Elis Regina ‘Original Album Series’ 5CD Box Set (Warners) 4/5

Singer Elis Regina occupies a special place in the Brazilian psyche and her tragic early death aged just thirty-six in 1982 was the subject of national mourning for she is arguably the greatest ever woman singer in Brazil with an amazing vocal range and a wide diversity of performance styles. She came to national prominence in the mid-1960s at a time when bossa nova reigned supreme, but Regina’s entry onto the music scene would mark a departure point and one that would see the emergence of a new generation of singers of what is now termed MPB, or Brazilian popular music. This latest in the excellent value for money series from Warner focuses on the very latter period of Elis Regina’s career from 1978-1980 and if it is an introductory ‘Best Of’ package you are looking for, this is not necessarily the ideal place to start since Regina by the late 1970s had had enough of reworking her old back catalogue and there are already a plethora of anthologies that cover her more famous songs.

What this new selection does offer, however, are some priceless live performances of Elis and two CDs are devoted to live concerts and for devotees of Brazilian music these alone will prove revelatory experiences. An unissued live album ‘Elis por Ela’ which dates from around 1979/1980 is almost an hour’s worth of bliss with exclelent sound quality and she interprets the songbook of the then up and coming generation such as João Bosco and Milton Nascimento as well as a couple of homages to the great Tom Jobim whom she famously recorded a duet album with, ‘Elis e Tom’ in 1974. Here she offers a rootsy take on Milton’s anthemic ‘Cançao de América’ and an uplifting samba in ‘O que foi feito deverá’. Of the Bosco material, there is a lengthy eight minute plus take on the uptempo samba ‘Cobra criada’ with a four minute intrumental intro and then Elis entering first with wordless vocalising plus a subtle mid-tempo ‘O mestre sala dos mares’ and this is a gorgeous version with electric piano and percussion. Jobim is celebrated here with ‘Garota de Ipanema’, but Elis gives it her own distinctive twist performing it a much quicker tempo than the original accompanied only by piano and audience handclaps in both Portugese and English. For bonus cuts, Regina works in a medley of songs including Milton’s ‘Ponta de Arena’. A second live recording from a Sao Paulo concert in 1979 continues in a similar vein, though the sound quality is a little distant in parts, it is still perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately what live CDs can never capture is the theatricality of Elis Regina’s on stage performance and at some point a quality DVD of her live should be released for an international audience.

The very last studio album she recorded, ‘Essa Mulher’ from 1980, is included here and this revealed different facets of Regina’s musicality. The production is generally slicker in keeping with a lot of 1980s Brazilian music, but underneath there are still some wonderful sounds and of course her voice was still in top form. Looking back, the opener ‘Cai dentro’ is a funky bass-led groove that fans of Tania Maria from her Concord Picante period would feel at home with and this is reinforced further on by the funky samba that is ‘Eu hein Rosa!’. Elsewhere her receptiveness to other musical cultures is evident on ‘O bebado e a equilibrita’ which has echoes of French chanson with its use of accordion, but then develops into a gentle samba with string accompaniment. Possibly the strongest number of all is Elis’ trip into classy tropicalia with ‘Beguine dodói’ (a live version of the song is featured on CD4) while ‘Bolero de sata’ is a strong performance and indication that with her southern Brazilian roots in Porto Alegre, Regina could incorporate the instrumental music of Spanish Latin America into her wider repertoire. The double pair of ‘Saudades do Brasil volumes 1 and 2’ are at best an acquired taste and, in several places, come across as somewhat self-indulgent in that the production is distinctly overbearing and songs tend to segue into one another at will. This is typified by the bizarre transposition of the old Brazilian songbook chestnut ‘Aquarela do Brasil’ which has an utterly transformed intro with oddball vocal chants thrown in. Quite why Elis ever agreed to such an endeavour is something of a mystery. There is some all too brief welcome relief on the mid-tempo samba ‘Agora-ta!’ and an uplifting number ‘Maranibaia’ which has elements of the choro style in the use of flute and brass, but overall the arrangements have been messed around with too much and simply put, this seriously distracts from the listener’s enjoyment.

One major caveat with this selection. It surprisingly omits the wonderful ‘Live in Montreux’ album that Warner released originally on vinyl in 1982 and since this is now regarded as something of a late masterpiece, with a terrific line-up of musicians and superlative reprises of her classic era songs, it is a mystery why Warner have not seen fit to include it here. All the more so, since ‘Saudades do Brasil volumes 1 and 2 would have neatly fitted onto one CD and are obvious weakpoints here. At some point Warner should re-issue, possibly in a deluxe edition format, ‘Live in Montreux’ since it is a fitting farewell to a fabulously talented singer.

Tim Stenhouse