Eliane Elias: Something for Bill (Evans)

R.J. DeLuke By

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I was really enchanted by (Bill Evans') approach to harmony and also his melodic and lyrical playing. Besides that, the tone, the sonority that he had on the piano.
Eliane Elias The brilliant pianist Eliane Elias, who hails from the land of so much beautiful indigenous music, but calls American jazz her first love, has always been touched by the music of Bill Evans. It started at childhood.

"The first that I remember, I was about ten or eleven years old," she says, recalling listening to trio records her mother had around the house. "I was really enchanted by his approach to harmony and also his melodic and lyrical playing. Besides that, the tone, the sonority that he had on the piano."

Of course, there's a long list of those who play the 88's who have learned things from Evans. And not just piano players. Miles Davis was enthralled by Evans' touch and resourcefulness and, indeed, admitted planning the iconic Kind of Blue around the playing of the white pianist he once hired, against the protestations of other black musicians, to play alongside John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. The influence of Evans is widespread.

Evans wasn't the only influence on Elias as a young piano prodigy. Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock were among the others. But the intricate beauty of Evans' harmony and melody was a gift to the young girl. She transcribed his music and played a lot of it as a young woman gigging around her São Paulo home with just a bassist, whom she says admired the playing of Evans' bassists Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson.

Little did she know that gift would be far from the last.

The aforementioned Johnson, who also just happens to be Elias's husband, played bass in the last Bill Evans Trio, and for the last few years of the pianist's life, he thoroughly enjoyed nights with the ever-sensitive Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Evans was still on the road, ignoring his deteriorating health acerbated and somewhat created by years of drug addition, when he died at Mount Sinai Hospital on September 15, 1980. But road warrior that he was (Evans had started a weeklong gig at Fat Tuesday's, a popular New York City jazz club of the time, managing to get through the first two nights, September 9 and 10, before conceding he couldn't go on), he was still working on new music. Still looking ahead.

"About a week prior to his death, he gave to Marc a cassette that had some new material, some new things he intended to do," says Elias. "When he passed away, Marc didn't want to touch anything and wasn't ready for anything. He put it away and it was kind of left like that. Just about a year ago, he was going through some of his things, and he rediscovered the cassette that Bill gave to him, saying 'Here are some new things I d like to play.'"

"At that point, he gave it to me. On one side, it was mostly Bill practicing. On the other side, he had indications on the cassette about parts, where things are, what numbers, and everything. I found a tune that was almost finished, the one that I called 'Here's Something for You.'"

For Elias, whose playing is filled with an informed delicacy and rich in texture, it was a rare opportunity. It was a find, a first look at an unfinished gem that, perhaps, could be polished.

"It was so emotional, it was incredible. I had goosebumps, it was so beautiful. At that moment I got so excited," says Elias, deciding right away to start transcribing. But her thoughts raced even beyond that. "I thought it would be great to play some concerts, to do a tribute to Bill, play some of his music. Because it was really beautiful."

She asked her husband if he had other mementos—programs, photos, things from his touring days. Among them was a photo of Evans at the piano. She had also recently received a picture of herself in performance from Dizzy's Coca Cola Club in New York City.

"I was really excited. I got out of the house and went to Kinko's at, like, 11 o'clock at night, and found the graphic designer. I said, 'See this picture? Can you turn him around?'" She was visualizing a graphic with the two, both at the piano, facing each other, melded together. It came to pass, at first, that it would be for posters promoting a series of tribute concerts. "I visualized it [the cover picture]. I put that together and made a bunch of posters." Her people liked it.

Eliane Elias

It eventually became the cover art for Something for You; Eliane Elias Plays and Sings Bill Evans, her tribute to Evans recorded last summer and released in January on Blue Note records. The album sparkles and, naturally, has a special place in the hearts of her trio—her husband, and drummer Joey Barron.

But recording wasn't the first thing on her mind. Venues started to offer dates to perform the music, but Elias decided to move slowly. "I said wait, let's just keep this one date for now," which was the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island on August 12. Just prior to that, the music was recorded.

