Eliane Elias: For The Love of Jazz

Jim Worsley BY

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Music, like life, evolves and changes. It is not complacent. There will always be new and fresh avenues to explore. There is just this fountain of musical ideas to be excited about.
—Eliane Elias
Grammy award winner. Child prodigy. Internationally renowned artist. Sophisticated and improvisational jazz pianist. A vocalist of style and grace. A woman of beauty and integrity. Yes, I am speaking of Brazil's gift to the jazz world, Eliane Elias. To be so fortunate to recently speak with this remarkable woman was a treat and memorable moment in time. We spoke about the past, present, and future. We certainly talked about her superb, and soon to be released, new album. We spoke about a great many things. Although most interesting in subject manner, it was the sincerity and genuineness of her words that took center stage. Appreciative. Forward thinking. Love of life and music. The sweetness, kindness, tenderness, and truthfulness in her music is an acute representation of the natural authenticity of the woman herself.

All About Jazz: It's 1987 and you are about to record your first record, Illusions (Denon, 1986), as a solo artist. In the studio with you are Steve Gadd and Stanley Clarke. Was that at all intimidating or did it give you confidence knowing that you had such a formidable rhythm section?

Eliane Elias: Actually, and that was 1985 when we did the recording. In 1987 I recorded with Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez. I was not intimidated. I was a child prodigy and have been around great musicians all my life. I felt very comfortable, and was glad to have them, as I knew they would like my music. They all loved it and it worked out very nicely. I had been playing with Gomez before and he suggested Gadd. I was certainly familiar with his work and just knew it would be a good fit. Stanley Clarke was beautiful too. It all came together very well.

AAJ: In being a child prodigy, you were way ahead of the game.

EE: Yes, when I was sixteen years old, I was the head of the piano department of the best school of music in Brazil. I graduated early and was teaching classes in improvisation. I started playing in a trio and ultimately toured for three years in a larger ensemble with Vinicius De Moraes. There was no one bigger than him at the time in terms of being a great lyricist. I became skilled in arrangements and in touring. This was a dream opportunity in itself. But I knew that I wanted to go to New York. I felt that I was prepared to move on to the next level. When I came to New York, it felt very natural and I was embraced by the jazz community. I was welcomed and appreciated, so I didn't have to deal with insecurities or any of that.

AAJ: Unlike most people, you knew at a very early age exactly what you wanted to do. You knew that you were going to go to New York City and pursue a career in jazz from the time you were a child.

EE: Yes, and it was like a dream come true. I had listened to so many records and transcribed so many records. I had played along with these records. So then to be able to play with these artists was, yes, just a dream come true. There is that little bit of tension to know that you want to get it just right. But usually only one or two takes to keep it fresh with the natural improvisation.

AAJ: I'm sure many people know, but perhaps others don't, that you had a record that you co-led prior to your first record as a solo artist. That has to be a very special record for you. Maybe you could tell us about it, as if it were just coming out right now.

EE: If the record was coming out right now, I would be holding my daughter in my arms (with a laugh of happy remembrance). It was, and still is, very special. I did that record with Randy Brecker. We were married at that time and named the record Amanda (Passport Jazz, 1985), after our baby daughter. I was nine months pregnant at one point during the recording process. Sometimes I could barely breathe but was singing anyway (laughing at the memory). Randy loved my voice and really wanted me to sing on that record. It was a beautiful time.

AAJ: Named after your daughter, who has gone on to her own successful career. This would be as good a time as any to brag a little bit on Amanda Brecker. You must be very proud of her.

EE: I am extremely proud of her. Randy is too, of course. Randy and I will always be good friends. Amanda, though, has such talent. We knew it, believe it or not, when she was only one month old. She would sing the last note to complete a phrase. We couldn't believe it. She was in the right key. We could change the key and she would go there. Of course, she has the music in her genes. Not just Randy and I, but grandparents and so many other family members. She is very talented. She plays the guitar. She plays the piano. She sings beautifully. She is a wonderful composer.

AAJ: She was certainly raised in a musical environment, just as you were. What can you tell us about your childhood in Sao Paulo, Brazil?

EE: It was a beautiful time. Bossa nova was exploding. It was everywhere. You could hear it on the radio, on the TV, in the streets. A lot of great music going on at that time. I was fortunate to be born with the talent, but also my mother recognized it early on and made sure that I had the best instruction that I could have. It was a wonderful environment. She had quite a collection of jazz records and she also played classical piano. We had a very wide spectrum of musical culture. It was just great.

AAJ: What jazz artists did you mostly listen to back then that inspired you and/or that you just really enjoyed listening to?

