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Interviews

Eliane Elias: Music for All Purposes

By Published: February 13, 2004

The music reflects also the person's temperament, no? It reflects the personality. It comes straight from the heart.

Eliane Elias, the Brazilian-born pianist and composer, plays with astonishing technique and assuredness, full of passion yet instilled with a delicate sense of romance and a palpable spirit of exploration. A musical child prodigy raised in the land of Baden Powell, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Joao Gilberto and so many more, the spirit of her native land can often be heard in her work. It's an indelible part of her. But it's not her first love.

At the top of her musical list of preferences, she gleefully confesses, is American jazz.

"It's my love. My true love. It really is. If you ask me, what would I be the happiest with, if I only had to choose one? I have no other choice, only one. I would be playing jazz"

And she does so exceptionally, influenced as much by American jazz pianists — Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock — as anything else. She loves the improvisational nature, the in-the-moment aspect of the art form that all the great ones expressed in their playing. Eliane's playing can be as hot as a firecracker or as beautiful and alluring as her physical presence.

Since coming to the United States in 1981, Eliane Elias is known for her superb piano playing in the jazz mainstream – evidenced by her kick-ass work with Marc Johnson and Jack DeJohnette on her Everything I Love CD – as well as for her superlative handling of Brazilian music, illustrated onFantasia and her two Jobim-themed recordings, ... Plays Jobim and ... Sings Jobim.

With her latest recording, however, her creative spark has turned her in a slightly different direction. After years with the Blue Note label, her first CD for RCA/Bluebird Jazz, Kissed by Nature , is softer, more melodic, more accessible. Yet it retains her sweet piano work and her attractive melodies as a composer.

"I'm not opposed to anything," she said. "Some of the artists I like best, they are constantly renewing themselves, doing different things." And so it is with Kissed By Nature.

"When I was writing the music, I happened to be most of the time out in the country, out in East Hampton (NY). When I have time off, that's where I work. Being inspired by nature, by a calmer environment, and ultimately wanting to make a record that people will listen to when they want to relax," she explained. "I myself sometimes want to find CDs to put on that are something beautiful, something that I like, but brings me to a different state of mind. And that was the intention behind this music."

Elias is also a singer, with a soft sensuous voice that relies on understatement and melodic inventiveness. Those effects are also put to good use on the new disc.

"Most of the tunes I wrote when I knew I was going to make an album. But there's a way of writing when it's really manipulation, but you don't force the way you go. I try to allow that. Of course with the idea that this record is not going to be a tour de force, it's not going to be a record with pianistic virtuosity. It's going to be about tunes of mine, about music, about composition, all this. With that in mind, I let the music flow, whatever was happening."

Two of the songs are even repeated at the end, but with a modern bent and DJ remixes.

"As I was writing for the record, I got together with David Weyner, the person who signed me for RCA, and he expressed an interest in having me listen to some of the remixes of things that were done mostly in the pop world, actually," said the pianist. "That was an inspiration too. I said 'Oh, great. I'd like to write a few tunes and have somebody maybe do something with them.' Of course, preserving what I've done."

Success?

"I liked them. I really did. In fact, when I play live my drummer [Satoshi Takeishi], who also dabbles in the DJ thing for some tunes, we do some of the remixes. Of course, they are longer and there is room for more improvisation, but we're doing them and it's a lot of fun."

"For people that have followed my body of work, they see that I have different sides that are all true and strong. And they are all genuine. Probably what I love doing the most is just playing the piano and playing jazz and all that, which I decide to do for most of the recordings. But there's a way that the composer, the writer, does not essentially have to be into a jazz thing. Another side of me comes out. Different influences. A little bit of R&B, and different things that are me. And this particular record was not about, 'Look, this is the way I can play the piano.'"

It's a satisfying album that can be just the ticket for those relaxing times. "A Volta" is an attractive melody with vocal overdubs; not complex, but silky and soft. "Apareceu" is a soft, arresting ballad and "Manhattan" a swaying and bouncy Latin-tinged picture of the city. Elias' piano is not intense on numbers like "Where Did You Go," but there are lush harmonies and intricate phrasings – stories told in a different way, but told well.

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.

"It's not easy," she said. "But that was a special project. I knew it was one special thing I was going to do singing. That actually was my own idea, because fans were constantly asking me, when I play live, 'Please sing something. Please sing something.' So I figured, OK, I'm going to do one special project singing. What would it be? And I started looking for material and it happened that Jobim tunes were the ones I said, 'OK, this I can do. I feel them. I know them inside my heart.' It's something I felt comfortable doing. I'm so familiar with them and where they come from."

Such is the flexible nature of Elias' muse. The music can be soft and romantic, or up-tempo hard bop with high-level improvisational, like on Everything I Love , music that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from the new CD.

"Oh, completely," she acknowledged. Everything I Love was "improvisatory and whatever happened. On that record, one of the tunes, the engineer was asking, 'Give me some sound. Just play anything.' I think it was 'If I Should Lose You,' we [DeJohnette and Johnson] just happened to play whatever happened. And at the end, we all went, 'Wow, that was so cool.' He said, 'Well guess what? I recorded it.' So that was the spontaneity of that recording, to go to the studio and capture the spirit of things I do live, which are things that happen at the moment."

"And I love doing that. That's one big side of me and it's a big side of me that shows at my concerts, but I incorporate some of the other things as well — the Brazilian, the singing, and now the remixes," she said.

Elias has been touring through the year with her own group, as well as with a collection of players performing the music from Calle 54, the soundtrack from director Fernando Trueba's documentary film on Latin jazz that was nominated for a 2001 Grammy in the Best Latin Jazz Album category.

Around the holidays, she said, there will finally be some breathing room But even then, her sights will be on the next project, the next musical step.

"I'm going to be writing for the next month or two months preparing for the new CD for RCA. I have some ideas. I just have to put them on paper and see if everything comes through they way I want it to. It should be something interesting," she said with a glimmer.

Visit Eliane Elias on the web at www.elianeelias.com .



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