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Eliane Elias: Evans’ Essence

Eliane Elias
Bill Evans
Eliane Elias

When pianist Eliane Elias arrived in New York from her native São Paulo back in August 1981, she was 21 and gorgeous, classically trained and abundantly gifted with a penchant for dazzling Bud Powell-ish right-hand lines, evocative Bill Evans-type harmonies and alluring Jobim-styled bossa nova grooves. She quickly parlayed all of those attributes into a promising solo career, following a year-long stint in Steps Ahead from 1982 through 1983, which has led to 17 albums as a leader and much acclaim worldwide (including Gold Disc Awards in Japan and Grammy nominations in the States).

Today she is 48 and gorgeous, still abundantly gifted with all the same musical attributes she possessed when she came to town. Along the way she has added vocalist and mother to her resumé. And now her 24-year-old daughter, Amanda Elias-Brecker (from her marriage to trumpeter Randy Brecker), is following in her footsteps with her own first recording as a leader, currently in the works. “Oh, she was born a singer,” says the proud mother. “That one doesn’t need any lessons, she’s a natural. She has a beautiful voice and such beautiful intonation. So she finished graduating, got her master’s degree and got a record deal. It had to happen; she’s got too much talent.”

The very same could be said of Eliane. As a child prodigy in Brazil, there was a sense of inevitability about her career path from an early age. “When I was 11 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she recalls. “And I was so petulant about it. I would do interviews and the reporters would ask me, ‘So, what are you going to do with your life?’ And I would say, without hesitating, ‘Oh, I want to move to New York and be a jazz pianist.’ I was planning on it. I’d look at all of the records I used to listen to all the time and I’d see the credits: ‘Recorded in New York’ or ‘Live at the Village Vanguard.’ And I’d think, ‘That’s the place I gotta go!'”

There also seems to be a certain sense of inevitability about her latest recording, Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings and Plays Bill Evans (Blue Note), which brings her full circle back to one of the key figures in her musical development. An alternately sublime and swinging trio outing, it features her husband Marc Johnson on bass (who played alongside drummer Joe La Barbera in Evans’ last trio from 1978 to 1980) and longtime collaborator Joey Baron on drums. Together they interpret tunes composed by or associated with the great pianist, including Evans originals “Waltz for Debby,” “Detour Ahead” and “Blue in Green” and the standards “My Foolish Heart” and “But Beautiful.”

“Bill was a strong influence on my music,” says Elias in her Manhattan home, overlooking the East River, “especially in my formative years when I was transcribing a lot of what he did on records. I was especially taken by his way of making the piano much more of an orchestral function, as well as being deeply affected by the sonority and sense of harmony and great beauty of his playing. His music can evoke different feelings to me than a typical bebop trio. Sometimes it’s a feeling of loneliness, sometimes romantic feelings. And it always sounds beautiful to me.”

On her two previous tribute projects (1989’s Plays Jobim and 1998’s Sings Jobim, both on Blue Note), Elias paid her personal homage to the great Brazilian composer and bossa nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim. She says she hadn’t considered doing an Evans tribute until recently. “The first time that I played something from Bill’s repertoire was ‘Beautiful Love’ from my second release, Cross Currents (recorded in March 1987). And since that time I never really thought about doing a tribute to Bill. But with this new project, everything just fell into place in an incredible way, so it really felt like the right time.”

What set this tribute project in motion was the discovery of a cassette tape that Evans had given to bassist Johnson just a couple of weeks before the pianist’s untimely passing in 1980 at the age of 51. The tape contained rough sketches of new untitled material that Evans intended to record and perform with the trio. After Evans died, Johnson stored that tape away and forgot about it, until it resurfaced 26 years later. “You know how it is,” says Elias. “We all carry so many things around with us that we lose track of. And Marc carried around this tape for years.”

Meanwhile, the long-forgotten Evans cassette remained in a box in the basement of Eliane and Marc’s home away from home in East Hampton, Long Island. As it happened, some minor flooding in the basement caused Marc to remove all the boxes, and while investigating the contents for water damage he discovered the Evans tape and immediately brought it to Eliane. As she explains, “One side is an old practice tape of Bill’s, but on the other side there are these tunes that he was preparing, and Marc recognized them as pieces that Bill played on soundchecks. And hearing this, I got so excited I got goosebumps.”

