Musically speaking, pianist/vocalist Eliane Elias is a one-woman United Nations. A native of Brazil, this former child prodigy is well versed in the work of artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim, whom she’s saluted on a pair of popular discs. But as is clear from the best entries in her extensive discography, she’s equally comfortable performing challenging classical compositions, and her knowledge of jazz is deep, wide, and impressive. Over a career that’s now in its third decade, she’s proven herself to be a strong and imaginative instrumentalist whose original tunes and interpretive numbers exude intelligence and passion in equal measure.
While Elias’ recordings have often focused more on her singing than her playing in recent years, her latest album, Something For You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans, evens the score. The disc teams her with drummer Joey Baron and bassist Marc Johnson (who’s also her husband) on material either written by or associated with Evans, one of her early keyboard heroes. Highlights include “Here’s Something For You,” the de facto title track, which is based on an unfinished musical sketch that Evans recorded on a cassette and gave to Johnson, his onetime bandmate, shortly before his death in 1980.
In conversation with JAZZIZ, the effusive Elias discusses her eclectic background and the impact Evans’ music had on her when, as a precocious child, she didn’t just play his music but transcribed it, too. From there, she talks about many of the personal touches that distinguish Something For You, from its cover (based on a postcard she and Johnson created during a late-night visit to a copy shop) to tracks that feature Johnson caressing a bass once owned by the late Scott LaFaro, which was last used in a recording during an Evans live set in 1961. She also provides a preview of her next project, which figuratively transports her back to Brazil.
Don’t expect Elias to stay there forever, though. When it comes to music, she’s a citizen of the world.
JAZZIZ: Is it true that as a child, you fell in love with jazz albums brought home by your father, who frequently traveled abroad?
Elias: That’s right. My mother is a great lover of music. She played classical piano, loved jazz, and had a great collection of jazz records that she played around the house. As a child, I asked my father to bring me jazz records while on his business trips, especially hard-to-find copies of records I saw in certain catalogs. Growing up in this musically eclectic household was quite different than it was for most children born in Brazil – or anywhere, for that matter.
What did your father do for a living?
He is a businessman. Nothing really to do with music. The musical side of the family comes from my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandparents. They were completely into music. They weren’t professionals, but they sang opera, and my grandmother wrote really beautiful songs and played beautiful classical guitar, too.
Was this the period when you first heard Bill Evans?
Bill Evans’ music was played in the house, and I fell in love with his playing. I don’t remember the first recording of his I heard, but I recall being taken with his approach to harmony and the interactive playing within the trio. Bill approached the trio conversationally. His piano had an orchestral quality – the voicings and the way he used the whole instrument. I hear in his playing influences coming from the romantic classical tradition, from composers like Chopin, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. In my opinion, the impressionistic quality of Bill’s playing differentiated him from the bebop players of his day. His approach to harmony and the sound he produced was something I was attracted to and it has stayed with me.
One of the things I’ve always admired about Bill Evans’ playing is its multiple levels. It can seem very accessible and simple on the surface, but the closer you listen, the more complex it gets…
He can sound deceptively simple, and for me as a child, it was something that seemed approachable to try to transcribe and play. But when you transcribe his playing, you notice the intricacies – the subtle rhythmic shifts and melodic colors. And that makes it so beautiful, the way he presents melody, harmony, and those inner voicings that move so tastefully. It’s so much more sophisticated than just about anything else that was happening at the time. Or even since.
Was it easier to understand those intricacies when you could see them on a page?
Yes, I could see all of that. For example, even the way he would play a chord with his left hand – how the voicings would move. Pianists sometimes play chords like boom! – a block of four notes or whatever. But Bill many times used three- or four-note chords, but one of the notes would be moving inside the chord, creating a counter melody with color, tension, and resolution. It’s hard to explain to you in words. But the feeling I had after transcribing his playing gave me such personal satisfaction, a sense of discovery. It was something that I really enjoyed doing. And so when Marc found the cassette of Bill, and I heard what he was working on at the very end of his life, of course I felt moved and compelled to transcribe it.
When you met Marc, did you remember that he had played with Bill in his last group?
Oh, yes. I knew, because I had some recordings. Coincidentally, I have played with several other musicians who also played with Bill. I had a trio with Eddie [Gomez] and Jack [DeJohnette], and they played with Bill. And I have also worked with Toots [Thielemans], and Toots played with Bill. And that was one of the ways I connected with Marc. We first connected musically because we had such similar influences and we liked so many of the same things. Marc loved Bill’s music, and he was very influenced by Eddie Gomez and Scott LaFaro’s playing as a young musician. He really loved that sensibility, where the bass was more in dialogue within the music than in the traditional jazz trio. It was part of his formation as a jazz musician, as it was with me.
