In the years prior to the escalation of his public profile through the movie “Round Midnight,” the late jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon had the nasty habit of taking any tune — whether bossa nova, Gershwin or blues — and embellishing it with a furious bebop solo that had more to do with his history than the composition’s structure. The solo wouldn’t match the introductory theme, but isolated, it was always beautiful music: The audience was in the presence of a master. And so it goes with Cesaria Evora — quite possibly the most lauded female vocalist in “world music” in the 1990s.
Evora’s music is a graceful blend of Africa, Portugal, Brazil and Cuba. This native of Africa’s Cape Verde Islands has made four exceptional albums, the latest being “Cafe Atlantico,” her first for RCA Victor. Their popularity has reached the point where she can sell out two shows at Royce. And with her spectacular band, featuring the effervescent saxophonist and percussionist Antonio Gomes Fernandes and the fleet and rich pianistics of Fernando Lopes Andrade, Evora coasted.
She delivered her 85-minute perf with so little emotion, however, that it actually seemed cold at times. Her music, particularly the newer works recorded in Paris and Havana, reach across the globe, tapping traditions as varied as the bolero, Cuba’s danzon, the Afro-Brazilian dance music of Bahia and the solemn Portuguese morna, for which she is best known. Unfortunately, the morna style informed virtually every number she performed Saturday.
As they began, songs were spirited and contained various rhythms; once Evora entered, though, it took only a few bars until the meter had been slowed to fit her sense of timing. Initially, it was a fascinating juxtaposition: Evora, 59, so consumed by the pain and passion of a lyric that her deliberate delivery defies the joyful backing supplied by her acoustic-guitar-heavy backing. But it wore thin, her lack of movement and facial expression proving detrimental to the enjoyment of her gorgeous, pleasantly pitched voice. (Her album covers and press photos often emphasize her smiling and dancing).
The voice is indeed a jewel and as a solo instrument, Evora displayed it impeccably. But when she took her customary break, seated onstage next to a small table to smoke a cigarette, she appeared happy, shuffling her feet and dancing in her seat to yet another great rhythm set down by her band. If only singing inspired her as much as smoking.