“There are so many colors and details to go over in these new arrangements, but they are fun!” says famed pianist, composer and vocalist Eliane Elias following a sold-out show at New York’s Birdland. Colors and details are what have helped propel Elias to the pinnacle of improvised music over the past three decades. Since coming to New York from her native Brazil in the early 1980s, Elias has thrilled audiences as both a dynamic ensemble player in groups like Steps Ahead and as solo pianist, composer and vocalist.
One only needs to listen to a fragment of her Grammy-nominated 1995 album Solos and Duets (where she took on Herbie Hancock in a friendly piano duel) to understand the guts and grace she has at her command. On her new Concord release Made in Brazil, Elias returns to record in her homeland for the first time since moving to the United States in 1981. Before heading overseas on a nearly nonstop European tour, Elias spoke to Keyboard about her very personal new project.
Why did it take so long for this musical homecoming to happen?
When I first moved to this country, I was concentrating on being a jazzpianist and composer, so I didn’t want to focus on Brazilian music. When I eventually started moving in that direction, I invited Oscar Castro-Neves to play guitar on the Brazilian music on my recordings for the next 25 years. When he passed away, I was faced with the question: “Who else is in the United States who can play this music the way I hear it?” But I couldn’t think of anybody who had his kind of approach and swing I was looking for. So I decided to go to Brazil. And when I got there, I became incredibly inspired—it was like music started pouring out of me. I composed and arranged new music and eventually decided to get together with some musicians to rehearse. And when we played together, it felt so great I said, “That’s it. I’m going to record here.” So the project happened very organically.
You speak in the album notes about how you wanted to incorporate three generations of Brazilian composers on the album.
Well, I know an enormous amount of many kinds music from Brazil. So when I came-up with the idea for the new album, tunes and ideas started coming out of me completely naturally. One song that I knew wanted to record was the opening track, “Brasil (Aquarela do Brasil).” It’s a tune that I actually recorded as an instrumental track back in 1993 on an album called Paulistana, with Marc Johnson on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. But I always wanted to sing that tune, because it’s almost like an anthem in Brazil. It was composed by Ary Barroso, who wrote some truly beautiful songs. I chose two of his songs for the album that also highlight the rhythm and chord changes of the samba, “samba exaltaçao.”
I was also excited about having [vocal group] Take 6 guest with me on the Antonio Carlos Jobim song “Águas De Março (Waters of March).” I wrote the arrangements, and then [vocalist] Mark Kibble distributed the chords between the voices of the other members of Take 6. “Waters of March” is the most covered song of all of Jobim’s compositions, so I was thrilled to do it in a special way on the album. I also recorded Jobim’s songs “Este Seu Olhar” and “Promessas,” which I used to sing as a kid. Both of those songs have the same chord changes, so I thought I’d do a little medley of them on the album.
In addition to covering Jobim, which is music from the 1960s and ’70s, and Ary Barroso, which is music from the 1930s and ’40s, I also covered some music of Roberto Menescal, who is a legend in his own right and who wrote some classic songs. He’s also the only one of these composers that is still with us. It was great to have him come and sing his song “Você” with me. He also plays guitar on all three songs of his, the other two being “Rio,” and a bonus track entitled “Little Boat.” And then we recorded six of my own compositions as well.
You play a solo on “Você” that I can only describe as “Bossa meets Bebop and Blues,” something that I hear often in your playing. Where do you think your unique style comes from?
I think it just comes out that way. For instance, I really like the song “Você” and I love playing it live—especially when it modulates and then goes back to its original key. On that song, I actually created a different set of chord changes than the song really has, and that’s another vehicle for me to play and improvise over.
It starts with coming from Brazil and being exposed to all kinds of Brazilian music, then developing jazz and improvisational skills at a very young age and having that element available in my playing. Then add to that the classical piano training I had so there was never a barrier between the piano and me. If execution isn’t a problem, it allows you to express things on a whole different level. I like certain elements music. I like the rhythm to be swinging and clearly articulated, to be harmonically colorful, and to have a touch of sensuality as well.
