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Eliane Elias: Sweet Vocals Join Splendid Piano

By Published: September 21, 2004

The singing adds something to my show. The piano is there, but (singing) is another thing to bring to the audience.

Take a virtuoso pianist, add deep musical and rhythmic sensibilities, toss in a generous amount of adventurous spirit and you have Eliane Elias, who has been wowing U.S. audiences and musicians since 1981. She had been knocking out musicians and fans in her native Brazil for many years before that.

Now add to the mix soft, supple vocals delivered through a rich and sensuous voice. What you have now is the Elias who has decided to broaden her appeal and expand the possible musical paintings she can create by becoming a singer. It's not a new Eliane Elias. It's a new attitude. And her new CD, Dreamer , with a generous helping of sensual vocals, as well as orchestral support, is climbing up the charts.

According to Bluebird Jazz, which put out its second Elias recording this year, Dreamer was in the top 10 of jazz radio charts, climbed to be the number 3 jazz album in France— as well as reaching the top 20 on French pop charts—and won a Gold Disc Award in Japan.

Elias has used her voice before, sparingly on some of her many fine Blue Note albums, and extensively on her Eliane Elias Sings Jobim project in 1998. But the latter was a special project, sung mostly in Portuguese. Her voice has always been appealing. But until recently, she had always considered it as an augmentation to her piano playing and musicianship. Dreamer is her first recording almost entirely in English, comprised of some American classic songs and a couple originals. It is exquisitely delivered. The process of producing it changed this student of jazz.

"On that one ( ...Sings Jobim ), the pianist was singing. Here, I am a singer with piano accompaniment and sometimes a solo. But it's more a singer's record first. The voice is in a different place. I really took it in a different way," she says. The new CD "was made to use the voice more. It was very interesting' Every one of the lyrics had to touch me in a different way. It's a singer's album."

How much does she love it?

"It's here to stay. Whatever I do in the future, it will always have singing. And that surprised me' I'm so comfortable now. It's really fun. In communicating to the audience, it moves it up that extra notch. It's exciting," she says, adding: "There's some special connection you have with your audience when you bring in words. It's quite interesting and I love it."

The album contains songs like "That's All," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads," and "A House is Not a Home." "Call Me" is a haunting hymn of comfort and companionship and "Doralice," one of the few songs in Portuguese, is a delightful romp in which she pays tribute to saxophonist Stan Getz, who recorded this song on the Getz/Gilberto album with Joao Gilberto, by playing a direct transcription of the sax solo on the first chorus.

"If you look at my body of work, some albums focus on the virtuoso aspect of piano. Some (like 2002's Kissed by Nature ) on writing and compositions," says Elias. " Dreamer has a lot of piano, but it's not the main focus. It goes around the singing. Different projects are different ideas and I like that."

Elias has had many influences in her piano playing: Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Nat Cole, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and more. She's also influenced by music from the likes of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. But for singers, especially American songs, she admits she hasn't listened to that many over the years. Her style is unlike any of the Americans. Even though many will compare her to Astrud Gilberto, it really isn't the same except for a Brazilian accent and a breathy delivery.

"I didn't listen to a lot of the (jazz) singers. Of course I heard Brazilian singers growing up, like Joao Gilberto. He's an influence. But I didn't listen to a lot of singers. I've been doing that more recently. The one I really love is Frank Sinatra. I think he is it."

For those that dig Elias as one of the very best of today's jazz pianists: Fear not. This extraordinary musician doesn't intend to give up the instrument she has been playing since about the age of 7.

"Piano is my first love. I am always a pianist first," she says. "The singing adds something to my show. The piano is there, but (singing) is another thing to bring to the audience." And the American art form supercedes even the harmonically and melodically rich music of her homeland. "Jazz is my first love. Always." In concert, it's clear she is still a top-notch pianist, showing monster bebop chops and a penchant for lush Evans-like harmonies. She plays with passion and a flair for the instrument's dynamics, knowing when to soften up and when to burn.

In fact, she is one of the sidemen on the next album of bassist Marc Johnson, which comes out on ECM records next year that also features drummer Joey Baron, guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano. She also composed a couple songs for the album. "It's very representative for me of the work I do as a pianist and composer in jazz" showing her more virtuoso side.

The product of a musical household, Elias had access to American jazz records as a young child in Sao Paolo and listened to Tatum, Garner and others, transcribing solos and playing along with records. She studied at Sao Paulo's prestigious Free Center of Music Apprenticeship and by the time she was 15, was appointed music director of the piano department and was teaching master classes. At age 17, she was musical director for bands of Antonio Carlos Jobim. She worked steadily in Brazil came to the United States in 1981, where her reputation as a superb pianist spread fast in New York City. Soon, she was part of the band Steps Ahead. Over the years, in addition to her consistently fine recordings, she's had career playing with many of the greats.

Elias has been touring with a quartet in the United States and Europe all year, and that will continue into 2005, including stop in Asia. She doesn't carry an orchestra, but notes, "all of the basic arrangements were written for the quartet and the orchestra was added for color and to accentuate. No one will miss the orchestra. I stretch out more live than I do on record."

She's grateful for the success, especially in times when many talented musicians are having a hard time finding work. "So many name musicians with reputations cannot get club dates. In instrumental music, artists are being dropped my record labels because the music is not selling. It's sad. I hope it gets better' I'm glad I'm doing this (vocal CD) at this time. Who knows, it might have happened to me. What would I be doing?"

Elias also sees that in these times of war and economic hardship for many, music is needed "now more than ever... When I go to perform concerts. I am a musician, a composer, a pianist, a singer, but I'm also an entertainer. I see people so thirsty and so in need of being entertained' People want to have a good time, and entertainers should provide that."

"It's important to touch people's hearts with music, but also present something positive. There is a need for positives," she says.

Plans are in the works for another Bluebird Jazz CD and she is in the process of selecting songs and writing for the recording.

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Eliane Elias: Music for All Purposes

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