ELIANE ELIAS: HER SONG OF SINGING
The Brazilian jazz pianist/singer talks about her new album Light My Fire and explains the difference between being a piano player and a singer
By Lee Mergner
Pianist and singer Eliane Elias has always incorporated her Brazilian roots into her music. Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Elias came to the US in 1981 and was soon working with the fusion band Steps Ahead. She thereafter began her solo career as a jazz pianist, combining Brazilian music with improvisational jazz. During that career spanning almost three decades, she’s also recorded and performed the music of Bill Evans and even classical composers. Since 1984, Elias has recorded over 20 albums and established herself as an accomplished jazz pianist and increasingly as a singer.
The singing is front and center on her new album Light My Fire, which features an all-star supporting cast including Gilberto Gil, Romero Lubambo, Oscar Castro-Neves and Randy Brecker, as well as her husband and long-time collaborator, bassist Marc Johnson. The breezy and sensual album features Elias singing (and playing) originals, classic Brazilian compositions and some interesting covers, including Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and the title song by Jim Morrison and the Doors. Elias talked with JazzTimes about the new album and how she has adapted to being a singer as well as pianist.
JT: Many people view you as a jazz pianist who recently started singing, but in fact looking back at your career, you’ve always sung.
Eliane Elias: The first time I did a record that had a lot of vocals was my very first one called Amanda which I recorded with Randy Brecker around 1984. After that I did a lot of vocalese, but I never really wanted to pursue a career as a singer. I used my voice as an instrument, as a color doing parts. I did that for several years.
When I did the Sings Jobim album that was all about singing, but I was in the mindset that the piano should be in front of the voice. So if you listen to the mix of the record, the voice is mixed a little under or a little back, because I was not comfortable with the idea of the voice being in front of the piano. That record did very well. Even before that, I had done maybe one or two songs on every album where I sang.
Then I went to RCA Victor, and they asked me to do a special project for them, because everybody seemed to like my singing. Live I usually would sing one or two songs in a set. In 1989, I did a ballad called “Don’t Ever Go Away” on Plays Jobim. The reason I sang on that is that I was showing Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette how the tune went and I was singing it to them. And they were saying, “You’ve got to sing on the record.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll sing but let’s do the instrumental version and I’ll do a little singing on it.” But that little arrangement became something that several music schools started using as an example of how to sing a ballad. I couldn’t quite get my mind around it.
Now I understand that they were looking for interpretation or a way of telling the story. I ended up being asked to do a record and the executive producers told me, kind of joking, “Look, we’re going to tie your hands behind the piano bench this time. Don’t play…we want you to sing. Would you do that?” So I had my few conditions, which were that I wanted to do Bossa Nova and I’d like to have a little orchestra like Joao Gilberto has done. And I did the one record, called Dreamer, in 2003.
The record did so well. It was my best-selling record, so I was faced with going out to sing and play. So I started to do a lot of that live. It started becoming comfortable and personal for me. Since that time, every record I’ve done as a leader has had a lot of vocals with the exception of the Bill Evans record [Something For You] that has maybe five out of 12 songs with vocals. I actually enjoy it now and I feel bringing in the singing has opened up a whole new horizon with things I can do. I have so many things now I want to do. It’s great in terms of adding another instrument and figuring out what can be done with that. It’s a whole new horizon that has opened up for me.
Nat King Cole had a similar experience where his vocals caught on and he ceased being known as a piano player who sang a little and became a singer who played piano too.
Nat had such a distinctive voice and I think that’s something that is very important for an instrumentalist who is also going to sing. Or for any successful artist, really; having your own sound and your own voice.
Do you think your phrasing as a singer is similar to your phrasing as a pianist?
It’s hard for me to be the judge. But as a musician singing, I know that it’s very musical and I am very comfortable rhythmically, first of all being Brazilian and having that facility playing around my singing. It’s the musician in me that is singing.
Are you like BB King who can’t easily play his guitar while singing?
I do a lot of playing with singing live—doubling the voice with the piano. The two really became very independent. I have moments where I play and don’t sing. And moments where I sing and don’t play. And lots of moments where I accompany myself.
Going into that sort of unconscious zone is what most instrumentalists want to do, so maybe singing has helped you with that.
Maybe, because it has happened so effortlessly. The only [problem] is that the piano has such a wide range of notes when you’re soloing. I don’t have such a big range with my voice [laughs]. But I can do a lot within my range.
Do you find yourself treating your body and voice differently now that you’re singing a lot? Singers have to be almost phobic about temperature and sickness and so on, because their instrument is in their throat.
I can go on and on about that—about dressing, eating, preparing and so on. You really have to protect yourself. When I was only playing, if I was tired or sick, I could still perform fine. But when you’re singing, it’s so different as far as preparation. The soundcheck has to be this many hours before the performance. I have to eat so many hours before the performance. And then there’s the kind of food I should eat. I have certain way to warm up and I have to start the concert at most one hour after I warm up. Sometimes I’m bothering everybody in the car on the way to the gig, because I’m doing my [vocal] exercises. I barely know what it’s like to go out without a scarf now.