EE: Oh, so many different artists. I was like a sponge taking it all in. I suppose I would say the composers, the many great Brazilian composers. I listened to a lot of classical music and transcribed so much of it. But with the jazz, Oscar Peterson for sure. Then I started listening to Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, and all of that. I started very quickly when I was very young. I did so much transcribing. I love the songs that Antonio Carlos Jobim was composing and others at the time. So many, I just took it all in.

AAJ: So, you are 21 years old, you don't speak English, you don't know anyone in the United States, you have the difficulty of saying good-bye to your family, and you head to NYC. That had to be a bit frightening yet exhilarating at the same time.

EE: Well, you don't know for sure how things are going to go. But you have a dream and you go for it. What I did have was the language of the music. I was a professional and was ready to be in with the great players. And that's what I did. Music is the language along with the elements of improvisation.

AAJ: It certainly worked out well for you and for the legions of fans that you have.

EE: Yes, I have had the opportunity to play and create music. It happened very quickly. I left my family and friends for the music and I continue to feel that love of music. I am happy to wake up every morning and create something. I love to perform. I love to bring music to the people and bring something into their lives.

AAJ: How did it come to be that you played with Steps Ahead?

EE: I had some music that I was going to record. I had met Eddie Gomez and I showed him the music. Eddie really liked it and suggested Michael Brecker and Peter Erskine, along with himself, to record it. So, we did that, and without trying to, I became part of the band because they wanted me to. They liked the way I played and thought I was a good fit, so we did that for a while.

AAJ: With the exception of Amanda, your records for a number of years were all instrumental. You have such a lovely voice and wonderful phrasing, why did you wait so long before you started adding vocals to your records?

EE: I have always thought of myself as a pianist first. I didn't really want to sing at the beginning. I so love the instrumental aspects of arranging and improvising. Later I started singing to help tell the stories. I love to sing. But I will always think of myself as a pianist.

AAJ: That said, is there ever a chance that you might throw caution to the wind and record an all instrumental album again?

EE: Oh yes, I would love to do that. So many different projects and ideas in my head. If I could just find the time to do it all.

AAJ: Someone once said, "So much music, so little time."

EE: Oh yes, that is so very true.

AAJ: Your new record, Love Stories (Concord, 2019), is a significant chapter in your ongoing book of breezy and romantic jazz records. It's beautifully performed and arranged. What was the mindset and/or concept heading into this project?

EE: Well, it is interesting in that we are speaking about time. About the time I started working on the concepts for this record, I was immobilized from an accident at my home. We had a major plumbing issue and our house flooded. With all of that going on, I fell and hurt my left shoulder and arm. I couldn't move around much and certainly couldn't play my piano. I needed to stay put, so, fortunately, I was able to focus and write in a different manner. I was figuring out the material and the lyrics with pen and paper and my right hand, instead of writing on the piano. Being in that state, the material seemed to come out in a very organic and natural manner. I have always been attracted to songs that speak about love. Most of the songs are about romantic love. But sometimes they are about taking a chance. Sometimes a hopeful love. Other times, more of the anguish and those sorts of feelings that we all go through. In relationships, sometimes there are disappointments. Maybe taking a chance or maybe trying to keep a love alive. So many different things that are all part of love. Then too, the harmonic arranging comes together to tell the story as well. If you are paying attention when you listen, you will hear that every time there is a musical connection to the story that is being told. This record is about the interpretations of love stories, the arrangements, the instrumental, and the voice. All of this coming together to tell the stories.

AAJ: Yes, what I heard is a connectivity of the story as if chapters in a book. As opposed to, here's a song and now here's another song. It was a continuous story. And, indeed, the instrumental aspect worked to broaden and enhance the mood of the stories.

EE: Oh, that is so wonderful to hear you say that, Jim. That was very much the idea. It makes me very happy to know that you heard it that way. When I arrange, I try to capture the emotions and feelings involved. On this record, for example, I sang all the lyrics in English. Certainly, that reaches a lot of people. But for those who don't speak English, it is important that they can still feel the emotions and the mood that is going on at that time.

AAJ: With so many classic love songs to choose from to help tell the Love Stories, what was your process in selecting the tunes that you did?

EE: They are always songs that make me feel deeply. When I am working on, or recording a classic love song, I sometimes get goosebumps and butterflies in my stomach. That is when I know I really have something special and that I have put myself into it. I work like that. I have to really feel it. I would never record a song I don't feel. I have been fortunate to have several great composers tell me that my interpretation of their song is their favorite version of all time. That is such a wonderful compliment, and it gives me the confidence to do more and know that I am tapping into people's emotions.

AAJ: That has to feel amazing. What bigger compliment could you ever receive than that?

