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Interviews

Eliane Elias: Music for All Purposes

By Published: February 13, 2004
Expect those surprises from someone so musical and artistic.

The product of a musical household, Elias had access to American jazz records as a young child in Sao Paolo. "We had jazz in the house, playing it all the time," she said. Her piano training started at age 7, "like most kids, just the normal formal training," but the sounds she heard on record started a lifelong yearning.

"I fell in love with jazz at a very young age and started transcribing solos and playing along with [the records of] great jazz artists. It's so unusual. I was an 11-year-old kid and I would sit by my record player and almost cry [from the beauty] with players like Art Tatum, Nat "King” Cole and Errol Garner. That's not very normal," she said laughing softly at the memory, "but I was so taken by it."

Elias studied at Sao Paulo's prestigious Free Center of Music Apprenticeship and by the time she was 15, she was appointed music director of the piano department and was teaching master classes. It wasn't only jazz that appealed to the young girl with the uncanny ability. "I was very fortunate, because I was exposed to the bossa nova movement, which was just great to grow up listening to. It was really great quality music from Brazil. I also listened to classical and jazz in the house, so it was ideal."

"I remember watching it on TV. I heard Jobim. That's when a lot of the instrumental trios started happening. I remember the Milton Banana trio, the Zimbo Trio, Elis Regina doing bossa nova, doing great quality Brazilian music. But the bossa nova I heard was authentic. It was happening then. It came to the United States later. But I was hearing the real guys right there. It was fantastic! What a time to grow up"

The United States heard the beautiful sounds of the bossa nova when Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz popularized it, but even that, explains Elias, was Americanized, even though it was of high quality.

"Well, it's not the same, no. It's jazzier. Getz is not Brazilian. He's not going to phrase like a Brazilian. What he does is great, but he's not authentic Brazilian. It was beautiful. Beautifully done. But I heard the real composers, the real singers, the real spirit of it there — the same spirit that has impressed and inspired so many people all over the world."

Elias maintained her love of jazz, always listening and absorbing. "Basically all of the great pianists, at certain points, I listened to them. And then as you listen, it makes an impression upon you; becomes an influence. But you can name from very early, all the way from Tatum to Oscar Peterson to all the modern players, Bill Evans, everybody. And not only piano, but Miles Davis, with his music and his quintet, and other instruments as well. I listened to Coltrane. I listened to Bird. Music is interesting the way it happens because you absorb everything as you listen to. Things you get impressed by, it's very easy to absorb that and incorporate that into your music."

When she made the jump to New York City, the center of the jazz scene, her considerable talent kept her from "starving musician" stories. She caught on quickly and musicians were impressed with the chops of the young pianist. She came equipped.

"It went great. I was able to attend a few jam sessions. Soon my name was going around. People were talking about me. I was invited to work with Steps Ahead. I got a work visa. Soon after working with Steps Ahead, I also signed with Denon records for a couple CDs, then stayed 16 years with Blue Note. Things happened well and fast and I'm very happy with the way everything turned out."

Elias is also pleased that she has had time in her life for other things, like raising her daughter, Amanda. "That means a lot to me. My personal music also reflects your life experiences, your feelings. So it's so great to be a musician — sure — but have all the other life experiences. Sometimes with a music career you can't quite juggle both things."

She chuckled at the notion that her Brazilian heritage gives a certain romanticism to her piano playing. "I guess it can be that. The music reflects also the person's temperament, no? It reflects the personality. It comes straight from the heart. Brazil yes, the beauty and all that. Do all Brazilian pianists have that? No. So I think it's a combination."

There's little doubt that her singing over the years is influenced by her homeland. It's soft and subtle and has a natural rhythm not connected with the way Americans would sing the same music. Still, it's as a pianist and composer the Elias has distinguished herself.

"I always did a little bit of vocals and I never really considered myself a singer. I feel I am really a pianist and a composer, but I use my voice when I write music that requires voice; when I write something that should be song. That's how it happened and that's basically how I see it."

It became a bit more serious when she decided to do Eliane Elias Sings Jobim in 1998.


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