Eliane Elias Pays Long-Overdue Tribute to Chet Baker

True romance

It was 1982, and pianist-singer Eliane Elias had just finished playing her first paid gig in New York when Chet Baker approached the bandstand. By then in his twilight years, Baker spent most of his time in Europe and booked only a few annual dates in New York. But here he was, checking out the latest phenomenon from Brazil. Baker lauded Elias’ phrasing and style—she had clearly taken a cue from the cool-jazz icon. They exchanged phone numbers, and Baker subtly implied that he was in financial trouble.

Elias didn’t ask what he needed the money for. Despite his well-publicized drug addiction, she simply couldn’t. It was a heartbreaking welcome to New York, a sacrifice at the shrine of one of her jazz idols, but Elias paid the band and handed the remaining 5- and 10-dollar bills to Baker. The wizened crooner doffed his hat in gratitude, and insisted that she take it. She politely refused, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. More than three decades later, Elias still has this piece of jazz history, a prized possession she keeps at her mother’s house in Brazil, where she first heard Baker’s recordings.

Elias didn’t truly pay it forward until now, with I Thought About You, her second release on Concord, a long-gestating collection of standards that Baker made his own. Elias channels the achingly tender legacy of the late jazz icon who played literally and figuratively over the bar line, highlighting the stylistic nexus between cool jazz and bossa nova. “Chet sings a lot about love, and different aspects of love and loss,” says Elias, 53, finding common ground between the wistful nostalgia the two genres share.

The cross-cultural connection is borne out by an alternating core band: guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Steve Cardenas, drummers Rafael Barata and Victor Lewis, percussionist Marivaldo dos Santos and bassist Marc Johnson, who is also Elias’ husband and, along with Lewis, an erstwhile member of Stan Getz’s rhythm section. Elias’ former husband, trumpeter and Baker acolyte Randy Brecker, also appears on several tracks.

A Baker tribute has been a top priority for Elias since she first signed with Concord in 2010, and she delivers. He was known chiefly for his romantic ballads, and Elias rises to the occasion on “Embraceable You,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” Elias’ homeland influence becomes more evident in Baker’s oft-neglected brighter side, which Elias features on her uptempo arrangement of “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Just in Time” and the breezy title track.

Elias gets sentimental with Johnson on a drummer-less rendition of “Blue Room,” a lesser-known entry in the Baker songbook. Early in their relationship, the two kept their marriage secret, but during a live radio taping in France in 2008, the host played Baker’s a cappella rendering of the Rodgers and Hart standard. It contained the lyric “every day’s a holiday because you’re married to me.” The revelation brought tears to her eyes.

Baker famously said that “it takes a hell of a drummer to be better than no drummer at all,” and seven of the 14 tracks on Elias’ album are kit-free. “We all have to feel the time, and that’s the beauty of it. It sounds a lot easier than it is when there’s no drummer there,” says Johnson. “We want to keep it moving and keep it swinging, adding a little bit of rhythmic nuance here and there so it’s not plodding along. It’s actually got some bounce and some lilt.” (More of Elias and Johnson’s shared clairvoyance can be heard on their 2012 quartet album, Swept Away, on ECM.)

Interpreting Baker’s lilt, Elias points to the androgynous quality of Baker’s vocal timbre; she sings in the contralto range, not far from Baker’s lush tenor. She was also inspired by Baker’s inimitable phrasing, a sentiment that emanates from his vocalist-instrumentalist persona. “One of the appeals of Chet Baker is that his [vocal] phrasing was the way he phrased on the trumpet,” Elias says. “The voice is a whole different instrument, but similar to Chet, the piano is a continuation of my body, and I sing the way I would be phrasing on the piano.”

Beyond those correlations, Elias sees Baker’s life as inextricably linked to his art. “The music came from him. The way he played, the way he sang, that sensibility reflected the way he lived. You can hear the suffering,” she says. “Unfortunately a lot of people just remember him at the end, but there was a lot before that. What I’d like to have people remember is that Chet was more than that. He was a lyrical player, he was heartfelt. He was a romantic.”

Originally published in September 2013

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