EE: It is so very gratifying. Incredibly so. It feels amazing. As an arranger, it is just so very gratifying.

AAJ: One of the many standouts of the record is what you did with "Come Fly with Me." A tune that, of course, is so synonymous with Frank Sinatra.

EE: I love Frank Sinatra's music. This is a tune that I was very excited to record. It actually worked out to be an excellent example of what we sound like playing live with the smaller group. There is so much beautiful interplay between the piano, the bass, and the drums. It showcases that sound very well. I stretched more on the piano than on the other tunes and we had a great groove going on.

AAJ: Your own composition, "The Simplest Things," is very much a highlight of the record. Mature in its message and rich in its presentation, it is relatable and thought provoking. This is a gem that you must be very proud of.

EE: Thank you for that. I'm really thrilled for you to say that. Again, that is exactly what I was trying to convey. When I wrote this, I looked back at all the years. All the years that so many of us have had. It talks about love in many perspectives and the many changes over the years. I put a lot of heart into this one. I had tears of emotion while writing this song.

AAJ: It's one thing to be able to feel that genuinely and deeply. To be able to translate that feeling, express it, and have others feel it as well is a special gift. I'm sure I can speak for many of your fans when I thank you for sharing that gift with us.

EE: Oh, such a wonderful thing to say. Thank you so very much for that.

AAJ: Getting back a little bit to the process, how do you go about integrating the lush orchestration with the nuances of your jazz ensemble?

EE: We record the songs with the small ensemble first.

AAJ: That makes sense since there will be improvisations and changes in the jazz core.

EE: Yes. I leave space where I know I want to have orchestration. After that I work with Rob Mathes on the orchestral arrangements. That is a whole entire different process. We recorded at Abbey Road studio. That is such a special place to record. A special place just to be. It was really a joy. Such a wonderful vibe there. Rob Mathes is a fantastic arranger. We have this musical marriage. We really understand each other. He knows what I want and has such beautiful ideas.

AAJ: When do you start your tour in support of Love Stories with your quartet?

EE: Very soon. We will be in Chicago, New York, Canada, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston among others. Then off to Europe and Mexico. This will be September through December. We will take a break and then do another leg of the tour in different cities.

AAJ: Do you play Phoenix?

EE: Yes. We will be at the Musical Instrument Museum in March.

AAJ: Such a great venue. I love that place.

EE: Isn't it though? Yes, it is a very nice place to play.

AAJ: Having your husband (who just happens to be bassist extraordinaire Marc Johnson) as the anchor of your quartet has to be fun and certainly keeps the music tight.

EE: Marc is wonderful with the grooves. I don't believe there is any other bassist that can do some of the things he does. I'm not just saying that because he is my husband. His input in the studio too. He oversees the sound engineering. He has such a great ear. He knows exactly the tone I need on any and every piano.

AAJ: I know he has played with a very long list of great artists but what always first pops into my head when his name is mentioned is in conjunction with the great pianist Bill Evans.

EE: Oh yes, such wonderful music.

AAJ: You have won multiple Grammys for your exceptional work. Most artists will say, although they appreciate the recognition, it isn't what it's all about. That other aspects are much more important. What aspects of your musical journey do you consider to be the most important and/or most rewarding?

EE: Well, I don't know any artist that has won a Grammy that doesn't list it at the top of their bio. So, it is a very important recognition from your peers and from the people. You are competing with hundreds, maybe thousands of other artists for recognition. So, it does mean a lot, no matter what anyone says. Now that is one side of the story. On the other hand, my love of music and my relationship with music is independent of that. It stands on its own. I love to perform, and I love to record, I love to bring something into people's lives. I want to be a part of their life. I want to be in their homes and in their cars. I want to be there when someone is alone and when they have their friends over. I want to reach and touch people all the time. That is very important to me.

AAJ: When you take stock of your career at this point are there concepts or "bucket list" artists that you would like to perform or record with that just haven't happened yet?

EE: (Laughing out loud) That is not a short list. There are so many. I have three different projects that I am working on. So many other instrumental and vocal ideas. There is just this fountain of musical ideas to be excited about. I am always working on it. Music, like life, evolves and changes. It is not complacent. I am not lacking in inspirations. I wish I had more time to work on all the things I would like to do. There will always be new and fresh avenues to explore. There is more to create. More to record. And more traveling to do. I love to travel (with a laugh).

AAJ: We then have much more to look forward to. In the interim, enjoy your tour, continued success, and thank you so much for talking with me today, Eliane. I enjoyed it immensely.

EE: It was such a pleasure, Jim. I enjoyed talking with you so very much. I really hope to see you at one of my shows.

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