Who were some pianistic touchstones that pointed you towards your own sound?
I studied a great many jazz pianists who all influenced me at different times and for different reasons, from Art Tatum to Wynton Kelly to Bud Powell, and beyond. When I was seven years old, my mother sent me to study piano. She played classical piano but she loved jazz. I progressed very quickly.
By the time I was ten, I was so in love with jazz I was making my parents crazy! I could hear the music and immediately write it down, regardless of how complicated it was. I could sit by a record player and subdivide rhythms from players like Art Tatum and many others. So at the age of ten, I already had internalized an incredible repertoire of jazz standards and I was playing like a professional musician. Seeing how advanced I already was, my mother, in addition to sending me for classical piano lessons, sent me to study with Brazil’s best jazz piano teacher, a man named Amilton Godoy, who had a group called the Zimbo trio. He took me to his school at the age of 13, and I finished the whole program by age 15. You can’t imagine how hard I studied during these years. I didn’t go to the beach, I didn’t go dancing—I just wanted to do music.
The first track on the album “Brasil” has what seems to be a recurring sound in Brazilian music, the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Yes. On “Brasil” we used a real Rhodes. But on “Waters of March” we used a keyboard.
Do you enjoy playing electric keyboards as well?
I like playing Rhodes. I like the color they impart to an arrangement. When I was young and living in Brazil, I remember having a Suitcase model Rhodes. Then I had a Stage model and later, a Yamaha CP-70 electric grand. Some of my favorite Rhodes recordings were by Bill Evans on albums like New Conversations, where he played both Rhodes and piano. But what happens with real Rhodes electric pianos is that when you use them in live situations and it’s time to solo, they just don’t respond like an acoustic piano. I can’t “step on the gas!”
Bill Evans talked about a similar problem in the June 1980 issue of Keyboard, where he said he could never find a rental Rhodes in good enough shape to use live.
I often find the same problem with electronic keyboards as well. They just don’t respond well when it’s time to solo. They sound small.
You sing a duet with your daughter Amanda Brecker on “Some Enchanted Place.” What was it was like to collaborate with her?
It was a very touching experience, in many ways. As a mother, I can say it’s so beautiful to see the development of Amanda and her musicality. I was recording an album called Amanda when she was kicking inside my belly like a bass drum! When she was a child, I would sing songs to her and she would answer them musically and with perfect intonation. This is when she was three months old! And when we sing together now, it feels like we are one voice.
One thing that struck me on your new album is the extraordinary degree of precision and arrangement on it.
Yes, and I keep tweaking the arrangements as time goes on. It’s hard because I really hear in my head how I want things to be arrangement-wise. And when I’m being accompanied, I expect to hear certain things from the bass and the drums. And when you add in guitar it becomes quite complicated, because I don’t want to feel “handcuffed” by the chart. If the music says Cmin7 and the guitarist plays that, but I want to play a C minor with a major seventh, it upsets me because I want to play what I hear. I don’t want to be locked into a chart
How do you walk the line between freedom and arrangement?
Sometimes during solos I tell my guitarist, “When I get to a dominant chord, only give me the third and the seventh and I’ll take care of the chord tensions I want to play with my left hand.”
Many pop keyboard players do the same thing and only play the chord “shell” so as not to step on the guitarist.
I only do that in certain instances, especially when it comes to dominant chords where I don’t want to feel tied up. But when it’s a minor chord, give me other colors.
It must not be easy to audition for your band!
No, it’s not. And there are other things I have to go over with my musicians, like when I sing, I don’t like to be accompanied with a major or minor second interval near the melody I’m singing. I like at least around a minor third of space between my melody note and the chord. I also don’t like it when the top note of a chord voicing is the same as the melody note I’m singing. So it takes some rehearsing and some mapping out of the music to get it right. But once my musicians understand it all, they do a beautiful job!