Eliane Elias: The Authenticity of the Groove

R.J. DeLuke By

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I want to be inside of [the listeners'] homes, inside of their cars, inside of their lives and bring to them whatever feelings they can experience. —Eliane Elias
"I was 22 years old and I told Toots Thielemans that I had some tunes I'd like him to listen to," says Eliane Elias, the Brazilian-born pianist, a child prodigy who rose to the upper echelons of music during her time in the United States. The discussion with the famed harmonica player came during a rehearsal in the 1980s. Bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Al Foster were there. They started in playing her tune "Moments."

"We would get to this place [in the melody] and [Thielemans] would stop and start choking up in tears," says Elias. "So we start again... He's choking up again. I'm starting to feel a little bit embarrassed. So he looks at me, and in front of everybody says, 'What did you go through to be able to write like this? What did you suffer to write like this?'"

Elias herself teared and blushed at that moment in an otherwise hushed room. "I did go through so much," she says softly, but emphatically, from her Long Island home on a frigid February day. She had arrived in the U.S. in 1981 and had played with the renowned band Steps Ahead by this time. This was after studying at Sao Paulo's prestigious Free Center of Music Apprenticeship and, by age 15, ended up teaching master classes there. From there she moved into a musical association with singer/songwriter Toquinho and Vinicius De Moraes, whose work with Antonio Carlos Jobim is iconic.

"You can't imagine a girl being 21 years old and leaving everything behind. I left my country. I left my culture, my parents. I left my siblings, my friends, my life to come for the music," she says. "I came to a new country, America. I didn't speak the language. I didn't know anyone. The only voice I had was the music, that I could present to people."

Present it, she did. Elias brings exciting music to every concert and every project. It might be an intense straight-ahead session with musicians like Jack DeJohnette, Marc Johnson, Billy Hart or Michael Brecker. It could be music with the Latin feel of her homeland and include the likes of Oscar Castro-Neves or Romero Lubambo. Ballads. Tunes with pop influences. Whatever it is, Elias plays with heart, passion and with a deep human emotion. It may carry joy, sadness, intensity, even child-like glee. She's also, over the last decade, added "chanteuse" to her resume, right next to world-class jazz pianist. Her sensual vocals add to all of her projects in recent years.

Looking back on that session with Thielemans, she says, "Believe it or not, I had written things in my 20s that were, in terms of lyrics in Portuguese, kind of mind-blowing. Because I was never 20. I was never 15. I went from probably age 12 to maturity. I did not have the teenager kind of life. I went from childhood to maturity. But what we do gain if life, all of us, is that nothing is static. We are constantly evolving. Life brings more and more experiences, things that we're going through. Speaking about lyrics, I choose to speak about something that is so important in my life. There's something related to the heart, to the feelings of people. Not just mine. Relationships. What people are searching for. Searching for love or searching for happiness or joy. Or lamenting choices that were made in a certain way. Or the dream part of it. Or the sensual part of it. All those different aspects. I talk about love. I talk about them with a lot more life experiences than I had then. But I did have plenty of heart and love experiences, even in my 20s. I went through a lot in my young age, in terms of emotion. I already had the depth."

Elias just released Made in Brazil on Concord Records that visits her Brazilian roots in a new way. She has weaved Brazilian music into many albums, and even done entire projects covering it. But her new recording looks at some of the songs in a different light, adding orchestrations, lush background vocals, and contemporary arrangements, all as a salute to her homeland. It's another outstanding creation, music she will be taking around the world in 2015.

"Made in Brazil starts with me being Brazilian. I'm made there," she says proudly. So was the basics of the music. She recorded it there—her first recording done in Brazil since she left the U.S.—with mostly Brazilian musicians (co-producer and longtime collaborator (Marc Johnson is on bass). Orchestration was added later. Elias was thoroughly involved with every phase, including six new compositions, the orchestrations, the arrangements, choosing the players and wearing the producer hat. A labor of love. The music of different moods and textures shines. She worked hard creating new songs and lyrics to add to some of her favorite songs from other writers.

"I love harmony. I always loved harmony and I studied it deeply. If I may say, I can use harmony to bring out the emotion that I feel," says Elias. "Then I add words to it. But words are supported by emotion that the harmony and the melody that has brought me to it. It's a combination of all of that. That's why people that don't understand the lyric, they still go to the concerts. They are sometimes caught in tears, or caught feeling emotional. It's because the combination of the whole thing."

"I find it something special to be able to do this. To have the vision and to bring this music and have the orchestrations really adds something so beautiful," she says. "It was a very, very special experience for me. I created all the music while I was in Brazil. Wrote all the music. Arranged everything. Then recorded all the basics. It's different. Being there at home. Hearing the sound of the Portuguese. It was summertime. There was a great vibe with the musicians. Everything was very special. And the music is our language, the language of everyone who played on the record. Very special... There was nothing that was done on the record I wasn't a part of and that I wasn't present for, and that reflects the vision that I've been carrying for the music."

This elegant musician has no problem balancing all those duties. "I am very, very focused. Too focused," she chuckles. "It was not hard to keep it focused at all because the music that is conceived first starts inside of me, inside of my head. What I like to hear. Doing it is just making it come to life."
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