No wonder so many singers end up being divas!
I’m very easy-going and I’m the most down-to-earth person, but now I have to be obsessed about air-conditioning and temperature and everything. So I’m not so easy any more. And don’t eat this and don’t drink that. It’s a trip. Some singers have the type of instrument that they can do anything before a show and still be great. Not me. I have to include a workout to keep my stamina and strength up.
This vocal preparation was all new to you. How did you learn to do it right?
Some of it I learned unfortunately by experience. I’ll give you an example. I have a home in East Hampton and I love going outside and going for a walk. I can’t now at this time of the year, because, with the pollen, I’ll get laryngitis.
This album gave you a chance to sing with Gilberto Gil who I assume was a favorite of yours growing up. And your voices blend so well together.
Yes, he has such a beautiful voice that blends so beautifully. This whole record was so joyful to make. It had and continues to have a life of its own. The recording was natural and organic. Even what happened with Gilberto Gil was like that. A few weeks before the recording session, I had all this material ready to go and I knew what I wanted to do. There was a particular tune called “Samba Maracatu” that I really felt should have a male voice to do a duet. I had sent two or three e-mails to Gil’s management, but I didn’t hear back, so I was going to give up on the idea. With one more effort, I tried calling him from an old listing I had in my address book. He answered the call. He was in the studio and he stopped everything. He was so excited about it.
I had this tune that I wrote [in 1988] with Gonzagaguinha [who died in 1991]. He is the son of Luiz Gonzaga who was the creator of baião, the rhythm [sings] cha-kane, chi-ki-ki-cho, cha-kane. That rhythm you hear when someone like Chick Corea plays more Brazilian. Gonzagaguinha’s father was the greatest influence in Gilberto Gil’s music. So when I brought up to him that I’d like to do this tune, he was totally into it. Then I told him I was doing another song of his called “Toda Menina Baiana”, and we’re singing together over the phone and finding out keys. So we’re both excited to do it.
At that point, I asked him, “How are we going to do this?” Because he’s in Brazil and I have the studio reserved for the recording for four days in October. Deep inside, I wasn’t very happy with the idea of doing it via overdubs and sending files back and forth, trying to make it sound together, because I really like being together in the moment with the musicians. He said, “No, we’ll do it.” I said, “But how?” He said, “I’m going to be in New York.” And I said, “When are you going to be in New York?” He said, “Well, I have a concert in Princeton on October 16 and then I’m going to visit my daughter in New York City on October 17 through 20.” The exact time I had booked the studio. I thought, “This was meant to be.” I had him come in on the 20th.
I quickly brought in these other tunes into the project, because I knew he was going to be in New York during that time. It was such a great experience. I know Gil for decades now. I was in New York when we first met, but we have been together in tribute concerts, we did a cut together for Special Olympics, and I did musical direction for his Avery Fisher concert. But this is the first time we were singing together, because with the other things, I was playing.
You also had Oscar Castro-Neves play guitar on the album.
I have no words that can describe the way Oscar plays. He plays this music so beautifully, with a lot of heart, a lot of beauty and such rhythm, to the point where I feel so comfortable not touching the piano and letting him have it.
There can sometimes be a clash with piano and guitar.
Our rhythm empathy is so great with the same feel. We get together before the recording session where we go over the harmonies and the voicings. And there’s no clashing at all. It was wonderful to have him play with us. And we also have Romero Lubambo on guitar. He’s a beautiful player. He did two tunes—“Take Five” and “What About the Heart (Bate Bate).” And we added electric guitar by Ross Traut who is a very soulful player. He played so beautifully on “Light My Fire.” And Randy [Brecker] played great on “Take Five.”
And Marc Johnson, I can talk about him for 15 minutes, not just because he’s my husband [laughs]. He’s always been a player who goes so deeply into the interplay. But somehow through the years, he’s absorbed so much of the Brazilian music that he takes care of the rhythm business, too. I don’t know of a Brazilian player who could do what he does. His virtuosity, his intonation, his taste… We work great together; he produces with me and we choose material together. It’s really a fun collaboration.
The album certainly is a family affair. Your ex [Randy Brecker] sits in, your current husband [Marc Johnson] is the bassist and your daughter [Amanda Elias Brecker] sings. First, how do you manage working with someone with whom you’re also living?
We get along great. We love the same things. We live of course for each other, but also for the music. It’s fantastic because even as kids, though we grew up so far apart, our musical influences and sensibilities are very similar. Our instruments go so well together. And we do things that people think we must have rehearsed, but it’s just our interplay. And we’re best friends.
Marc and I have been together for 20 years, but it’s more like we’ve been together for 85 years, because most couples have their separate jobs and their lives and they see each other in the evenings or on the weekends. But we are together 24/7. We have two computers side by side, we travel together, we cook together. It takes people who are sensitive and considerate to each other. It may not work for everyone, but it works wonderfully for us.
