Fifteen years ago, violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphaël Merlin united at France’s Boulogne-Billancourt Conservatory to form Quatuor Ébène. While their classical recordings have earned them international renown, they’ve proven just as skilled at interpreting Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter or Lennon and McCartney.
The foursome first encountered vocalist Stacey Kent and her husband, saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, four years ago in Paris. The group was preparing its first non-classical album, Fiction, and persuaded Kent to join on “Corcovado.” Their shared affection for Brazilian rhythms has now blossomed into this vibrant multilingual commingling, also featuring esteemed French singer-songwriter Bernard Lavilliers and Brazil’s legendary Marcos Valle.
Behind the vocalists, the quartet remains rather subdued, subtly propelling the narrative lilt or drama as Kent explores “Smile,” Valle’s “So Nice,” Tomlinson and Kazuo Ishiguro’s playful “The Ice Hotel,” Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It,” Sting’s “Fragile” and, with Valle, a sparkling “Àguas de Marços.” Lavilliers adds three of his own compositions, including “O’gringo,” a richly textured homage to Brazil.
Fine as all these tracks are, they pale in comparison to the quartet’s fiery brilliance when left to its own devices. There’s a marvelously furtive rendering of Shorter’s “Ana Maria” and a darkly spirited take on Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” Saving the best for last, they team with percussionist Mino Cinelu, a 25-member Brazilian choir and a 14-piece Brazilian string orchestra for an exhilarating voyage across the title track that begins as a peaceful sunrise and ends in Carnaval revelry.