By Luis Tamargo

The Brazilian pianist/singer/composer/arranger Eliane Elias was born in São Paulo in 1960, when her mother, a classical pianist named Luci Elias made the following comment upon giving birth to said offspring: “She has the hands of a pianist!” Amilton Godoy (leader of the legendary Zimbo Trio) became her piano teacher in the early 1970s. By the age of 17, she joined a touring band led by the popular guitarist Toquinho and the great singer/songwriter Vinicius de Moraes; but she felt the need to seek wider horizons, as a jazz artist, and this is why she moved to N.Y. in 1981. Equally capable of handling classical music, jazz, and various Latin American genres, Elias offers a wide range of valuable comments during the following interview:

Luis Tamargo: You honored the legacy of Brazil’s most iconic composer on a couple of heartfelt Blue Note releases—Eliane Elias Plays Jobim (1990) and Eliane Elias Sings Jobim (1998). While listening to these recordings, I realized that the way in which you vocalized Jobim’s melodies was similar to the way you would do it on the piano. Is it the same voice, but on a different instrument?
Eliane Elias: Yes and no. What I can do as a pianist is a lot more than what I can do with my voice as an instrument. The type of phrasing, the way it feels, yes, I would do it the same way because that’s how I feel the music. But with the voice, I have a smaller range to deal with, so it is different than the way I could do it on the piano, but the general feel is the same.

LT: I wonder if you started singing because you would write certain things that could not be properly phrased by instruments.

EE: Yes. I started doing that on my very first album (Amanda, Passport Jazz, 1984), which I recorded with Randy (Brecker), and then I did some vocals on other subsequent recordings, in which I employed my voice as an instrument, and because I have a certain way of using rhythm and phrasing, and felt that it was the way that I wanted to hear it, the voice took the place of the instrument.

LT: On the CD The Three Americas (Blue Note, 1997), you sought to achieve an organic blend of what Dizzy Gillespie once defined as “Pan-American Music,” meaning the fusion of the main musical genres of the Western Hemisphere. By the way, was this the first time that you recorded a tango-style composition?

EE: Yes, that particular tune was called Chorango. It starts as a chorinho, and then becomes a tango. It was an interesting rendition, as it included a violin and a little bit of accordion.

LT: Along with other phenomenal pianists (Bebo and Chucho Valdés, Chano Domínguez, Michel Camilo, etc), you played a vital role in Fernando Trueba’s stunning musical documentary “Calle 54” (Miramax, 2001). I felt that you were capable of transforming the track titled Samba Triste into something entirely personal.

EE: Thank you, I was quite honored to be part of that documentary. I think all the artists chosen by Fernando Trueba to be there had their own individual voices and had contributed so much to this music. I was invited to represent Brazil as an instrumentalist, and it was really special to work with Fernando, who came to talk to me and mentioned that he would like for me to play Samba Triste, and he remembers how I reacted because I would only perform a tune if I feel it, and I had never heard this particular tune. But when I heard it, I really came to admire Fernando Trueba’s degree of artistic sensitivity, because he chose a tune that I immediately connected to, and that I played with great pleasure.

LT: During you mid-teens, back in São Paulo, you cultivated an appreciation for Bill Evans by writing out his recorded performances. Which explains the exquisite nature of the post-mortem tribute titled Eliane Elias Sings and Plays Bill Evans (Blue Note, 2007). Is it true that you saw him playing in Brazil when you were barely 15 years old?

EE: Oh, yes, it is true. Bill Evans was a tremendous influence on my music throughout my adolescence, and I did write down several transcriptions of his solos; I played along with his records. I love his harmonies and melodies, the way he approaches the piano. It’s such a beautiful sound!

LT: I was quite impressed with your most recent release (Light My Fire, Concord Picante, 2011), as it seems to be more rhythmically diverse and aggressive than some of your prior recordings.

EE: Well, thank you. This record goes beyond bossa nova and brings all elements of Brazilian music, including some Afro-Brazilian rhythms, the rhythms from northeastern Brazil, and I’m very happy to bring forth these elements. The title track (Light My Fire) is a very sexy, slow, soulful bossa-style version of The Doors’ hit.

LT: In addition to your marvelous rhythmic section, the CD Light My Fire features some wonderful guests, including the singer-composer from Bahia named Gilberto Gil.

EE: Yes. Gilberto is one of the great composers from Brazil, and it was fantastic to have him on three vocal duets. It was really joyful to bring some elements from the music of Bahia, which I have been including more and more on my records. This is music that has influenced me a lot. I love Bahia!