Soon after receiving the rare tape, Elias immersed herself in transcribing two previously unrecorded and untitled Evans songs that appear on that cassette. “It was a very emotional thing, playing along with these pieces,” she says. “It brought me back to when I teenager in São Paolo, transcribing Bill’s tunes note for note.”

Initially, her intention was to include these long-lost tunes in an all-Evans program. “My first idea after hearing the cassette was, ‘Let’s do some concerts.’ So I went out that same night to Kinko’s with this picture that Marc also showed me of Bill, which he had found in that same box, and a picture of myself which somebody gave to me when I played at Dizzy’s [Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center]. I talked to the guy at Kinko’s and asked if he could put the two pictures together in a poster that I could use for concert appearances. And when he was finished it looked great. So I sent this flier out to my agent to promote these concerts. And there was so much interest from the concerts that I said, ‘OK, let’s go and record this.’ And that’s how the whole thing started.” (This same image from her concert flier-with the two pianists hunched over their respective keyboards, facing each other-became the cover art for Elias’ new Blue Note CD.)

“The idea for this recording was to have a whole spectrum of material covering Bill’s career,” Elias explains. “For example, we have ‘Five,’ which is a very Monk-ish tune that was on his first recording (1956’s New Jazz Conceptions on Riverside). And we also included some tunes that came near the end, like ‘For Nenette’ and ‘I Love My Wife,’ both from his New Conversations album (Warner Bros., 1978), which is a period where his head was very clear. Those are some very nice recordings.”

While Evans layered two and three pianos in overdubs on “I Love My Wife,” Elias handles that reflective piece as a solo piano showcase. “I wanted to start just the way he did but then, of course, I’m not overdubbing. So I just tried to capture the colors that he created on that tune, but with just one piano. And I tried to bring in little things that he would do, certain devices that were interesting, into the arrangement.”

Aside from “Here’s Something for You,” which Elias titled, the other previously unrecorded tune included in her Evans tribute is “Evanesque,” which required some reworking. “I kept the beginning the way Bill originally wrote it, but then he didn’t have anywhere to really go with it in terms of group improvisation so there’s a whole vamp-like middle part that I added where the harmony is kind of floating around the melodic motif that he had introduced. So I finished it in that way, creating a little part in the tune for the soloing.”

Evans recorded “A Sleepin’ Bee” as an uptempo vehicle with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette on 1968’s At the Montreux Jazz Festival (Verve). Elias’ buoyant vocal rendition of this Harold Arlen number, which incorporates Truman Capote’s original lyrics, was inspired by Nancy Wilson’s recording of the tune with Cannonball Adderley on 1962’s Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (Capitol). Elias interprets it as a jaunty, midtempo swinging duet with bassist Johnson, whose brilliantly syncopated walking fuels the track.

Her version of the hauntingly beautiful Evans composition “Blue in Green” (which originally appeared on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) is rendered with a sensual Brazilian feel while she offers a delicate solo reading (sung in her native Portuguese) of Ray Guerra’s “Minha (All Mine),” one of only two pieces by Brazilian composers that Evans recorded during his career (the other being Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin,” from 1970’s From Left to Right on MGM). “It’s a beautiful tune,” says Elias of “Minha.” “I knew the Brazilian version and I knew Bill’s version, so I thought this would be appropriate to do on the album. And also the beautiful lyrics really got to me. Singing that tune was a very emotional moment for me.”

Elias has a particularly soft spot for the Evans signature piece, “Waltz for Debby.” As she explains, “A lot of people do not know the lyrics to that tune, which are so beautiful. And I can really relate to them, being a mother, having a daughter. Especially when it talks about this little girl: When she grows they will cry/As they whisper goodbye/They will miss her I fear/But then so will I.

“You know, that’s part of life. Your children do grow up and go, and you do miss them. So I thought this was a beautiful sentiment to include on the album.”

