Eliane Elias: The Soul of Brazil

On The Corner Masthead

Eliane elias: The soul of brazil

February 28, 2018 | by Richard Scheinin

Eliane Elias

When Eliane Elias, the Brazilian-born pianist and singer, was six or seven years old, she would break into song: her own instant melody, her own rhythms, even her own language — “like a samba with syllables, my own syllables, which I would make up on the spot,” she recalls. “I can sing one for you,” she offers, and then it’s samba time on the telephone line. The words rush by in a kind of faux Portuguese as Elias springs into a buoyant samba, singing in an imaginary language that’s returned to her from across the decades.

“We always had music in the house, more than you can possibly imagine,” she says, thinking back to her childhood in São Paulo. “My maternal grandmother, she lived with us. She was an incredible talent, a composer from the time she was ten years old, and she played such beautiful guitar. And my mother had a collection of jazz records by many wonderful pianists: Art Tatum to Red Garland to Bud Powell, and then Oscar Peterson. She had Herbie (Hancock) and Chick (Corea) and Keith (Jarrett). This was my life when I was a girl, always to be surrounded by this music.”

When she was seven, she took up the piano. By 15, she was teaching master classes. At 17, she was on the road with Antônio Carlos Jobim, and, at age 21, she moved to New York. She signed with Blue Note Records and recorded duets with Hancock. Leading her own bands, she played tunes by Powell and Jobim — and by her grandmother, Egle Chiarelli. A piano purist for a while, she gradually became equal parts singer and instrumentalist. To this day, Elias is an open musician. Over the years, she has experimented with looping and electronica. Primarily an acoustic pianist these days, she may perform solo, in duos (with bassist Marc Johnson, her husband), or with trios, big bands or symphony orchestras.

“Nothing stays static,” says Elias. “That’s the key to having a career, to living.”

Now at SFJAZZ, she will perform three separate programs over the course of four nights (March 7-10). We talked to Elias, 58, about her life, her many projects, and her plans for her upcoming San Francisco residency.

NIGHT ONE (March 7): Music from Man of La Mancha
In 1995, Elias recorded an album of tunes from the 1965 Broadway musical, composed by Mitch Leigh. It’s a gorgeous recording with a pair of exquisite rhythm sections, one with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette, the other with bassist Johnson and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. Elias arranges “Dulcinea” as a bluesy, gospelized ballad. She turns “A Little Gossip” into a Carnival dance number, incorporating an infectious frevo rhythm from Recife in northeast Brazil. “The Impossible Dream” is transformed, too: “It’s straight samba,” she says, “and it has all these modulations and colors, and it keeps going higher and higher — modulating up and up, higher and higher, like it’s chasing `the impossible dream.’”

Because of contractual issues, the album went unreleased for more than two decades — until 2018, when it came out on the Concord label. In San Francisco, Elias will perform her “La Mancha” arrangements with bassist Johnson, percussionist Manolo Badrena (also on the 1995 recording) and drummer Tiago Michelin who “is half Uruguayan and half Brazilian,” Elias says, “and has a beautiful way of dealing with all these rhythms I’m going to be playing.”

The long-delayed project might never have happened: Growing up, Elias barely knew of the musical, based on Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” the 17th century novel. “I knew only a little bit of the story,” she says. “My mother’s father was Spanish. He was Basque, and I grew up with a beautiful sculpture in our house, of the knight Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha. But as a kid, I only knew 'The Impossible Dream.’”

She learned the rest of the score in 1995 when composer Leigh (who died in 2014) got in touch with Elias. A phone call from his secretary came out of the blue: “I had no idea what it was about. But then he came to my apartment in New York, and he was a charismatic man, very simpatico and friendly — a great presence. He walked in wearing one of those velour lounging suits, had a full beard, very cool. And he told me that he knew the work I’d done with Jobim and other Brazilian composers, and he loved my treatments of those tunes, and he asked if I would like to do the same kind of work with his Man of La Mancha.”

Before Leigh left, he handed her a CD from the Broadway show. She listened: “I just felt the music. I knew it immediately; I said, `Yes, I want to do it.’” After completing her arrangements, she invited the composer back, planning to demonstrate several possible treatments of “The Impossible Dream.” She recalls that Leigh “sat to my left at the piano, and I said, `I have three different ways I can play this for you, and here’s the first one.’ It was my samba arrangement, and I began playing it, and Mitch says, `Stop! Stop! Stop! Don’t even play the other ones. This is it.’”

NIGHT TWO (March 8): My Songs
Elias has composed “over 130 songs, a big book of things, some instrumental, some with lyrics,” she says. On the second night of her residency, she will dip into that songbook and tell the stories behind the songs.

She plans to play “Retornando (Returning),” composed when she was 12. This was her “first real tune” — more legitimate, apparently, than the songs she improvised at age six or seven. “It was like a medium tempo samba with a rich melody, lots of beautiful modulations. You would not believe that a 12-year-old would’ve written that,” Elias says, “and I’m planning to show it to the audience in San Francisco. And then I want to tell some stories of things I wrote when I was in my teens, and, later on, about when I went to Toots Thielemans’ home” in Manhattan. The Belgian virtuoso was among the first to encourage Elias’s songwriting. He understood the romance in her songs, she says, how her harmonies express “what’s beautiful, what’s sad, the gains, the losses.”

In San Francisco, she will play “What about the Heart (Bate, Bate),” a bossa nova from her 2011 album Light My Fire. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Elias has composed songs inspired by her daughter Amanda — and by Bud Powell. Her songbook includes ballads, bebop and tunes that explore rhythms from throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Her band — with Johnson, guitarist Rubens de La Corte and drummers Michelin and Rafael Barata — knows the ropes: “We do Caribbean grooves, Brazilian grooves, straight ahead; with this group, I really can travel across the Americas.”

NIGHTS THREE AND FOUR (March 9 and 10): Songs From Brazil
In the 1970s, starting when she was 17, Elias spent three years on the road with three masters of bossa nova and the Brazilian sound: Toquinho, the singer-guitarist; Vinícius de Moraes, the poet and lyricist; and Antônio Carlos Jobim, among the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. The experience was formative, and, in San Francisco, Elias – with bassist Johnson, guitarist de La Corte and drummer Barata — will perform some of the songs she learned during that period.

Which ones? She begins the list with Jobim: “I have to do 'Chega de Saudade’ and 'Desafinado,’ and maybe 'One Note Samba.’ You’re putting me on the spot. I’ll probably do 'Falsa Baiana’ (by Geraldo Pereira) and 'Rosa Morena’ (Dorival Caymmi). I always love playing 'Brasil’ (Ary Barroso) and I’ll do some things by João Donato, like `Sambou Sambou,’ and of course there’s Gilberto Gil — and Toquinho. I may sing covers of American standards, of Gershwin — 'They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ or 'Embraceable You,’ but with a Brazilian spirit.”

Her early years on the road continue to inspire her: “It was incredible, to learn that music and live that music and to be with the creators. I was so close to them, I heard so many stories — funny stories, weird stories, life stories. I think Vinícius de Moraes is our greatest Brazilian poet, and he had a view of life that was different than anything you can imagine — advanced, sensitive. And he was a romantic. I think he was married seven times, and he always wrote about romance, which is something I love to do in my own songs. So I feel that I’m still carrying that Brazilian torch, both instrumentally and vocally. This soul of Brazil, I carry it with me.”