Born in Taiwan and raised in the United States, Emy Tseng now sings Brazilian jazz. In a sense, she embodies Dizzy Gillespie’s vision of a pan-global jazz. Put her on a stage, though, and she’s pure bossa nova. “I just returned from a trip to Brazil,” Tseng told the small crowd Wednesday night at Bethesda Blues & Jazz. “So hopefully I’ll be able to communicate some of that spirit to you.”
She succeeded. Tseng’s opening number, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber,” put her best attributes front and center: fine rhythm, impressive grasp of harmony and a clear, attractive voice. Even her Brazilian-Portuguese accent was good — a subtle but important component in the phrasing and rhythm of the music.
Tseng was clearly in good spirits as she sang. Every syllable radiated joy, as did the light dance steps she did during the piano solos (by Wayne Wilentz) that followed her in nearly every tune. This was a bit of an obstacle when she took on Caetano Veloso’s melancholy ballad “Corazon Vagabundo”; there was some hint of sadness in her delivery (helped by the genuine pathos in David Jernigan’s bowed bass), but her pleasure was inescapable. That said, the following tune, the more uplifting “Corcovado,” brought a more emotionally nuanced performance from Tseng — helped by the precision of her rhythm and enunciation.
It was also helped by the ensemble, whose power on the stage was hard to underrate. Wilentz was something of a partner in crime for Tseng, augmenting her happy singing with breezy, lilting performances of his own. (On “Deixa,” he came close to flat-out rocking.) Guitarist Alex Martin, who opened for Tseng and joined her for the latter half of her set, played delicate single-note lines. Drummer John Shepherd may have been the most powerful of all. This being bossa, he mostly stuck to gentle cymbal and rim shots, but it was his energy level that determined the songs’ personalities — especially on “Berimbau,” which he gave real teeth. (Indeed, his too-sharp accents on “Corazon Vagabundo” contributed to that tune’s unfocused mood.)
Brought together, they provided the dance for Tseng, both in her singing and in her onstage movements. She added to these in the closing “Chega de Suadade,” using small, lithe hand movements that somehow seemed both innocent and seductive. It was a charming evening that channeled the Brazilian musical spirit, in a scene that sees entirely too little of that spirit.
West is a freelance writer.