own solos. About halfway through, however, things get upended; Gomez, who’s just been backing her up so far, steps forward to take a superb solo full of karate chop lines, while Maria fades back a bit. It happens so smoothly, so suddenly, and so logically that it’s no big deal ... unless you go back and listen to see how they did it, at which point your jaw drops.
This happens again and again on this record. The long contemplative title track sounds more Cuban than Brazilian, more pointillist than romantic, more felt than played. New revelations keep coming up, changing the discourse into something new but still somehow consonant with the original intent. Gomez’ solo here seems to be exploding out of his instrument. Maria finally starts singing about five minutes in, at which point things change again. It’s a high-wire act that doesn’t really sound like one, a highly technical performance that refuses to show itself off as one. This is of course an old Brazilian trick, but the trick is that it can’t sound like a trick.
So let’s talk about Tania Maria’s voice. It’s at least a contralto, probably more like a baritone at times. This makes her entrance on opener “Estate” incredibly powerful; no one else around seems to sing like this, and no one else has her sense of timing or grasp of dynamics. She’s a hepcat on “Bronzes e Cristals,” a crooner on “A Chuva Caiu,” and a little of both on “Sentado a Beira Do Caminho,” plus the best whistling solo ever committed to tape. All in all, no other record better embodies the possibilities of improvisational music in 2012 than Tempo. Tania Maria has been putting out records for four decades, doing her own thing in a whole lot of different ways. Isn’t it time to recognize her as one of the best we have – and perhaps one of the best we’ve ever had?