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 mementosprograms, 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.
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 trioher 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 Evanslike 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 againthe 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."