Getting the chance to play Scott LaFaro’s bass on one of the new album’s tracks must have meant a lot to him.
It was really an auspicious moment for Marc and for all of us, the way it fell into place. Barrie Kolstein has Scott LaFaro’s bass in a vault at his bass shop. Some of Barrie’s clients who go there may be able to play the bass, but the bass doesn’t go out of the shop – and the last time it was recorded was for the Village Vanguard sessions made just before Scottie died. I love those recordings, with songs like “My Foolish Heart” and “Detour Ahead,” which we recorded for this project. So Marc was in the shop one day, and he mentioned, “We’re going to do a tribute to Bill Evans.” And Barrie said, “Would you like to have Scottie’s bass?” And Marc was like, “Sure!” We only had the bass for a short while, and Marc played it on “My Foolish Heart” and “Re: Person I Knew,” which is a bonus track for Japan. Having this bass was another ingredient that made the recording special for us, as did finding the cassette tape.
What was your reaction when you heard the piece you used in “Here’s Something For You”?
As I heard what Bill was playing for the first time, I had goosebumps. Right away, I decided to transcribe it – which, by the way, technologically, is so much easier to do now. When I was a child, I transcribed music with a record player. I would lift the needle, go back and write it down, then put the needle back again. But now, you can just put it on your computer and start and stop with your space bar. So I was in my music room with my headphones on, and as I wrote it all down. Every chord and everything he did became magnified in that moment. It was so artful – the voicings and the way they moved. And too, there was Bill’s own voice making comments about the composition to someone who must have been there near him. By the time I finished the transcription, I was nearly in tears. I experienced the joy and emotion and fulfillment that I thought was only for a child first discovering something. But 30-something years later, this moment inside Bill’s music took me back to that place.
Was that the moment you decided you wanted to make a tribute recording?
The first thought I had was to play the music live. I said to Marc, “We should go out and book some dates and play a tribute to Bill.” We both got very excited about the idea and we decided to make a poster that my booking agent could use. This was late – ten o’clock at night, or 10:30 – and I said, “Marc, what do you have of Bill’s? Do you have pictures or programs?” And he showed me this particular picture that he really liked, and we thought it would look great with a picture of me playing live that I’d just gotten from a photographer. So we immediately went to Kinko’s and made a composite, which we loved. And then we put a little blurb together and had some prints made and sent them to our booking agent, and the booking agent got tons of responses. Everybody wanted to book it. But by then, I had to say, “No, no, no.”
Because I was still promoting [2006’s] Around the City, and I was tied to Sony BMG contractually – and they didn’t have a department to market something like that. My division closed, and I would’ve had to go in a more pop direction if I stayed with them. But my contract was ending and I was talking to different companies. I took the idea to two executives who were close to me for 16 years while I was with Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall and Hitoshi Namekata, and they loved it and wanted me to make an album. So, in the end, I just kept one concert – the JVC Newport Jazz Festival, which was the first time we played this music live. But we were still able to use our design concept for the cover art. The record company had seen it, liked it, and decided to stay with it. Everything for the recording happened somewhat like that – serendipitously. It unfolded very gracefully. This recording is so much from our hearts. It’s so wrapped up in our emotion and our love for the music.
In addition to using the music you discovered for “Here’s Something For You,” you also incorporated your own music and lyrics. Was that at all intimidating for you? Or did you feel the personal connection so strongly between you and Bill that it almost felt as if you were collaborating with someone sitting beside you?
It was not intimidating at all. It was like what you said – a collaboration. I know Bill’s playing, and from knowing his playing, I believe I know some of his thinking about music, and I feel his heart – and I think he would have enjoyed this. But at first, there was no intention to write words for the song. The arrangement had been conceptualized already. I was going to start the song by playing the transcription in a slightly modified way, giving myself some artistic license, and then bring in Marc and Joey [Baron] and play the song as a trio. The arrangement was done, and I was moving on to other things.