Next month we’re mixing Marc’s new record for ECM Records. It’s a beauty. It’s the two of us with Joey Baron, and Joe Lovano plays on a few of the tunes too. It’s all instrumental and all original, and it’s totally different than Light My Fire. It’s like another side of us. But, again, we do it together. If I was married to a drummer [laughs], it might not work so well. If he was a Brazilian drummer, and I wanted to do a straight-ahead thing, I’d probably prefer to have someone like Jack DeJohnette. And same thing if I was married to an American jazz drummer, I’d want a Brazilian drummer for my Brazilian projects. But Marc is special in doing both.
What led you to do the cover of the Doors tune “Light My Fire”?
That song was an international hit. It was a hit in Brazil too. I heard both the Doors version and Jose Feliciano’s version. And I heard Julie London’s version too. It was a tune I thought with the right project, it would be great to do. I thought that it could be a sexy, cool, slow thing—just the way we did it.
You also did “Take Five” a tune that it seems so many people have done, but you did something very different with it.
Yes, it’s an iconic tune. I feel very happy with what we did with it. First, it has a Brazilian groove to it. But also, in place of the traditional ‘blowing section’ I created a whole new section for the tune and so it goes to a whole different place. The original version has that solo [by Paul Desmond] and then that great drum solo from Joe Morello. I replaced that soloing idea with a new interlude. It brings a different color to the tune. It’s the only tune I’m doing with vocalese. And I sing with Randy [on trumpet] as if we’re two instruments playing together. Randy has a Brazilian heart. He’s such an amazing player. He’s always incorporated that Brazilian music into what he’s done.
It also speaks well of both of you that, as ex-spouses, you can still find the beauty in one another’s playing and can work together as you’ve done.
We’re friends. He’s a wonderful person. We live very close to each other. It was so great to bring up our daughter this way, remaining friends and neighbors. It’s so important.
Your daughter Amanda Elias Brecker sings on this record, but it’s not the first time she’s done that. How young was she when she first appeared on one of your records?
The very first one she was eight years old. It’s a recording called Fantasia. She sang so beautifully. We were all in tears. It was that beautiful Milton Nascimento song “Ponta de Areia.” I remember when Milton heard it, he was in tears as well. He called me to say that it was the most beautiful version he ever heard. Later she did a live performance with him.
She’s doing her own thing now. Her third CD comes out on June 18th. She’s a singer-songwriter, with Brazilian, folk and pop influences. She writes with the keyboards or guitar. Her first two records have several originals. This third one is a tribute to James Taylor and Carole King. It was produced by Jessie Harris. It featured a lot of players who worked with James Taylor—Larry Goldings on piano, Anthony Wilson on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums. She’ll be doing a tour of Japan. She has a beautiful voice with great intonation and rhythm.
You also did a Stevie Wonder tune—“My Cherie Amour.” Jazz people generally love his songs.
Yes, I love Stevie’s tunes. In fact, I recorded two of Stevie’s songs before. One was “Bird of Beauty” for a Motown tribute for Blue Note. The other is “Superwoman” for my Bossa Nova Stories record. This one just felt right. Stevie’s songs always have a nice harmony and melody and they go so well with a Brazilian or Bossa Nova feel. We also have a bonus track with a French language version of the tune that came out real nice.
Do you ever translate lyrics from Portuguese to English?
No. I have done an Ivan Lins tune that has English lyrics. And Jobim has a song with lyrics by Gene Lees. But I prefer to keep the original lyric in its language.
Who produced the album? It’s smooth without being slick and overly commercial. It sounds produced but not overly so. It sounds like the musicians are playing together.
I produced it myself, with Marc Johnson and Steve Rodby co-producing. I always produce my own records. Every solo is played the way you heard. We don’t go back and redo solos. That’s the spirit that people can hear in the music—how organic it is.
It’s the sort of thing that people think would be easy to do, but it actually can be hard.
For us, it’s easy. As far as playing a tune from beginning to end, it takes preparation. It starts with picking the tunes and doing the arrangements and carefully considering the colors we want to add. That architecture of the tune is done in advance. They’re great players, so when they’re presented with all of that, they take it from there. We don’t want to do a lot of overdubbing. This is not a jazz record. It’s a Brazilian record, with moments of improvisation and colors and textures. It’s not the sort of record that we just say, “Let’s count it off and see what happens.”
Probably because of the economics of the record industry, we don’t see as many well-crafted records these days, but this album does have a crafted quality and the preparation you did shows.
Thank you. If I don’t present something well, it’s all on me. I will always do my best to bring the music at a level that I’m proud and happy as an artist, but also something that will touch people. Something that they will want to listen to, that they will feel it. Whether they want to drive with it, listen at home, or be romantic with it or have it at a party. I want to bring something to everyone.