Exquisite on all counts, the Brazilian singer and songwriter Marisa Monte took an enthusiastic packed house on a journey Wednesday through several strains of unique pop music from her native Rio de Janeiro. Show was impeccably paced and her rapturous voice wrapped itself around sultry, medium-tempoed tunes that drew on samba, bossa nova, MPB and pre-disco American R&B yet needed no translation — this was a night of pure romanticism.
Her first show in L.A. in six years, Monte is touring in support of two albums recorded last year and released simultaneously by Blue Note/Metro Blue in September. One, “Universao ao meu Redor,” focuses on samba and stretches from the 1940s to the present; “Infinito Particular” features writing collaborations with Carlinhos Brown, Seu Jorge and other contempo greats. Both brim with traditional flavors and 10 tracks from the two discs made their way into the 110-minute set, which had the seamlessness of a jukebox playing all ’60s soul.
The discs’ title tracks opened the concert and both were sinuous and captivating. Her deep and full-bodied voice has an indescribable enchanting characteristic; she can alter it ever so slightly and elicit different emotions — a bit of breathiness in the high end, for example, evokes an intense feeling of longing.
Material, whether new or part of her concert repertoire for more than decade, is overwhelmingly inviting. It’s not hard to imagine an American translating her lyrics to English and having a hit on adult contemporary or, in the case of “Maria de Verdade” even modern country radio. Her 1994 classic “Alta Noite,” which begins with piano, guitar and rainfall, is the sort of ballad Barbra Streisand takes to like a moth to a street lamp.
This elegant music, which can be playful yet restrained, threads a needle between the traditional and American-influenced pop; she was recognized in 2003 and 2001 with the Latin Grammy for contempo Brazilian pop album. This is the music that influenced Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” and several of David Byrne’s South America-oriented projects, which can be saccharine sweet when improperly distilled. True, there are moments when one of her tunes flatlines, but she has no bona-fide clunkers.
On stage, Monte positions her band in interesting fashion: She begins the night on a riser flanked by three guitarists — she strums a rather broad rhythm guitar and lets them handle the nuances — and the first row is occupied by a cellist, drummer, bassoonist, trumpeter, keyboardist and violinist. After 10 songs playing various guitars and the kalimba, she leaves her perch and works the front of the stage as a lead vocalist; she is remarkably calm and in control in either position.
Show benefited from a most imaginative lighting operation designed by Ralph Strelow. Evening begins in pitch black darkness and only a single spotlight comes up for a few seconds twice during the first song. Stage is then lit by an enormous overhead square panel that keeps the musicians in the front row in relative darkness yet as the evening progresses, the square moves back and illuminates the band at an angle from above; it eventually becomes a backdrop and backlights the band.
But on the third song, large refrigerator-sized rectangular panels of light — three on each side — approached the stage and then mechanically moved about the stage. For two songs they were used for video imagery — a sheet waving and fluttering red objects in a birdcage — but generally they kept the stage lit along with two small spotlights anchored on either side of the stage. Two manually operated banks of spotlights on a beam added to the show later; beyond simple red panels on one song, no colors were used in the lighting, giving the stage a pleasant living room feel.
Monte’s four-city U.S. tour stops Tuesday at New York’s Beacon Theater.