The last track is an actual snippet of Evans himself playing “Here’s Something for You,” which came from the same cassette tape he gave to Marc Johnson back in 1980. At the outset, you hear Evans explaining to some bystander, “It’s like a show kind of thing,” before launching into the jaunty theme for about two minutes. Says Elias, “I wanted to put that on the album because it gave me goosebumps and I hope people feel the emotion I felt when I first heard it.”

Though Evans never finished the musical fragment, Elias completed the piece and also added lyrics, which she sings in her low, sultry voice. “The original intention was to record it as an instrumental,” she says, “but the lyrics just came flowing out of me. One day I just started singing, ‘Here is something for you, where or when it finds you,’ and it just took off from there. And I was so inspired that I was kind of choking up between the phrases and would have to start over again. It’s really from my heart and I’m happy the way it came out.”

Since 1991’s A Long Story, Marc Johnson has been Elias’ bassist of choice on all of her subsequent recordings. Their hand-in-glove chemistry is particularly evident on their intimate duets on “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “But Beautiful,” as well as on their highly interactive trio extrapolation with Baron on Miles Davis’ “Solar.” “Marc and I have played together so much and there’s so many little intricacies and things that happen when we play together that sometimes even other musicians will say, ‘Did you work that out?’ But it really happens naturally, because we know each other’s music so deeply.

“Marc is such an incredible player,” she continues. “His time-feel is amazing and he’s very compositional in his way of approaching his solos. He’s a virtuoso so he has this incredible facility on the instrument, and he has an open way of playing that gives such freedom to the other players, where you can really travel through harmony without feeling locked in. It’s because he comes from the Bill Evans tradition, which is all about interplay. Bill really created a different school for trio playing at that time. There was the bebop school of Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Art Tatum, which I also love. But the function of the piano is different in that school while the function of the bass and drums is more like accompaniment. But with Bill’s trios, he encouraged a lot of the interplay. And the players that he chose-Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette, Marc Johnson and Joe La Barbera-had a lot of this interplay quality. That’s what I look for in music and Marc is a part of the whole fantastic tradition. So playing with him is always a joy.”

She adds that Johnson’s intimate knowledge of Evans’ musical tendencies came in handy during the recording of this tribute project. “Because Marc played with Bill, he was able to point out certain interesting little things that Bill liked to do. For example, on ‘You and the Night and the Music,’ I didn’t know that Bill created little riffs, little interludes to separate the soloists. So I emulated that idea but did it in my own way. And on a tune like ‘Waltz for Debby,’ Marc pointed out that Bill liked this device of going from 3/4 to 4/4 at the very end of the tune, and we did our version that way. Little things like that were very insightful. So Marc really helped in getting the material together by sharing his experiences with Bill.”

Elias says that while she has soaked up some of Johnson’s knowledge of the Bill Evans tradition, he has thoroughly absorbed a lot of the Brazilian music and culture from her. “Because of his facility on the instrument and the virtuoso that he is, Marc can play just about anything on his instrument. And he digested those Brazilian things so deeply that he plays in an authentic Brazilian way. I cannot think about any other acoustic bass player who could do what he does with that music. And we really have developed something together. The way he plays Brazilian is incredible so we got it all covered, the jazz and the Brazilian. It’s wonderful!”

The special chemistry that Johnson and Baron exude on the bandstand-so apparent here on uptempo swingers like “You and the Night and the Music” and “Solar” or on the angular “Five”-makes it all the more pleasurable for Elias to play in this trio setting. “It’s so important to have this kind of tight connection between bass and drums,” she says. “Marc and Joey create such a bed for you to lay on that I can’t tell you how really great it is. And Marc is so rhythmically open that he and Joey create this amazing feel when they play together. It’s so great to have that. I’m sure John Abercrombie feels the same way when Joey and Marc play in his band, or [pianist] Enrico Pieranunzi, who also loves to have Marc and Joey in his trio. I’m sure that whoever experiences the Marc and Joey thing is grateful, because that’s a magical combination.”

