BY RON NETSKY
When Eliane Elias moved from Brazil to New York City in 1982 she had dreams of breaking into the jazz world as a pianist. “I did not have intentions of becoming a singer,” says Elias. “My whole devotion had been to the piano.”
Initially, things went according to plan. She went to all the top clubs and hung out at jam sessions, making a strong impression at the keyboard every time she got the chance. It worked like a dream.
“I was immediately accepted by the jazz community and by the critics,” says Elias. “I was signed to Blue Note Records.” But by the time she recorded her first album, the secret was out. This pianist had a voice.
Sometimes she would use her voice as an instrument, and sometimes she would sing lyrics. At concerts she would sing a song or two, and the audience would always respond strongly.
“Eventually I was asked by a record company to do a special project featuring my voice. I did and it was so well received; everybody liked it. So I had to go out and sing a lot more live.”
Thirty years and two-dozen albums later, Elias has released “Light My Fire.” Although there is no shortage of wonderful piano playing on the CD, the focus is clearly on Elias’s sultry voice.
Growing up in Brazil, it was almost inevitable Elias would gravitate toward music. Her mother was a classical pianist, and Elias grew up listening to her practice. Her grandmother played guitar and composed songs. And there was no shortage of Brazilian music. “It was on the streets, the radio, the television – everywhere,” Elias says.
But not all of her influences were local. “I was fortunate because my mother had a great collection of jazz records,” says Elias. “I heard so much jazz around the house, probably more than the average American kid. It was playing all the time.”
She began taking classical piano lessons at the age of 7.
“When I was 11 years old, I was transcribing music from Art Tatum, from Bud Powell. Then I moved into Bill Evans,” says Elias. “I loved his harmonies, and Herbie [Hancock], I loved his inventiveness. Oscar Peterson – these are very strong influences.”
As for singing: Brazilian music is primarily vocal music, says Elias, and the singers were mostly composers who sang their own songs, like Antonio Carlos Jobim.
“I met Jobim for the first time when I was 17 years old,” says Elias. “ In fact, I worked with his co-writer, Vinícius de Moraes, for the last three years of his life. He was the greatest poet Brazil ever had.”
The last project Jobim was going to play on was saxophonist Joe Henderson’s “Double Rainbow” album. When Jobim became too sick to participate, he chose Elias to replace him at the piano.
By the time she came to the United States at the age of 21, her keyboard chops were strong.
“When I look back, it’s almost a fairy tale,” says Elias. “It was like a puzzle and I see all the pieces falling into place, because I moved to New York and I didn’t speak much English but I felt very comfortable in the city. I felt that the city was cute and small and safe compared to where I came from. São Paulo is huge.”
“I started by going to clubs to hear the names that I was used to hearing on records,” says Elias. “I would introduce myself and give them a cassette of my music. It didn’t take more than that. The word went around New York, and I was invited to join Steps Ahead.”
Although she found herself in one of the top fusion groups in jazz, Elias continued taking classical piano lessons.
“It was more for developing technique, the ability to have an idea and have the technique and the sonority, which is so important. The beauty of some works to me as a composer and arranger has been extremely important. To do works by Ravel, Debussy, Bela Bartok, things that I play for my own pleasure – that has been influential too.”
The decision to focus on vocals has made a difference in Elias’ current repertoire.
“‘Light My Fire’ would not have been a song I would have chosen to perform on my instrumental albums,” says Elias. “When I put together the concept, I knew certain qualities I wanted to bring to music. One was to use the instruments more like sound architecture, where you create colors. Not everybody plays at the same time; elements come and go. I wanted something that would be a little bit more on the cool and sensual side.
“‘Light My Fire’ was a hit everywhere. I always liked the tune. When I was coming up with the concept for the record, I put my hands on the piano and played just the way you hear on the record, very sultry. Immediately I said, Wow, I’d like to record this tune. It’s done like a very slow bossa.”
When she decided to record Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” she opted for a vocalese rendition.
“It was such an iconic song,” says Elias. “I thought why not bring the Brazilian element to it and slow it down. Then I checked the lyrics, and I just couldn’t relate to them. But I still wanted to do the tune. I heard that Dave Brubeck heard it and loved it.”
At this point, Elias has a truly international career. She has counted 64 countries she has performed in on four continents. “It’s so wonderful to take the music to all the different cultures,” she says. “Different people are all touched by the music in a similar way.”
But perhaps the person most touched by the music is Elias herself.
“There are some moments that are beyond what one can expect in terms of creativity when I’m performing live,” she says. “I am almost a vehicle. I’m listening together with everybody. Things just flow. There’s no separation, nothing blocking; it’s completely open between the creative state and my hands into the piano. Those things are sublime.”
The Eliane Elias Brasileira Quartet performs at 6 & 10 p.m. Wednesday, June 27, in Kilbourn Hall. Tickets cost $25 or you can use a Club Pass.