There’s a fine line between preserving a legacy and subjecting it to cultural taxidermy — a line that’s deftly walked by Quarteto Jobim Morelenbaum, a familial unit dedicated to furthering the legend of Brazilian music innovator Antonio Carlos Jobim.
The quartet (fleshed out for these performances by percussionist Duduka Dafonseca) retains the restless spirit of the late composer, stretching its tendrils into the classical and avant-garde realms without losing its foothold in the gentle, urbane bossa nova for which Jobim laid the groundwork over the decades.
Under the shared direction of Jobim’s guitarist son Paulo and his longtime collaborator, cellist Jacques Morelenbaum, the quartet was positively incandescent in its New York debut. For the most part, the musicians didn’t tinker too much with the better-known repertoire, traipsing playfully through “Insensatez” and waxing wistful on a languid rendition of “Desafinado.”
The lengthy perf was not, however, a mere by-the-numbers re-creation of glories past. Morelenbaum used angular bowing to add elements of mystery and dissonance to pieces like “Mentiquiera Range” — and proved just as adept at lightening the mood by plucking, upright bass style, on “Ela e Carioca.”
Each of the quartet’s members had ample opportunity to take the spotlight during the set; each did so with the utmost subtlety, as is the norm for bossa traditionalists. Vocalist Paula Morelenbaum was a bit more engaged than many of her peers, her fluid stage movements providing a universal libretto to Portuguese-language pieces like “Aguas de Marco” and “A Felicidade” (from Jobim’s soundtrack to “Black Orpheus”).
The set’s best numbers integrated all three vocalists — including the piano-playing third-generation representative, Daniel Jobim. Studious yet suave, he seemed the most in touch with the music’s quiet passion, as he proved on a breathtaking bilingual rendition of “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars).” Quiet? Yes, but powerful enough that the sound lingers on and on.
Quarteto Jobim Morelenbaum plays the Los Angeles area on Oct. 5, at Cal State Northridge.