The band played that afternoon, a scorching hot summer day, at the waterside stage, one of two performance areas away from the main stage. The location didn't matter. The set was sparkling with songs written by and associated with Evans—like the new CD. Fans jammed the area and the trio, with Billy Hart on drums this time, flew through the music. Elias was in the moment, the music as hot as the weather at times, and as soft as the occasional breeze off the bay at others. She beamed as the audience roared its pleasure, and when the three stood to take a bow, broad smiles crossed all their faces. A labor in the heat, but worth it. She also unveiled "Here's Something For You," the haunting ballad that was sketched out on the cassette Johnson had rediscovered. It was warm and touching, and Elias, who can put mystery and romance into that type of song, was breathtaking.

"That was fun," she says, chuckling on the next to last day of 2007 from Brazil. "It was the first time. It was fresh. Newport was August. I recorded on July 1, 2, 3 and 4, so it was fresh. And we had Billy. He's such a beautiful drummer. It was really fun."

The timing was such that the department for which she had recorded two albums for SONY/BMG, Dreamer and Around the City, was gone. Rather than make a popish album, Elias wanted to go forward with the Evans project, and it was decided Blue Note would be contacted.

"It was a great emotion when we got together again—the record company, the executives, Bruce Lundvall. I started there, my very first recording. It was like the child coming back home," she says with obvious satisfaction. "They loved the idea. So we decided to do this first, which will be a first celebration of going back to Blue Note and doing something that goes back to my roots, but something really special. It's really not about marketing. It's not about concept. This is a real heartfelt, super special project for us."

The disk flies from the start, with a fast version of "You and the Night and the Music" that has the energy of a runaway horse, but Elias holds the reins and the trip is a delight. She is always in sync with Johnson, and Barron is a great foil for the bassist, both with the Elias trio and on numerous other projects, like those of John Abercrombie, Lee Konitz and pianist Enrico Pieranunzi. "Blue and Green" gets a different treatment. Not haunting, but spirited. Maybe even a tad funky, yet elegant—a thoughtful rendition with a refreshing change. "I Love My Wife" shows her sweet way with harmonies and melodies. On the delectable version of "My Foolish Heart," Johnson uses a bass that belonged to Scott LaFaro, Evans' other favorite bassist who died in an automobile accident at the age of 25—an event that took an emotional toll on the pianist.

Eliane Elias

The disc also has vocals, something Elias has become increasingly known for. "But Beautiful" harkens back to The Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Album of the 1970s. The title song, which Elias put a lyric to, is captivating. "Here's Something for You" is sung tenderly and with deep feeling. The piano support touches the right places. And the very last cut revisits the song with the intro taken from Evans' cassette as he plays the melody, in obvious glee, and then it melts into a brief vocal by Elias over her own piano as the song ends. It's great piano trio music and great for fans of Evans.

There was a wealth of material to choose from, she says, and the decisions weren't easy. She chose to give Evans' career some perspective, drawing from a spectrum of his entire career "from the very beginning to the very end. The very end was the newly discovered tune. The very beginning was a tune like â??Five' when he was more influenced by bebop—almost Monkish, in a certain way, that tune sounds—and bringing songs that were his compositions, as well as standards that became known to many, including to me, by his interpretations."

To get 17 songs on the CD, solo space was cut down, but creativity was not.

"I don't feel like I didn't improvise enough. I did what I had to do creating the music, but keeping the tunes a little bit shorter so that I could bring in more of the songs that I love. I love all of them, and I think people enjoy hearing them again, people that like Bill's work," says Elias.

As for the vocals, "The last four years I have been singing quite a lot. It's interesting. I heard one of my recordings from years ago, and it sounds like a different person. It was so shy, the way I used the voice. It was so different. It was just a special project when I did Dreamer, and then I started doing more and more, and I started feeling so comfortable, the place that I got with the voice, that I thought it would be interesting to do some of the songs with singing. Bill did like singers. He recorded those LP's with Tony Bennett. A tune like â??But Beautiful,' I actually heard it first, the way I most remember it, with Bill and Tony. So to me it just made sense that I would sing that song. Then a song like â??Waltz for Debby,' although Tony also sang that song, I was first familiar with instrumental versions of that song. But I really related to the lyric. It talks about a little girl, and me being the mother of a daughter, I really liked the story. Some people don't even know those lyrics are there. They're beautiful.

"And then on others that I also liked so much, I decided to do some vocals, and I am happy and proud of the way the vocals came out. They were done simultaneously with the piano, in the moment—it was integrated. I was happy to hear the voice got there, getting somewhere different."

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