Tall as a power forward, skinny as Kate Moss and impossibly dramatic, Mariza seems to have stepped out of a Modigliani painting. The long-limbed queen of fado roams and prances about the stage, part Greta Garbo, part Mick Jagger. She has presence. And then there's the voice.
Sometimes dubbed the Portuguese blues, fado is about melancholy, desire and loss, the raw yearning for what's missing (a man), and turning the ache of it into sublime pleasure. On Thursday -- the start of a four-night run at the SFJazz Center (only a handful of tickets remain) -- Mariza hammered it home. She sang without intermission for 105 minutes, commanding the theater with that voice: her whispered arabesques (you might flash on Miles Davis)
She is a diva. She is a stylist.
There's something scripted about her high-drama tour of the tradition and her updates to it. Yet she connects. Like Liza Minnelli or Barbra Streisand, she convinces with an essential passion and power. It has made her an international star over the past 10 years, singing on "The Late Show with David Letterman," at Carnegie Hall -- and with Sting at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It's a long way from Mouraria, Lisbon's port district, where Marisa dos Reis Nunes (as she was christened) grew up singing fado in her parents' taverna (her father was Portuguese, her mother from Mozambique).
On Thursday, she was backed by
Spaciously framed by her band, Mariza moved through a couple dozen numbers, including "Dona Rosa," an upbeat singalong, and Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," offered with irony, as a fado lament (it worked, sort of). On "Primavera," by the late fado goddess Amalia Rodrigues, she emphasized her massive midrange: With rich, dark, chesty tones, she's a formidable contralto. Here and for much of the evening, she rode endless breaths, slowly gathering words into a howl, then cutting it off at the apex -- strangulating her phrase, then gliding through perfectly chiseled melisma, the rapid, keening ornamentations of a syllable that we associate with Arabic or Gypsy music.
This is the "new fado," so there also was the breeziness of Cape Verdean song and touches of samba. Nor does Mariza dress like "fadistas" of old, with their plain black mourning dresses; her floor-length black gown was form-fitting, backless and sparkled with sequins. Still, as she sang her aching songs -- and this listener doesn't know a word of Portuguese -- there was the sense that this consummate actress was taking her audience home to Lisbon and the tales of her youth.
When: 7:30 p.m. nightly, through March 17
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., San Francisco
Tickets: $30-$70, 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org