4 Apr

Eliane headlining Wiltshire Jazz Festival this summer

Tell your boss he needs to sort out his Skype!” says jazz star Eliane Elias, pointedly but with a laugh, before she says a rushed goodbye. Skype, as you know, is a computer programme that allows you to make free video or “telephone” calls via the internet. Now, with this wonderful piece of technology, Eliane in New York and I (in Dinton) have been trying to connect for a full half hour. We resort to the telephone.

Eliane’s reputation goes before her. The sultry posters of this tousled blonde advertising her headline appearance at the Wiltshire Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 9 are scattered around our office – and the county. I know that she can sing more sexily than any other mere mortal, I know that she can really play the piano, and I know that she is a composer. I also know that she has famous feet (but more about that later). What I do not know is why she is breaking her schedule of big-time gigs in places such as Rio de Janeiro, New York, Vancouver and St Moritz to come and star at Wiltshire Jazz Festival – and why it is her only UK tour date.

“You’re right, we’re not performing everywhere. Wiltshire Jazz Festival is a special event, both for us and for you guys,” says Eliane, adding “I have heard how beautiful Wiltshire is. I haven’t visited before but I am very much looking forward to the festival.”

Eliane has not really answered my question but I suspect the persuasive powers of editor in chief Mark Allen, whose baby Wiltshire former Brazilian culture minister and guitarist Gilberto Gil. The songs are sung in English and Portuguese.

I love the music but it is not until I watch a You Tube video that accompanies the Light My Fire album that I become hugely excited that I am actually going to get to see this woman perform live. The film shows a warmly lit studio. Eliane, wearing combat-patterned trousers, sits at the piano playing the Brazilian notes of Toda Menina; her deft fingers strike at the keys with force and yet they race up and down the scales with incredible agility. This is gifted playing with an energy that you can just feel surging forth. Looking at her here, I wonder where did she come from? How did she get here?

I find that Eliane comes from Sao Paolo in Brazil. “I grew up listening to music. My mother played classical pieces and had a big collection of jazz records. This was Brazil so music was on the radio, on the television and in the streets,” remembers Eliane.

She came from an affluent background: her grandparents on her mother’s side were both opera singers and Eliane went to the best school in the country, beginning her musical studies at the age of seven and gaining access to the best music teachers. “By the age of nine or 10 I had a record player that ran on batteries; I took it everywhere. I was totally immersed in music, I loved it,” she says.

She was blessed to know exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up: become a musician. At the age of 21 she moved to New York: “It was the only place to be for the music I do. I used to look on the back of records and they would be recorded in New York, sometimes at a club; most of the musicians came from America.”

It must have seemed a scary place, I venture. “I didn’t find it scary at all,” says Eliane. “People who are born in America and speak the language are afraid to go to New York. I was a young girl who didn’t speak English but I thought New York was stylish. I was not intimidated and started going to jam sessions.”

Eliane joined the band Steps Ahead, which had a heavyweight line-up, and got international exposure. Her first album outside of the band was with trumpeter Randy Brecker, the father of her daughter Amanda. Combining American jazz with Brazilian bossa nova, her following grew and now here she is, many albums later and with many Grammy nominations, gold discs and fantastic reviews from the world’s press under her glittering belt.

Actually, it was not quite that simple. I wondered if being a woman in a man’s world had been difficult. Eliane is proud that she was the first woman instrumentalist on the cover of America’s respected Drumbeat magazine in 1982.

She recalls: “The jazz world when I started was mostly male, American and black, so as a blonde girl from Brazil I had everything wrong. I had to be more powerful, a stronger artist, to be mentioned, respected and embraced. In the end they said: “Wow! See that girl!” But when my daughter was little it was hard. I took her with me but I could not always get her out of school; there were a lot gigs I did not accept. When she went to college I said: “OK, this is it!” She keeps her family close still. Married to stellar double bassist Marc Johnson, who will perform with her at Wiltshire Jazz Festival, she also sings with her daughter Amanda on one of the tracks on Light My Fire. I ask if she has given Amanda any advice. “It is very hard to advise anyone about anything,” she says. “If she didn’t have talent I would discourage her, but she both sings and writes. I have my own doubts because in general it is a difficult life for a woman. If you do well, you are on the road a lot. I spent 190 days on the road last year.”

Luckily her constant companion, both on and off stage, is husband Marc. “I work with Mark 24/7,” says Eliane, “We have an affinity and sensibility so we work well together. People Claire Waring calls singer and pianist Eliane Elias, who is to star at Wiltshire Jazz Festival. Why this global jazz star gets cold feet… “ say ‘Why don’t you end up killing each other?’ but it’s not like that for us.”

The close to penultimate words, I feel, must be about Eliane’s feet. Journalists and fans have been fascinated by the fact that she performs barefoot. Prompted by our editor in chief, I ask why: “I wish I could give your boss a romantic answer,” she says, “but the truth is I play like a drummer. I dance to the music with my feet and move with the rhythm. It makes a noise on stage so as I wear heels I have a discreet way of taking my shoes off.” Eliane pauses to laugh, then says: “It is my trademark and photographers have even taken pictures of my feet, which they have sold.”

She tells me performing live is magical; it is emotive every time because of the nature of the music. She loves to connect and build an empathy with the audience.

Connecting with Eliane through her music is a given – and it is a lot easier than using Skype.

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