Emily Estefan fulfilled the promise of her first album, “Take Whatever You Want,” at her debut major concert Thursday night at the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Festival Miami.
Given that Estefan’s album, which went on sale at 12:01 a.m. Friday, about 90-minutes after her Gusman Concert Hall performance ended, is one of the freshest, most original and accomplished debuts since the first recordings of fully-formed talents Bette Midler and the late Phoebe Snow more than 40 years ago, that’s high praise.
Estefan earned the accolades before a sold-out house on the Coral Gables campus, which included her mother and father — pop stars Gloria and Emilio Estefan — and her grandmother, Gloria Fajardo, plus media and friends. She led her tight nine-piece band through pop, jazz, funk, Latin and R&B.
Call the Berklee-trained Estefan a one-woman Miami sound machine. As on her album, Estefan played drums, guitar and keyboards at various points through her set, augmented by her band’s two percussionists, backing vocalists and a horn section. The percussion arrangements were conceived so well it seemed the audio mix of drums and congas had an ear-pleasing surround sound effect.
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Estefan’s stylistic reaches impress as she seems to have an encyclopedic understanding of a century’s worth of pop, jazz, R&B and Latin music. Convincing covers like Stevie Wonder’s ever-propulsive “I Wish” sat well with originals like her provocative opener “F#ck to Be,” the equality empowerment anthem, “Take 5,” and the seductive soft jazz of “Ask Me To.”
Remarkably, Estefan folds her myriad influences into her musical vocabulary and still sounds like no one other than Emily Estefan.
One of the concert’s highlights was Estefan’s smoldering take on the 1937 standard, “Where or When.” Estefan prefaced the familiar jazz tune by telling her audience of her connection to the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. “I listen to those arrangements where I hear the tight voicings on clarinets and I feel nostalgic.”
A fun tribute to women artists, with Estefan pounding a set of drums center stage, featured the music of Janet Jackson, Alanis Morissette, Celia Cruz, Chaka Khan and even her mother’s first English language single, “Dr. Beat,” which had a proud Gloria Estefan, whom she called “Conga Queen,” dancing out of her seat.
A warm reading of Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues” scored, too, seeming to emerge from a musician of far greater vintage as opposed to the young, chatty 22-year-old before us.
If anything revealed Estefan’s age and novice experience, it was the nervous chatter that dominated a bit too much. Understandable, an engaging Estefan still bantered with one too many “just kidding” quips and awkward stage patter between songs. This flaw is common to newcomers who feel they must fill every moment on big stages and is perhaps the only trait the preternaturally gifted Estefan shares with other beginners.
Estefan, a willing student, will no doubt learn. No less a talent than the great Tony Bennett went through the same struggles in the first years of his career he wrote in his 2012 book, “Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett.”
“[Count] Basie told me to focus on the singing and not to talk too much, but to make sure I put a little humor in the set — that it will get them every time. It took me awhile to learn how to edit myself. It’s one of the toughest chores to get right,” Bennett wrote.
Bennett offered more advice he got from entertainer Fred Astaire who told him of how he would studiously collect the best material he could find for a show and then, once satisfied, forced himself to cut out 15 minutes. Doing so, Astaire told an eager-to-learn Bennett, tightened up the show and kept him from staying too long on the stage. “It made a big difference in my creative life to realize that it’s always good to leave people wanting more,” Bennett wrote, “as opposed to the other way around.”
Estefan is so good, so promising, she deserves to hear that wise advice from some of the greatest masters in show business history.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.