But for some reason, the tune really stayed in my head, and one day I was in the kitchen preparing something to eat and I started going – [she hums the melody] – and then I went [she sings], “Here’s something for you.” I didn’t even have a title for the song at that point, but it just came out, and so did the next line: “Where or when it finds you.” And after that, I ran to the piano. I didn’t walk. I ran to the piano and got some music paper, and I changed the key, because the key he had was too high for my voice. And from there, the song just happened. It was really a moment of inspiration. I worked on it for a couple of hours, and that was it. I told Marc, “We’re going to change how we’re going to do this. We’re going to call it ‘Here’s Something For You.’”
How did you choose the other material?
I really wanted to cover his whole career and give people an overview of everything that he had done from beginning to end. So we have a song called “Five,” which was one of his early compositions. It’s quite Monkish – with rhythm changes, and some bebop influences. So we started from there and ended with some of the last things he wrote, like “Here’s Something For You” and “Evanesque,” which I also transcribed. The whole first part of “Evanesque” you’ll hear is exactly what Bill played. We recorded the first part of the song in 4-4, but the tune wasn’t a good vehicle for soloing. It didn’t really call for that. So I wrote a whole middle section creating different chord progressions that traveled with a kind of repetition of the melodic motif of the last few bars of the song. And at that moment, we switch to 3-4 and stay in 3-4 to the end of the tune. Going from 4-4 to 3-4 is one of the devices Bill used – he liked to do that when he performed live, changing meters. So I thought that would be something interesting.
What was the balance you tried to strike between instrumental presentations and songs with vocals?
We put in some signature pieces of Bill’s, like “Waltz for Debby,” which I thought was especially interesting because of the lyrics. Being the mother of a daughter, I can really relate to them – to the lyrics about a little girl who grows up, and when she goes, her dolls will cry, and they’ll miss her, and so will I. Of course, Bill didn’t sing, except for this little recording you might have heard of him singing, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” He sings that so cute! But he really liked singers, and he did recordings with Tony Bennett. So I thought it would be nice to revive the song and also include the lyrics – and I thought the same thing about “A Sleepin’ Bee.” I was looking for an uptempo song, and I remembered that Bill had recorded it with Jack and Eddie live at Montreux – and I also remembered that Nancy Wilson recorded it on that album with Cannonball. I thought, “This will be nice to sing.”
Over the years, vocals have become a lot more prominent in your work…
My voice is the latest addition to my musical life, and I’m so happy to hear the evolution of this instrument. I never really prepared myself to be a singer or thought of myself as one. I really concentrated on the piano – and when I first started singing, I was a bit shy about it. But it’s become more and more a part of what I do, and I confess that I’m proud of what I did vocally on the Bill Evans recording. I think the voice has arrived somewhere else after these last few years of singing in concerts. That’s the way I sing now, and it’s opened a new world of things I can do.
You’re such a virtuoso player that I understand why you might be tentative about the vocals at the beginning. Do you feel your vocal ability is on par with your playing ability at this point?
It’s such a different instrument. With the piano, I don’t feel any boundaries, I don’t feel any barriers. The piano is really a continuation of my body, of my soul. I can sit there whether I’ve got a fever, whether I haven’t gotten any sleep, and if you want me to play a classical concert that minute, I can do it no problem. But the voice is a much more delicate instrument, and it has a very characteristic sound. It’s not a big voice, not a huge-range voice, but I’ve learned to travel through harmony and melody as a musician would, and I look forward to seeing what more is going to happen with it.
What’s the next project you plan to tackle?
A recording of Brazilian music. This year is a celebration of 50 years of bossa nova. It’s the year songs like “Desafinado” and “Chega de Saudade” and “Ipanema” were launched – and this music is so very implanted in me. So the next album is going to be all bossa nova, and I’m making it with the greatest team. We have Paulo Braga, who is the father of modern Brazilian drums, and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, who’s legendary and is also an originator of the bossa nova movement. And Marc is a virtuoso bassist who has been performing with me now for over 20 years and has absorbed so much of the Brazilian music. He has an amazing sound and a great feel. The recording is going to have some strings, like Dreamer did, and like so many of the great bossa nova recordings that influenced all of us, and it’s going focus on my voice. It’s really coming out beautifully.
It sounds like a nice change of pace from the Evans album.
It is. I feel so blessed, being a native of Brazil and living this music 24/7 while I was growing up. This music is part of my roots, my natural heritage. I toured and recorded with some of the creators of bossa nova starting at age 17. I also had the good fortune of being born into a home where there was such a great love for jazz, where there was such great music playing in the house, and where I received a wonderful classical foundation, too. All of these things are a part of me. I feel like I’ve been given a great gift.
Written by Michael Roberts & Photography by Tom LeGoff of JAZZIZ Magazine