On two tunes from the session, “My Foolish Heart” and “Re: Person I Knew” (the latter a Japanese-only bonus track), Johnson plays the very same Prescott upright bass used by Scott LaFaro with the Evans trio on the historic Village Vanguard recordings of June 25, 1961 (documented on Sunday at the Village Vanguard and the companion album Waltz for Debby, both for Riverside). As Elias explains, “When we were preparing the recording, Marc went to Barrie Kolstein’s bass shop. Locked in a vault there was Scott’s bass, the one that was damaged when he died in that car accident [in 1961]. When he heard that we were doing this recording, Barrie said to Marc, ‘Would you like to have the bass?’ So that really was another eventful part of this project. And when we recorded ‘My Foolish Heart’ with Marc playing the actual bass of one of his greatest influences, you hear that rich low end that instantly reminds you of Scott. It was a profound moment.”

Says Johnson, “Being involved in this project was, of course, very special. As a student at North Texas State University, I only ever wanted to play with Bill Evans. It’s a fantasy you have as a young bass player. If you wanted to play in a trio context, that was the gig to get. So it was a dream come true for me when I joined Bill’s trio in 1978. Sharing the bandstand with him was a life-altering experience. And now to be playing Scotty’s bass all these years later is beyond anything I could tell you.

“For that instrument to survive … just even having it in the studio was kind of like a talisman,” says the bassist. “Every now and then between takes I’d pick it up and play a few long tones, because the thing has enormous sustain in the low end. It gives me a chill just to think about [it].”

Elias adds, “I really think there is a kind of magic in an instrument that gets passed along to everyone who plays it. There is the sound that the instrument produces that you have in your mind from the player who played that instrument. And that inspiration and connection is still there in that instrument. For example, when I recorded the CD Solo & Duets (Blue Note, 1995), Steinway sent me Vladimir Horowitz’s piano. And I can’t explain, but just knowing that was his piano that went with him everywhere, you know … there was something there. I felt it.”

While Elias’ homage to Evans represents a return to her roots, it is also a radical departure from her last outing, 2006’s Around the City (RCA Victor), a decidedly mainstream pop outing that features a dance-oriented cover of Bob Marley’s “Jammin'” and a samba-fied rendition of Beck’s “Tropicalia,” along with the Michael Franks-ish title track and the sweetly engaging “We’re So Good,” which drifts into Norah Jones territory. “That’s also another side of me,” she says, “and it’s genuine. I was born in Brazil; those are my roots. And I was raised with jazz moreso than probably the average American child was. But I also liked pop music and R&B and gospel. I had so many other influences, so it’s a matter of choosing which direction I want to go in when doing a project. And for me, Around the City was a more adventurous journey where I was creating loops and playing Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes electric piano and Hammond B3 organ. So I can do those things. I like having the colors I can bring with electronics. So I don’t have a closed mind to say, ‘No, I won’t go back there and do that.’ I might. At the moment I’m doing a completely jazz recording with a trio, playing piano and vocals. But maybe I’ll do something completely different on the next one, I don’t know.”

Returning to Blue Note, she adds, is “like going back home.” Elias recorded 11 albums for the label, beginning with 1988’s So Far So Close (which featured Michael and Randy Brecker, bassist Will Lee, drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Jim Beard and percussionist Don Alias) and concluding with 2000’s Everything I Love (with bassists Marc Johnson and Christian McBride, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Carl Allen and guitarist Rodney Jones) before jumping to the RCA/BMG label. Now with Something for You she has returned to the label that launched her career.

And though Elias’ path may have been clear from her formative years in Brazil, there was no way of knowing the serendipitous twists and turns that fate would have in store for her. “I mean, how would I imagine back when I was living in São Paolo and studying Bill Evans’ music that later in life I would be married to Marc Johnson, who was part of Bill’s last trio, or that I would receive the last tape that Bill did, along with all his manuscripts. So it just felt so special to do this project.”

“Bill’s music has never gone away for me,” adds Johnson. “I think I’ve listened to it probably more than any other kind of music throughout the years. But as creative musicians, we get so busy doing the projects that we’re immersed in that you stop listening, actually. I don’t listen to as much stuff as I used to, especially the older recordings. But doing this project was great because we filtered back through the recordings that we owned and found some newer stuff … live bootlegs mostly. So it was great to go back and check things out. And then to hear Eliane preparing the music, getting it ready for the recording, and then hearing the music come alive and watching the whole process was really an emotional and gratifying experience.” Originally Published